“Learning To Love Stephen Sondheim”
“Stephen Sondheim is America’s greatest living theatrical songwriter—but he’s not popular, and never has been. Part of the problem is that his songs are too lyrically and harmonically complex to suit the tastes of the average listener, in addition to which they tend to lack a clear-cut emotional profile. The look-both-ways-before-crossing ambivalence of a lyric like “Sorry/Grateful” (“You’re always wondering what might have been / Then she walks in”) is worlds away from the wholehearted view of romantic love that has traditionally been the stuff of pop-music success.
Just as important, though, is the fact that Mr. Sondheim is and has always been a theatrical composer, not a creator of free-standing songs. His songs exist to drive the plots and deepen the characterizations of the shows for which they are written, so much so that their meanings are often not fully clear when they’re performed outside the dramatic contexts of those shows. An oft-cited case in point is “Not While I’m Around.” If you don’t know “Sweeney Todd,” it sounds like the purest and most straightforward of love songs—but it’s sung by an innocent street urchin to a heartless criminal at whose uncaring hands he is unwittingly destined to die.
Taken together, these aspects of Mr. Sondheim’s work go a long way toward explaining why so few recitals of his songs have been recorded by top-tier pop and jazz performers. Judy Collins’s “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim,” Jackie and Roy’s “A Stephen Sondheim Collection,” Cleo Laine’s “Cleo Sings Sondheim” and “Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim” come to mind, but after that, the choices grow thin on the ground. That’s why the release this month of Melissa Errico’s “Sondheim Sublime” (Ghostlight) is big news to those, myself among them, for whom his work has long spoken with the force of revelation. Not to put too fine a point on it, “Sondheim Sublime” is the best all-Sondheim album ever recorded, a program of 15 songs in which radiantly warm singing and sensitive, intelligent interpretation are tightly and inseparably entwined. Even if you’ve never felt at ease with Mr. Sondheim’s cool embrace of ambivalence, this album, accompanied with like sensitivity by Tedd Firth on piano, will show you what you’ve been missing.
A veteran musical-comedy performer who made an unforgettable impression earlier this season in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Ms. Errico sings like an actor, illuminating every twist and turn in Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics. Listen, for example, to the unobtrusive yet incomparably vivid way in which she puts a separate spin on each of the varied similes out of which “I Remember” is constructed: “I remember leaves, / Green as spearmint, / Crisp as paper. / I remember trees, / Bare as coat racks, / Spread like broken umbrellas.” Yet to call her a “singing actor” is to miss the point, for her vocalism is as finished as her interpretations are thoughtful. You scarcely ever hear her kind of dead-center intonation and flawlessly controlled vibrato on Broadway—or anywhere else.
Ms. Errico’s personal story, as it happens, is no less interesting in its own right. After appearing on Broadway in six increasingly prominent roles that brought her to the attention of New York’s drama critics, she finally landed a plum: John Doyle cast her as Clara in his 2013 Classic Stage Company off-Broadway revival of Mr. Sondheim’s “Passion,” in which she gave a luminous performance that by all rights should have established her as a stage star. Then, without warning, she developed a vocal-chord hemorrhage that forced her to drop out of the show, after which she spent 106 days unable to sing or speak a word as she recovered from the microsurgery that ultimately saved her voice. Instead, she started a blog in which she chronicled with unsparing honesty her agonizingly slow return to vocal health, proving herself in the process to be as talented a writer as she is a singer.
Perhaps because “Passion” was the show that came so close to ending her stage career, I have a special liking for the performance of “Loving You” that is included on “Sondheim Sublime.” Unusually for Mr. Sondheim, “Loving You” is at once simple and startlingly direct in its articulation of the pivotal place of love in the singer’s life: “It gives me purpose, / Gives me voice, / To say to the world: / This is why I live. / You are why I live.” Accordingly, Ms. Errico sings it with a tender, unadorned simplicity that conceals her supreme artfulness: All you hear is understated yet intense feeling. I realize that Mr. Sondheim’s own art will never be for everyone—he asks too much of the listener—but each time I listen to “Sondheim Sublime,” it’s hard for me to see how anyone could resist his songs when they’re sung like this.”
— Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal
Feinstein's / 54 Below
November 3, 2018
Piano/Musical Director: Tedd Firth
Bass: Phil Palombi
Director: Robbie Rozelle
Percussion: Rex Benincasa
“The Sublime, in art, does not exactly refer to beauty. As it has been theorized by Edmund Burke, it has been defined as art that ‘refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation’. The kind of art that carries human emotions, and pushes them to their paroxysm. Sublime can be terrible, an instant fixated into the now, the forever, the moment that left your mouth agape. Associating it to Sondheim, as Melissa Errico did for the title of her newest album, and the release concerts that followed at 54 Below, is an invitation into a museum, to walk through those moments, to sit back, and just feel. Enjoy the terrible, let it take over you in waves, painting after painting, walking through a gallery.
Truly, there was something masterful about that night, something as breathtaking - as sublime as the fleeting nature of art. While put on record, those performances simply were a now that can not be replicated, a now for the stage, and even behind jazzy arrangements, the genius stays, and each song is a story, each song is a new painting, a new moment trapped into air, pausing life as if everything outside the room, outside those couple of minutes had stopped. But overall, it’s one big painting that faces us, each song being a dot, as the Dot she once played, and they paint an actress, in all her versatility, a woman with many sides, and a mesmerizing voice.
Surely, as one would have expected, the night was full of longing, a technically perfect Send in the Clowns that might not have worked in context of the show - just too perfect - but that still carried that much, that still scarred to just listen to. A different take, one for Miss Errico, that would only fit her. Another one strikes, a most haunting Losing My Mind, from Follies, that can only have you wish for yet another revival, just so more people can experience this live. As with every time music started here, time stopped, but ghosts filled her eyes, and the room. A painting on her face, a painting in the air, a moment of sublime.
Pace picked up, for sure, the night had opened smooth, bubbly, a glass of champagne in her voice with that Sooner or Later as a welcome. Her Miller’s Son, also, gave us to see another side of her, the eternal ingénue that might always live in her gestures, in her clear soprano, the kind of ingénue you just don’t question. But she’s grown, Miss Errico, since her days as Cosette or Eliza, and it’s a mother we can hear, with the wisdom she wishes to pass on, when she disappears behind Children Will Listen, not as the Witch, but as a moment. As a lesson you can’t help but swallow and learn. And there is gentleness, in her Not While I’m Around, and love, so much, for the children she speaks of jokingly, for a next generation who has to be taught about art. No wonder it is with Children and Art that she closed the evening, and her album, an homage to that Dot she played, maybe, but a piece of her, or art, that it seemed impossible not to carry home.
And it’s what this magical night came to be, a series of moments. A series of hitting pause on the remote, of seeing the air move in front of you, as you breathe, as stories come alive. Something to remind you of how fleeting each second is, while filling them up. Of the magic of live arts, for it’s only because they end that they have so much impact. Like so many moments in life. Something scary, terrible, yet beautiful. Something sublime.”
— Lottie Ballanger, Hi! Drama
“The best recorded Sondheim recital I’ve ever heard, gorgeously and intelligently sung, and accompanied with perfect taste by the Tedd Firth trio.”
— Will Friedwald, The Wall Stret Journal
“The true mark of a prodigious songwriter and storyteller (Ms. Errico) is the ability to touch every emotional chord. . . fulfilled and surpassed by each; that warm, gentle purr of vibrato that invades her exquisite delivery ever present. Ms. Errico engages, grabs and holds no matter what Sondheim song falls from her lips – “Losing My Mind,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Marry Me a Little”…she’s in the moment – honest and open with appropriate charm or passion or excitement bringing her own brand of humor, astuteness and playfulness (“Isn’t He Something”)."
— Theater Pizzazz
“Melissa Errico has that very rare combination of beauty, humor, graceful motion on stage and, of course, the marvelous sound of her voice. I have been a fan since first seeing her star in Finian’s Rainbow, and she continues to grow as a cabaret performer. She shows great confidence on stage and her off-the cuff-remarks are often hilariously funny. Her Broadway acting experience came through on an especially dramatic “No More.” She convinced me that she was losing her mind in her superfast “Losing My Mind.” Sondheim has said that life is a struggle between duty and desire, and this was shown in her medley “Not a Day Goes By”/“Marry Me a Little.” Her love of Sondheim’s work comes through in every song, and her excellent enunciation makes each of Sondheim’s lyrics especially meaningful.”
“The Sondheim Album of the Year:
Melissa Errico’s “Sondheim Sublime” combines all she knows about beautiful singing with all she knows about making words count. And not just in familiar numbers
(“Send in the Clowns”) but in oddballs like “Isn’t He Something?” Isn’t he indeed.”
— The New York Times, 2018 Holiday Gift Guide
“Identifying a visceral reaction helped Errico hone in on select numbers from the composer’s expansive oeuvre, uniting the album’s tracks not just by writer and performer, but through their wisdoms…the [album] offers healing, special, and loving lessons that, for Errico, speak to her own life experiences and, in a larger context, current climates. Pieces like “Children and Art” and “No More” illuminate a maternal sense of protection, while “Sooner or Later” and “The Miller’s Son” elicit a determination to find pleasure in bleak times.”
“[Errico] has a unique gift for emphasizing the warm and emotional side of Mr. Sondheim’s complex, aria-like numbers, and for taking lyrics written for specific characters and specific scenes, and transforming them into something incredibly intimate and personal - with, at the same time, sentiments that are universal. We may have listened to 10,000 different versions of “Send in the Clowns” over the last 45 years or so, but trust me, this is one interpretation, and an entire album, that the whole world really needs.”
— Will Friedwald, The Wall Stret Journal
“A delectable assortment of songs by the songwriter extraordinaire…on Sondheim Sublime Errico’s perfect phrasing, along with graceful, thoughtful arrangements by Tedd Firth and others, brings heartfelt emotion and rich vibrancy to over a dozen of Sondheim’s songs, ranging from a gently jazzy take on “I Remember” from Evening Primrose to a terrifically ferocious rendition of “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music. She and Firth sensitively mine the torch song roots of “Losing My Mind” from Follies, and “Isn't He Something?” from Road Show allows Errico to demonstrate her unique ability to infuse her always lovely vocals with a smile. With “Goodbye for Now,” a song too rarely recorded written for the movie Reds, Errico captures both the ethereal nature of the melody and the wistfulness of the lyric, [and her] deeply moving interpretation of “Children and Art” from Sunday in the Park With George is
— Bway Tunes