This past Friday ECM New Series released a highly imaginative and impressive three-CD album entitled Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano. This is the result of a project that has kept pianist Anthony de Mare occupied for about half a decade. It began with his inviting 36 composers to write solo piano paraphrases of songs that Stephen Sondheim had written for his own lyrics. De Mare then proceeded to record the results as they arrived over a four-year period that ran from November of 2010 to November of 2014, during which time he also added a paraphrase of his own for good measure. Thus, the result is 37 tracks distributed over the three CDs in the album.
The styles of the paraphrases are as diverse as the musicals from which the songs were extracted. In chronological order the sources for those songs are as follows: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday In The Park With George (1984), Into The Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994). The styles include classical, jazz, pop, film music, and musical theater itself.
What is perhaps most interesting is the depth with which each of these styles is pursued. Among the jazz composers there are often frequent acknowledgements of Fats Waller, who had his own ways of approaching both pop and show tunes of his day. Wynton Marsalis is more encyclopedic, taking Sondheim’s “That Old Piano Roll” and seasoning it with tropes from James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. On the classical side at least two (I have not yet begun to compile statistics) composers worked a Sondheim tune into a fugue, William Bolcom (“A Little Night Fughetta”) and John Musto’s “Epiphany,” an extended survey of themes from Sweeney Todd in which the Beggar Woman’s plea for alms becomes a fugue subject. On the other hand Jake Heggie’s “I’m Excited. No You’re Not.,” also from A Little Night Music probably offers up the most elaborate approach to counterpoint in taking on a song in which every singer is involved with a different activity. Finally, on the move conventional show tunes side David Shire takes a nice turn with “Love is in the Air,” which was originally intended to open A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and only surfaced a little less than two decades later in the revue Merrily We Roll Along. After letting “Love is in the Air” run its proper course, Shire morphs it into “Comedy Tonight,” the song that replaced “Love is in the Air” to open Forum.
With regard to Musto’s work, it is also worth observing that Sweeney Todd seems to have been a particularly strong source of inspiration over the course of this project. This is not surprising. Sweeney Todd has what is probably the most thoroughly conceived foundation of motifs and themes to such an extent that the show is probably the closest Sondheim every got to grand opera. For that matter, as this is being written, the Théâtre de Châtelet, the Houston Grand Opera, and the San Francisco Opera (SFO) are sharing a production of Sweeney Todd so well staged by Lee Blakeley as to affirm that Sondheim has attainted a legitimate place in the grand opera repertoire. (Those with a longer memory will recall that David Gockley brought Harold Prince to the Houston Grand Opera to stage a production of Sweeney Todd that was first performed in June of 1984 and subsequently recorded for broadcast on Public Television.)
I have the luxury of writing this as one who attended the opening night of the SFO production of Blakeley’s staging. I have to say that there is no doubt in my mind that I was attending a performance of opera. However, there was an amusing bit of resonance with de Mare’s project. Those of us who gathered in the press room were offered meat pies along with our press materials. Our liaison from SFO Communications, Jon Finck, then informed us, in a hushed voice, “They’re really empanadas!” Thus, I was delighted when I discovered that Ricardo Lorenz’ treatment of Mrs. Lovett’s opening song (which requires the pianist to exclaim, “A customer!”) was entitled “The Worse [Empanadas] in London!”
It will go without saying that those with different tastes will be drawn to the styles of different composers. Thus, in a collection with so many delights, it would be churlish to dwell on any of the composers whose respective styles did not register with me particularly well. When there are 37 tracks, one cannot expect them all to please in equal value. Nevertheless, I suspect that most listeners will find that, one way or another, the tracks that work will outweigh those that don’t.