Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are like Chekhov’s plays: Sometimes, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Infused with irony, longing, and dark comedy, his musicals have an unequivocal autumnal quality. But the mood never gets too dark; even the bloody Sweeney Todd has its light moments. Add a shot of sophisticated Sondheim to the musical mix at your next cocktail party. Some suggestions:
The Frogs and Evening Primrose (Nonesuch)
The Frogs, from 1974, loosely based on Aristophanes’ comedy, didn’t receive its premiere recording until this 2001 release. Nathan Lane is a hoot delivering the “Instructions to the Audience,” but the real gem is Evening Primrose, which Sondheim wrote for a 1966 TV special. The offbeat story concerns a poet who takes refuge in a department store at closing time, but he finds a strange nocturnal society living there. Neil Patrick Harris is in fine voice in “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here,” and his duet with Theresa McCarthy, “When?,” is afire with romantic yearning.
A Little Night Music (Columbia Broadway Masterworks)
Yes, this original Broadway cast recording includes the hackneyed “Send in the Clowns,” but there’s plenty else to savor in this 1973 outing. Who else but Sondheim would think of rhyming “position” with “Titian” in the wistful “Liaisons”? And the catchy “A Weekend in the Country” is a wondrous melding of words and music. (A side note: A Little Night Music will be presented by Michigan Opera Theatre Nov. 14-22.)
Follies (Broadway Angel)
Perhaps Sondheim’s most popular work, Follies centers on a group of aging chorines who reunite in a theater slated for demolition. “I’m Still Here,” that anthemic salute to survival, is belted out by Yvonne De Carlo in this 1971 original Broadway cast recording. The tender “In Buddy’s Eyes” and the Gershwin-esque “Losing My Mind” are two of Sondheim’s most exquisitely beautiful tunes, while the bouncy “Broadway Baby” sounds like a number plucked right out of the Ziegfeld Follies.