Various Artists

Sondheim Tonight

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As Hugh Wooldridge, the organizer of the benefit concert from which this live recording derives, acknowledges in his liner notes, "There have been many notable events lauding the talents of Stephen Sondheim including Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (1973); Side by Side by Sondheim (1976); A Stephen Sondheim Evening (1983); A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (1992); and Putting It Together (1993)." These are references to both previous benefit concerts that produced two-disc recordings and musical revues anthologizing Sondheim's songs. What makes this one, from the Barbizon Centre in London on May 17, 1998, (a little) different is that it focuses a bit more on Sondheim the composer than on Sondheim the composer/lyricist for the musical theater, including, for example, his rarely heard 1947 composition "Variations on a Theme (Katie Malone)" and the 1951 "A Very Short Violin Sonata." Otherwise, it's notable that this is a British tribute, peopled by veteran stars of the West End including Michael Ball, Maria Friedman, and Cleo Laine, plus the entire four-person original cast of Side by Side by Sondheim (which originated in the U.K.) and a couple of Broadway ringers, Len Cariou (who originated parts in the Sondheim shows A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd) and Elaine Stritch. Since Stritch first sang "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Company, one might have expected a repeat performance, but instead that song is assassinated by the insufferable female impersonator Dame Edna Everage. (Stritch, as it happens, doesn't sing anything; she is one of several performers, Sondheim himself among them [on the phone], who offer anecdotes or introductions, in her case apparently via video.) Only slightly less sufferable (or relevant) is Ned Sherrin, one of the Side by Side originators, who comes on repeatedly to tell jokes, many of which will be funny only to British citizens. Sheridan Morley, who also provides liner notes, suggests to the prospective buyer, "However many Sondheim CDs you already have, add this one to the collection." Fair enough, but don't expect to bring this particular one down from the shelf very often.

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