The release of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) from director Tim Burton may well be the most mainstream exposure Stephen Sondheim's beloved work has received on such an international scale, and while the film and its box office stars will ensnare a few more Sondheim fans, some may feel the composer/lyricist's sole domain is large-scale symphonic works – which certainly isn't the case.
Evening Primrose was composed for a one-hour episode of ABC Stage 67, a short-lived 1966-1967 series featuring dramas and musicals shot on colour videotape. The tape master for Primrose no longer exists, and apparently the only extant source is a black & white kinescope, available for viewing at New York City 's Museum of Television & Radio. The music for the series included 4 songs – “If You Can Find Me, I'm Here,” “I Remember,” “When,” and “Take Me To the World” – as well as instrumental cues which exploited the power of far less musicians than Sweeney Todd.
Although material from Primrose was re-recorded for several compilation albums – including Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in Dress Casual (1990), and Varese Sarabande's Sondheim at the Movies (1997) - the original TV recording hasn't been commercially available until now, via Kritzerland (limited to 3000 CDs).
In spite of the age, the recording is in very good shape, and the noise reduction has ensured the nuances of the musicians and singers – stars Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr (Liesl in The Sound of Music) – still resonate with a clean, yet striking intimacy.
Sondheim's lyrics nail the strangeness of John Collier's 1951 short story (a poet who decides to hide from the world in a huge department store to write poetry), as well as the emotions the character faces when he discovers a society living in the building for years, and the pretty girl he falls for and later tries to take back to the world he previously despised so much.
The first big surprise for listeners is the smoothness of Perkins' voice, and his adeptness in handling Sondheim's lyrics as they move from long repeated phrases to fast-twisting sections perfectly timed with the small orchestra. The melody in “If You Can Find Me,” the score's main theme, is full of triumph, with the chorus soothing as Perkins croons long ascending tones, with the piano and xylophone hammering an unwavering triad of jazzy notes and chord shifts.
The triad motif reappears in eerie dramatic waves in “Meeting the Others,” the first instrumental cue that's basically an ominous, slow-paced theme variation. In “You're One of Us,” Sondheim also re-injects the piano motif, and the cue switches to a more optimistic, innocent mood, with woodwinds and vibes add warm timbres. The cue's most interesting effect comes from Sondheim's strings – sparse, yet thick with rosin-heavy vibrato – and surreal ambient tones (probably from brass) that sharply hover and resonate before evaporating.
The cue's design nicely covers the range of emotions as Perkins interacts with the strange dwellers of this dark world, and while Sondheim overtly covers the shifting moods of the characters, he also uses tones that infer danger without belting the listener in the head; it's strictly through subtlety – more impressionistic here – that we get a sense things may not end up going so well for the poet before further dialogue or plotting give us additional information.
Carr's song, “I Remember,” is supported by a small chamber orchestra (violin, flute, electric guitar), and its lilting melody mimics the flittering of vague childhood images that the young girl recalls of the outside world. Warm chord shifts don't last for very long, as the song's midsection has Carr cataloguing specific memories, almost like a poem to ensure the images never fade.
Those less fond of musicals are wrong to dismiss this lovely score as minor because, like the story, it also has shades of the chilling, intimate Twilight Zone [TZ] tales. Primrose has strong echoes of the TZ episode “The After Hours,” but while that tale dealt with mounting paranoia, Sondheim's music infers a more innocent (and naïve) story that has an idealist chucking away the urban world for a life that's completely impractical, because it mandates hiding for long stretches every day before carefully emerging and being restricted to dark areas of the store – wholly different from the writer-at-work cliches of living in a shack in the woods, or in a cabin by a lake.
Sondheim's skill, as in Sweeney Todd, is crafting songs and themes completely straight-faced and supportive of characters, and using his brilliance with an orchestra (with arrangements by Norman Paris, and assistant David Shire) to shift moods without altering the integrity of characters; sly orchestrations can mock buffoons and villains, but through elegant verse we retain those impressions that ensure a character stays memorable, and meaningful to the plot.
The smaller scale of Primrose is an advantage, because like the TZ scores, it shows off a composer's skill by working with the strengths of specific instruments, as well as modern scoring concepts. The instrumental cues are centered around the main themes, but Primrose is a beautiful score that evokes the mystique, drama, and the ominous finale that's we're unfortunately unable to experience because of the show's absence from DVD.
This is a very special work, and hopefully its success on CD will marshal someone to release not only Evening Primrose on DVD, but some of the other intriguing musicals and dramas from the show.
For more information on this album and the original ABC Studio 67 series, please click HERE to read an interview with Kritzerland's Bruce Kimmel.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan