Posted on November 21, 2010 at 11:25 pm

(Well, not exactly.)

This year has been a non-stop celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and if you’re like me, the only shame is that it isn’t like that every year. As it is, I’m still luxuriating in the events from Steve’s 75th birthday, and I got to participate in one of those events in a substantial way.

On March 19, 2005, Symphony Space in New York held an event called Wall-To-Wall Stephen Sondheim, which consisted of twelve hours (!) of Sondheim, with his music performed by pianists, singers, string quartets, choirs and orchestras, and several talks given throughout the day by talking heads from the theater and television and film and recording worlds. One of the producers of the event was my best friend in the world, Joel Fram, and Joel honored me by asking me to contribute in several ways.

Firstly, he asked if I would allow the Juilliard Choral Union (conducted by Judith Clurman) to perform two choral arrangements I had written of Sondheim songs – “The Hills of Tomorrow”, which I had arranged for Daisy Prince’s wedding; and “Merrily We Roll Along,” from Hal Prince’s 65th birthday party. My only condition was that I be allowed to accompany the choir, since I love collaborating with Judy and I knew it would be really fun.

Then Joel asked me if I would speak on a panel called “My Favorite Lyrics,” for which my fellow panelists would be none other than my extraordinary partner, Georgia Stitt and one of my idols and mentors, Richard Maltby, Jr. (For the record, Georgia picked “How I Saved Roosevelt,” Richard picked “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and I picked “By The Sea.” I’ll happily explain my choice at a later date.)

But the most amazing thing that Joel asked from me was to write the choral arrangement and orchestration for the finale of the entire concert, “Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George. I remain so honored to have been asked to provide the musical summation of this exquisite day.

It was a tricky arrangement to write. I didn’t want to put “my stamp” on it in any grand way, but there was no point in asking me to write it if they just wanted it to sound exactly like the show, so I had to walk a fine line between honoring Steve’s original (and beautiful) vocal arrangement from 1984 and re-framing it just enough to make it sound fresh. The orchestration was an even more difficult challenge, because Starobin’s original charts are so iconic and magnificent that, well, I felt like all the good ideas had been taken! (I was truly moved when Starobin peered at the score over my shoulder at the rehearsal and pointed out several things that he said he wished he had done in his version. Quite an honor.)

I chose to add an a cappella prelude, because I knew it would immediately force the audience to re-orient their ears – this was going to be an audience of hard-core Sondheim freaks, and I wanted to make sure they knew this wasn’t going to be the same version they’d heard hundreds of times before. (One of the many times I’d heard it was the finale of the 1992 Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall, which I was actually involved in as a pianist – watch that clip if you want to see how cute I was when I was 22.)

Since the quarter-note vamp at the beginning of the song is always played on the piano, my first question was whether I could bring a different color – I chose to have the harp play the figure, doubled by the vibraphone.

The rest of the arrangement continues down that road: what can I do that honors the original but comes at it in a slightly different way? Even with the very last figure of the song, I looked for something that was unexpected but still “right.”

All too often, that desire for “different” can send an arrangement completely off the rails. A phrase or a color that you always loved disappears in the arranger’s quest to be original, or even worse, a song becomes utterly unrecognizable. I worked very hard to keep that from happening with this chart.

I’ve posted the score for the arrangement here:

“Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George [pdf of full score]
Music and lyric by Stephen Sondheim
Arrangement for chorus and orchestra by Jason Robert Brown

The performance that night was electrifying. Paul Gemignani conducted the whole evening brilliantly, and it was thrilling to feel the energy building through this number, especially after many of us had been sitting there for the better part of twelve hours. The whole event was broadcast on the radio, and this recording comes from that broadcast.

“Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George [recording]
Music and lyric by Stephen Sondheim
Arrangement for chorus and orchestra by Jason Robert Brown
Recorded March 19, 2005 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre of the Peter Norton Symphony Space, New York, NY
The Juilliard Choral Union, Judith Clurman, conductor
The American Theatre Orchestra, Paul Gemignani, conductor
Violins – Suzanne Ornstein (Concertmaster), Sean Carney, Christophe Franzgrote, Fritz Krakowsky, Kristina Musser, Laura Seaton, Susan Shumway, Alexander Vselensky, Mineko Yajima, Robert Zubrycki; Violas – Shelley Holland-Moritz, Kevin Roy, Sally Shumway; Celli – Deborah Assael, Roger Shell; Bass – John Beal; Woodwinds – Dennis Anderson, John Campo, Leno Gomez, Ken Hitchcock, Diane Lesser, Ralph Olsen, Susan Rotholz; French Horns – Russell Rizner, Ronald Sell; Trumpets – Dominic Derasse, Brad Siroky; Trombones – Bruce Eidem, Brian Mahany, Dean Plank; Percussion – Paul Pizzuti, Thad Wheeler; Piano – Paul Ford; Harp – Elizabeth Robinson

(There’s one embarrassing error for which I have to take responsibility – when I was writing the vocal arrangement, I mis-copied the notes for the women in the climactic “On an ordinary…” I’ve corrected the notes in the score, but you’ll hear the choir bravely, confidently singing the wrong pitches in the recording, and that’s because I didn’t catch it until I was sitting in the theater during the concert. Truly a head-slapping moment for me. Sorry, everyone.)

Anyway, the post-script is that this arrangement was performed again, just a couple of nights ago. The New York Pops did a concert honoring Steve’s 80th at Carnegie Hall, and Stephen Reineke conducted (and once again, Judy Clurman conducted the choir). I was sad not to be there for it, but thrilled that I could be part of the big 8-0 in some way. And honestly, nothing could have topped the experience of sitting in the audience in 2005 with Stephen Sondheim right behind me, thanking me by clapping his hand on my shoulder at the end of the song. Happy Birthday, Steve, and thanks for everything.