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 MisÃ©rables 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.
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.”
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 protegÃ©. 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.”