By 1985, 55-year-old Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim's renown was attested to not only by the major productions given his musicals, each accompanied by an original Broadway cast album, but also by the stage and disc anthologies of his work, including Side by Side by Sondheim, a 1976 London revue; Marry Me a Little, a 1981 Off-Broadway musical built out of songs cut from his other shows; Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (1973); and A Stephen Sondheim Evening (1983), the last two recordings of concerts devoted to his work. At three LPs in a box set (or two cassettes or CDs), running two hours and ten minutes and including 35 tracks, Book-of-the-Month Records' album Sondheim dwarfed these predecessors in size. It also had a slightly different focus. In an interview included with the set, Sondheim was asked specifically what made this particular collection special compared to the earlier ones. "All the other anthologies deal just with small combinations of my music, or were put together to be performed in the theater," he answered. "But this anthology has been created from scratch, and so have many of the orchestral treatments."
Indeed, the album consists of all-new recordings of songs and music drawn from every musical, film, and TV show for which Sondheim has composed music up to this point. (That excludes shows for which he only wrote lyrics, such as West Side Story.) It runs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) to Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and includes such obscurities as the TV musical Evening Primrose (1968); The Frogs, a show written to be performed at the pool at Yale University in 1974; and the film scores for Stavisky (1974) and Reds (1981). And, as part of what the composer found exciting about the set, this is not a collection of his best-known songs sung by big Broadway stars. There are among the eight vocalists a couple of moderately well-known Broadway names in Bob Gunton and Debbie Shapiro. But the rest are the kind of sturdy talents who make their careers as Broadway understudies and replacements; talented singers, but not names.
And by no means does all of the music have vocals, anyway. In the interview, Sondheim says nothing about lyric writing and downplays his composing for singers. "I don't even know that much about the human voice," he says modestly at one point, and at another, dismissively, "I'm not crazy about the human voice." Appropriately, the album presents a mixture in its treatments of his music, including a special arrangement of the music from Pacific Overtures into a 26-minute instrumental suite of dances played by a 40-piece symphony orchestra. The singers are accompanied either by a 28-piece "theater orchestra" or just by pianist Diane Walsh. An 18-piece chamber ensemble plays several songs only instrumentally ("Liaisons" from A Little Night Music, "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd, "With So Little to Be Sure Of" from Anyone Can Whistle), and a jazz quintet gets a couple of other tunes ("Honey," cut from Merrily We Roll Along, and "Theme from Stavisky").
Nor is this an album of the "best-of" Sondheim, as the absence of such obvious choices as "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Being Alive," "I'm Still Here," and "Not a Day Goes By" indicates. The well-known "Send in the Clowns" and "Comedy Tonight" are included, but so are several rarities, not only "Honey," but also "I Do Like You" (cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), "The Glamorous Life (The Letter Song)," from the film version of A Little Night Music, and "Goodbye for Now" from Reds, heard for the first time with lyrics. All of which is to say that Sondheim consists largely of, as the composer himself puts it, "New treatments." "That's what make it exciting," he says. It's also what makes it different from other Sondheim anthologies, which should make those who already own the earlier ones happy, but will not satisfy casual fans looking for a one-stop Sondheim omnibus.