Oscar & Steve

Mandy Patinkin

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Oscar & Steve Review

by William Ruhlmann

The relationship between Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim is among the most confounding in the American musical theater. On the one hand, Hammerstein was Sondheim's spiritual father, the guiding force who led him to become a writer of theater songs. On the other, the optimistic, wholesome attitude expressed in Hammerstein's lyrics and librettos could not be more different from the skeptical, subversive wit of Sondheim. Mandy Patinkin confronted this dichotomy head-on in his fourth album, alternating songs by the two, following Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" with Sondheim's "I Wish I Could Forget You," Hammerstein's "Honey Bun" with Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By." Those juxtapositions emphasized the differences, but Patinkin also found similarities in some pairings. The odd thing was that, although Patinkin is identified with Sondheim, here he was more comfortable with Hammerstein. He is able to appreciate the ambivalent anguish of "I Wish I Could Forget You" and the savage wit of "Remember," but he's too nice to plumb the cruelty of either song. On the other hand, Hammerstein's embrace of sentiment is similar to Patinkin's, and in songs like "If I Loved You," "Bali Ha'i," and "Honey Bun," he was able to indulge his energy and back-wall-of-the-theater bellow. Sondheim can thank Patinkin for making his songs seem more conventional and acceptable than they really are. Here, Patinkin even found surprising warmth in two of the austere songs from Passion. But, despite Patinkin's obvious affection for Sondheim, that doesn't make him the ideal interpreter. On the other hand, listening to this record makes you wonder what he could do with Hammerstein standards like "Ol' Man River" or "Oklahoma!"

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