On March 19, 2005, three days before Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday, Symphony Space, a performing arts center located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, devoted its annual "wall to wall" program to the Broadway songwriter. Symphony Space is known in part for free, marathon performances, such as its annual out-loud reading of James Joyce's novel Ulysses each June 16, the day on which the book is set. The "wall to wall" series devotes 12 continuous hours to a particular composer, with the public invited to line up outside and be admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis without charge. This album of "live concert highlights," as the cover puts it, runs a mere 72 minutes, but it gives a good sense of what the day was like. With its prestige and New York location, Symphony Space was able to attract notable Broadway performers, many of whom have appeared in Sondheim shows, who sang either with piano accompaniment or backing by the American Theatre Orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani, who usually wields the baton at Sondheim shows. Chip Zien re-creates his performance of "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods, but otherwise the singers are handling songs they did not introduce on Broadway. For example, Donna Murphy, the star of Passion, here takes the popular torch song "Losing My Mind" from Follies, while Neil Patrick Harris, late of the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins, sings "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George. The choice of what to put on the CD seems to have been determined by a desire to represent most of the shows for which Sondheim wrote both words and music (nothing from Gypsy or West Side Story, for which he provided only lyrics), even including some lesser-known efforts, notably the juvenile effort "I'm in Love with a Boy," rescued from Climb High, an unproduced musical on which Sondheim worked while attending college. Songs that might be thought to be so embedded in the storylines of their shows that they would have trouble working outside of it -- "Now/Later/Soon" from A Little Night Music, "Finishing the Hat," "Bowler Hat" from Pacific Overtures -- actually come off well, in part because of the powerful performances. And there is an unexpected treat in the appearance of one of Sondheim's songwriting contemporaries, lyricist Sheldon Harnick of Fiddler on the Roof fame, turning singer for a funny reading of "Free" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. There is no dearth of Sondheim tribute albums, and most of them are very good. This is yet another one, and it's very good, too.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann