Celebrating — and Mourning — the Greatest Jewish Writer of Musicals
It has been a little more than one year since the passing of Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest Jewish writers of the past century, and arguably the greatest Jewish writer of musical theatre ever.
Numerous books have come out about Sondheim (some I’ve reviewed here), and more will be released next year. But the best way to learn more about Sondheim is to listen to his work, over and over. And that’s why “Sondheim Unplugged” might be one of the greatest Sondheim projects created in the last few years.
I’ve previously reviewed Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the series, and I have listened to each of those recordings many times since. I can safely say they are my favorite set of independently produced Sondheim recordings.
“Sondheim Unplugged Volume 3” only proves how essential and enjoyable this series is for Sondheim and musical theatre lovers, and I know I will be returning to it repeatedly in the future.
As in past volumes, the nature of these recordings (amazing singers/interpreters, and a sole piano) really let you hear the words and music in new and revealing ways. Even songs like “It Takes Two” from “Into the Woods,” which I’ve probably heard 100 times, take on new meaning and relevance in this recording.
Some other highlights on Disc 1 include a stirring “We Do Not Belong Together,” “Flag Song,” the little-known Sondheim songs “When” and “Hades,” a great version of “That Dirty Old Man,” and a rousing version of “Opening Doors.”
One really special track is “Not While I’m Around.” I try not to look up performers ahead of time, but once the song began, I immediately recognized the voice of Ken Jennings, the original Tobias. It was so emotional to hear him sing this song, more than 40 years later — it made me think about all the time that had passed for Ken and all of us, and how fleeting and ephemeral life is. It’s a truly magical, and deeply sad and moving, rendition.
Disc 2 is truly fantastic. Marta Sanders’ rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is the best acted version of the song I’ve ever heard; “The Worst Pies in London” by Annie Golden is the second best recording in my opinion, behind only Angela Lansbury. Liz McCartney has a great combination of “I Remember” and “Changing,” Bruce Sabath is truly wonderful in the original “Company” closer, “Happily Ever After.” Joy Franz’s “No One Is Alone” touched me when I really needed it, there’s a great version of “Our Little World,” a fantastic “Ballad of Booth,” and it ends with a really nice rendition of “Sunday.”
My only real complaint is that this is shockingly the last volume. Given the breadth of Sondheim’s canon, and the dozens of songs that he wrote that didn’t even make it into his shows, this series could easily go to Volume 6 or more — and it should.
The “Sondheim Unplugged” series is an essential part of Sondheim’s legacy, as well as a true celebration of the American musical. It would be such a shame if it ends here, and I really hope producer Phil Bond finds a way to continue it.
At the end of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Dot implores George to “give us more to see.” I ask the same of the amazing team at “Sondheim: Unplugged.”
The author is a culture writer at The Algemeiner, as well as a nationally published playwright, screenwriter, and actor. Upcoming: “We Will Not Be Silent” with Michael Shannon.