There have been many albums on which Broadway composers, sometimes through demos, sometimes recorded at gatherings such as New York's 92nd Street YMCA Lyrics & Lyricists series, sing their own songs written for musicals. While most of these songwriters are not professional performers (exceptions include Harold Arlen and Cy Coleman), their renditions always provide some insight into their work. Stephen Sondheim has not been much heard from in this regard until now. But it turns out that, like others, he has recorded piano-and-vocal demonstrations of his songs during the preparation of his shows, and now we are promised a series of albums of these private performances. The first ranges across a ten-year period from the early '60s to the early '70s in terms of composition (there is one track actually recorded in 1980), spanning the Sondheim shows A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, plus a couple of songs from stray projects. The composer turns out to be an excellent pianist, which is no surprise, and an often strong, if inconsistent vocalist. He has a better voice than, say, Bob Dylan or Lou Reed in purely technical terms, but clearly he is unused to performing, and, not intending to do any more than demonstrate the songs, he doesn't worry about veering off-pitch or running out of breath. That, of course, isn't going to matter to the disc's intended listeners, show music fans, who will be listening to hear the frequent lyric variations from the finished versions and to get a sense of how the songwriter himself hears his songs. Stripped of their orchestrations and the talented Broadway stars who usually sing them, the songs still impress, with their surprising melodies and remarkable wordplay. Like other composer albums, this is one that will appeal to already established fans, but it confirms (if any confirmation were needed) Sondheim's status among the greatest of musical theater songwriters.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann