4 min

A Sondheim Jazz Project

June means two things to me: Pride and theatre. We have a while to wait until Pride, but the Tonys, the Doras and some exciting theatre experiences are right around the corner! Cats is about to open its ninth life in Toronto at the Panasonic Theatre. Some already have their claws bared (frankly, seeing the Cats, Falsettos and Les Misérables ads makes it seem like the ’90s are happening all over again), but I’m thrilled to see Miss Saigon‘s Ma-anne Dionisio step into Grizabella’s grey coat and Susan Cuthbert, from the original Toronto cast, return to the Jellicle Ball. I’m all ready to “let the memory live again,” but for those who prefer Stephen Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber, there’s a unique way to get your fix.

Bobby Hsu’s A Sondheim Jazz Project debuts officially on Saturday, June 15, even though it’s not entirely theatre. Nor is it really a concert. It’s more than just a simple album launch, but different from your standard band gig. The “project” is a fascinating take on the work of many a gay’s favourite musical-theatre writer via a group of Toronto musicians, with Alex Samaras on lead vocal. Hsu, a saxophonist and self-confessed show-tune nerd, has built up a strong following for his concept in a short amount of time, and the resulting recording is a sublime listen, a perfect soundtrack for evenings at home or on the patio: “It’s jazz, but we’re really doing a theatre album. We made an effort to still honour the narrative through-line of the songs, so in theory we could plug one of these arrangements into Company, and it would tell the same story.”
The track listing mixes it up, with chestnuts like “Send in the Clowns” and “Being Alive” alongside rarities (“Multitudes of Amys,” cut from the musical Company) and songs from Sweeney Todd and Follies. It’s a hugely ambitious effort, Samaras tells me. “I sang four or five takes of each song. We only had two days, there was no money and we had to do everything very, very fast, so it was a definite challenge.”

Sondheim is a cerebral composer and lyricist, known for his “busy, raw and complex lyrics, always with a clear arc,” and Samaras outs himself as a purist. “I’ve loved Sondheim since I was 12. He gives you everything you need.” Fellow purists need not worry but should expect some surprises in regard to the jazz element: “It’s about sound and musical shape. We don’t focus on things like “It’s a woman’s song, and we need to think about the staging of it.” All the drama is coming from the musicians; improvising is really telling a story, and that’s the core of what we’re doing.”

For his part, Hsu is open about courting jazz audiences and has had a warm reception in that community. “When we did our Company tribute, it was in front of a packed room of jazz listeners who didn’t know the songs. Most people who know a song like ‘Getting Marrried Today’ hear it and compare it to Madeline Kahn or Beth Howland instead of really listening to it, but these people laughed at all the jokes and were surprised. When we got to the end the audience erupted; it was the biggest smile I’d ever had on my face.”

As for us theatre folk, a standout track from the album is Dora Award-winner Jackie Richardson’s take on “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose. She’s not exactly a Sondheim newbie, having recorded Merrily We Roll Along‘s “Old Friends” on a previous album, but here she displays a supple, playful and wise sound on a song that is meant for a teenaged girl full of youthful enthusiasm. “From the moment she did the first take, my reaction was ‘Holy Crap!’ I realized it was so deep to have an older woman singing this song to a grandson or protegé. It brought to mind all the ways society can make someone older feel trapped and locked away, and it’s so moving. Jackie singing it has turned it into a stand-alone song, far apart from the context of the show it’s from.”

Working with someone of Richardson’s calibre is almost unheard of for a first-time album producer like Hsu, and her presence helps elevate A Sondheim Jazz Project. “She approached us after Alex sang backup for one of her shows. With this work, I’m trying to bridge musical theatre and jazz . . . and Jackie’s whole career embodies that. If I go to my jazz friends, they’ll only know ‘Send in the Clowns,’ and if I go to my theatre friends, they’re not stylistically familiar, but Jackie is a legend in both worlds. She is someone who unites theatre and jazz. She holds herself to a high standard and always wanted to try out different things in every part of the song.”

Alex Samaras also displays considerable chops, with a pure falsetto and a sensitive touch with the lyrics on full display. His warmth is particularly lovely on Follies’ “In Buddy’s Eyes.” It has a new resonance when sung by a gay man and speaks to the care taken with the project: “Bobby was meticulous. He didn’t just choose these songs because he liked them; he had an idea for each one, hearing them in certain new ways in his head. In the beginning, it took a while for the band to understand where each one was going, but he dug so deep into the world of Sondheim that even just talking about the songs with him was a real learning experience.” The delicious drama of an evening of Sondheim combined with jazz appeal? Count me in please . . . and if anyone wants to do an album of jazz-inflected tunes from Cats, I’m available!