by Rachele Hales
I was excited – well, excited and scared – to be given the opportunity to review Anthony de Mare’s latest album of Stephen Sondheim “re-imaginings.” Excited because Sondheim’s impact on me was very strong as I was one of many children who listened; scared because I didn’t want to find flaws in the interpretations that might underscore my devotion to the originals. After listening to Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim From the Piano several times, I can calm similar worries other listeners may have by entreating you to remember that “the way is clear, the light is good/ I have no fear, nor no one should.”
Thirty-six composers from a wide variety of backgrounds were commissioned by Anthony de Mare to re-imagine a Sondheim song of their choice as a solo piano piece. The result proves that things change – but they don’t, when you make something that lasts. Mark Eden Horowitz, author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, puts it this way: “One of the reasons Liaisons succeeds so brilliantly is because Sondheim’s music is such a rich source for sounds, ideas, and approaches.” Too true. The pleasure of Liaisons is hearing how thirty-six other Sondheim fans engage with his music in their own ways. There are thirty-seven selections in the 3-CD collection. So many worth exploring, just one would be so boring. Alas, it’s impossible to review them all here but you can listen to samples of each glorious one at the Liaisons Project website. With that said… Curtain up! Light the lights! Play it, boys!
Once upon a time, all your favorite fairytales were combined into one story about loss and confusion. Oh yeah, and nearly everyone dies. Sondheim’s original prologue to Into the Woods acts as both exposition by introducing us to each character and also provides a path through the show. Andy Akiho’s version takes us into the woods, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear, by maintaining the driving rhythm of the original but allowing each character’s narrative/personality to speak with the clever use of a prepared piano. Dimes were used on the strings for the cow scenes, door knocks and narration utilized poster tack, and the witch is portrayed by clusters of credit cards. Akiho’s use of these found objects to alter the timbre is just as effective and innovative as Sondheim’s witty spoken narrative.
When asked about his intent with the Into the Woods’ climactic ballad “No One is Alone,” Sondheim replied, “What I truly mean is that no action is isolated.” One action you can take is to write a musical, only to find its score the subject of a landmark commissioning twenty-nine years later. Fred Hersch drew from his jazz background to make subtle changes to the piece. In doing so, he’s maintained the purity and simplicity of the original but plumped it up to create a lusher sound. It feels less like an arrangement and more like a fantasia.
With Kenji Bunch’s selection we attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of fleet street. Sweeney Todd is based on an urban legend (though some claim the story is true) from Victorian London about a barber who seeks revenge upon the corrupt judge who sentenced him to unjust incarceration, raped his wife and caused her insanity, and eventually kept Todd’s daughter Joanna as his ward for lustful reasons. Todd’s revenge of choice? Slitting the throat of the judge (and other clients) and partnering with his amoral landlady to grind the flesh, use it as fillings for her meat pies, and turn a handsome profit. It’s a musical thriller that wonderfully sustains fear and anxiety throughout, which Bunch amplifies to horror-show levels with “low register rumblings, shrieking high clusters, and insistent rhythmic ostinato patterns.”
Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz turns those meat pies into spicy empanadas with his “Worst Pies In London”/”A Little Priest” combo. Mrs. Lovett’s cheeriness shines through here with help from a range of Latin American styles including tango, salsa, and merengue. But is it any good? Sir, it’s too good, at least.
“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is Joanna’s song to the caged birds she identifies with while sequestered in the judge’s home. Toward the end of the original number there’s a trill notated for the singer and Jason Robert Brown found his way into the arrangement through that trill. Rather than focusing on Joanna, he’s chosen instead to paint pianistic portraits of the birds. A charming notion, but the aviary became too complex. He thought one was enough; it’s not true. It takes two to play his “Birds of Victorian England.”
Hopping across the pond to a bit of American history now, we get a couple arrangements from Assassins, a show that’s about exactly what it says on the tin. “The inverse of the American Dream is the American Nightmare, which confuses the right to pursue happiness with the right to be happy,” writes Horowitz. In Sondheim’s opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” our presidential assassinators/assassination attempters sing out this misguided philosophy (aim for what you want a lot/everybody gets a shot/everybody’s got a right to their dreams…) as they purchase their weapons from the gun proprietor. Michael Daugherty inserts snippets of “Hail to the Chief” as reminders of the show’s subject and ends the piece by spinning out the opening chords until they “explode like a volley of gunfire.”
Sondheim turned the poem Charles Guiteau wrote the morning of his execution (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) into a cakewalk march to the gallows in “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Guiteau’s trial was famous not just because he assassinated President Garfield, but also because he was, as one doctor testified, a “morbid egoist” who delighted in the attention he received during the trial. A media sensation, he smiled and waved at spectators throughout the trial (and even as he walked up to the gallows, where he stopped to read said poem, going so far as to request that an orchestra play behind him while he read). Right up until his conviction he thought he’d have a good chance of becoming president himself and considered running. Why am I writing about history instead of music? Because the way Jherek Bischoff plays Sondheim’s original histrionic promenade against moments of emptiness perfectly suits the sad, ridiculous insanity of Guiteau’s mindset.
Having just a vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution. Anthony de Mare’s work on this project has, bit by bit and piece by piece, amounted to a thoroughly enjoyable collection that sounds like thirty-six composers having a musical conversation with America’s preeminent composer of musical theatre. Liaisons offers up something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone.
Anthony de Mare, left, and Stephen Sondheim pose in New York. (Nan Melville/ECM Records via AP)