Sondheim Unplugged: The NYC Sessions – Volume Three, the final installment of a monumental three-volume set dedicated to the oeuvre of iconic musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, is now available to digitally stream, in addition to a two-disc CD.
Produced by series creator Phil Geoffrey Bond, Sondheim Unplugged: The NYC Sessions is a landmark collection destined to be a major contribution to the canon of Sondheim recordings. Featuring 70 singers and 120 songs, the series presents best-loved tunes, as well as treasures from lesser-heard projects.
Volume Three includes “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy, “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, and “Love, I Hear” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, along with cut songs like “Happily Ever After” from Company and “Flag Song” from Assassins.
Many of Sondheim Unplugged’s key performers originated roles in Sondheim musicals, and several vocalists were seen recently on Broadway in Sondheim revivals. In contrast to some of the grand concert presentations of the composer’s work, Sondheim Unplugged conveys each song simply and essentially, with spare yet elegant piano accompaniment.
Instinct had the opportunity to chat more about the series with Bond and actor T. Oliver Reid, who lends his voice and talent to Volume Three. He was most recently seen as Hermes in the Tony-winning Hadestown.
Thank you both for taking some time to chat with me! Phil, Sondheim Unplugged originally started as a New York cabaret series that is still ongoing today. Is that correct?
Phil Geoffrey Bond: Yes. We started in 2010, which was Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and a lot of people were celebrating in New York. There were all these big gala concert celebrations, and I wanted to do something as well. I was at the City Center attending one of the big celebrations, and I was running the Laurie Beechman Theatre on 42nd and 9th at the time, which seats 100. I thought, what can we do?
At first, I thought about doing something with a trio, like a piano, bass, and drums. Then I said, let’s just do something with a piano. Oftentimes, you don’t get to hear this music with just a piano, and we found it brings out some different colors. We started doing that, and it was supposed to run for four Mondays in July. Sort of a summer filler thing, but it took off immediately. Twelve years later, we’re still running.
And what inspired you to create this three-volume NYC Sessions set?
PGB: It was our COVID project. We went dark for the first time, and I guess then it would have been 10 and a half years. And we were suddenly without our show, and it was very strange because we’ve done it for so long. Some of our fans were writing on our Facebook page saying how much they missed the show. It wasn’t before COVID, but now it’s both live streamed and you can attend in person, but people were asking if there were any recordings out there. I said no, but there really should be.
So, I started making a list, and of course, out of all those years, the list ended up being around 150 songs and people I wanted to get in there. We couldn’t narrow it down and just do one, so we had to do three volumes. We went into the recording studio over the course of about a year because the recording studios kept closing for some time due to COVID, but we got it all down and released three volumes.
T., why did you want to be involved with this project?
T. Oliver Reid: That’s a trick question, Denny (laughs). From my early days of hearing or going to some of the evenings of Sondheim Unplugged for over the past decade, I loved them, and when Phil finally asked if I would sing for one, I was like, absolutely! I had been waiting for this opportunity! There are so few opportunities if you’re not a huge star to sing some of this material.
So, to be able to sing it in an intimate setting with an audience who loves this material and knows it so well, and to have Phil sitting at his podium and telling stories so eloquently and joyfully, it’s something you want to be a part of. Then to be asked during the pandemic to sing this material and be able to record this material, it was a no brainer, to say yes.
What are you singing for this set?
TOR: On Volume Three, I’m singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story, and I did a selection on Volume Two as well. I sang “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle. These are just some of the most beautiful songs, and everyone that Phil got to participate, it’s pretty amazing.
Phil, how has Volume One and Two been received by audiences?
PGB: You know, I thought it would sort of sneak out there and a few people might buy it. Go into the rare CD section in Tower Records or something, but from the minute we went on pre-sale with Volume One, we were the number one best-selling CD for weeks on Amazon in our category of musical soundtracks and scores. We were number one for Volume One for about six weeks, Volume Two for about six weeks, and in pre-order for Volume Three, we were number two, second only to The Music Man. If you have to be second to Hugh Jackman, that’s not so bad (laughs).
What do you ultimately hope people are taking away from Sondheim Unplugged?
PGB: There are just so many great recordings out there and so many great compilations and concerts that thankfully have been recorded, but this is a different approach. This is a boil down approach with just a piano, and I hope they hear the songs in a different light. Perhaps even the way Sondheim might have first heard them in his living room as he was writing them. I hope they take away that, and I hope they take away the fact that we have a wealth of talent here in New York City.
We may not have Bernadette or Mandy, but we have such great vocalists who have been a part of this family for the whole decade plus run, including a lot of people who originated roles in Sondheim shows. We usually have a special guest. We’ve got people like Ken Jennings, who was the original Tobias in Sweeney Todd, Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in Sweeney Todd, Jim Walton, who was in the original Merrily We Roll Along, and Teri Ralston from the original Company and A Little Night Music.
There are a lot of people scattered throughout this whole series, and it’s so fun to hear them either recreate the roles they originally did or sing something entirely new and unexpected.
T., same question for you.
TOR: I hope it gives Phil and this material a brand-new audience. As he said, there are musical theater stars who originated some of these roles on the CDs, but there are also new versions of these songs. I was listening to “The Glamorous Life” the other day from Volume Two the other day, and I was hearing these new voices and hearing the lyrics in a new way.
Have either of you worked one-on-one with Sondheim?
PGB: I’ve met him, and we’ve emailed and chatted, but we didn’t know each other terribly well. I don’t think he was really folksy all the time. He did say he would like to come to the show, and we talked about it for a while via his assistant, and he said he’d like to come to the show if he could come in disguise because A, he didn’t want a make the cast nervous which, of course he would have, and B, he would have been mobbed by people. So, when people ask me if he ever saw the show, I don’t know. Maybe. He could have been there in disguise.
TOR: I got to work on one of Mr. Sondheim’s shows, Follies, two revivals ago with Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey. He came and we all got our puzzle box for opening night, but I never put it together because I don’t want to open the box (laughs). So, it’s sitting on a table in my office, but just to have that experience of being in a room with him was so exciting. Knowing that he was there and appreciating what we were doing.
Personally, what kind of impact would you say Sondheim made on you?
PGB: I was 14 when PBS aired A Little Night Music, the New York City Opera production with George Lee Andrews, Regina Resnik, and Sally Ann Howes, and that was my first introduction to Sondheim. It just blew my mind. I was already a total theater nerd, but I had never really heard Sondheim’s music, and it changed the way I thought about theater. It was eloquent, witty, and I’d never heard a song written like that or seen characters like that.
Then they aired Into the Woods, and then I got to work spotlight on a community theater production of Side by Side by Sondheim, which is where I discovered Sunday in the Park with George. After that, it was over. I saved up my lunch money to buy every single Sondheim cassette, and I had to buy Sunday twice because I wore the first one out (laughs). I like to say, there’s Escalus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, and Sondheim. I put them in the same category, and I think he will probably be remembered like that. His musicals will be performed 100 years plus from now.
And for you, T.?
TOR: I think similarly to Phil, there’s honestly no way to even estimate the influence he’s had on all our lives. For me, his words and melodies have been such a huge part of my musical theater existence and my understanding of what a singing actor can do because of the lyrics he wrote and how they were written. I truly think what he has done is estimable.
In so many of his shows, there’s a recurrence of this melody or half of a melody or sound that propels you to the next part of the show. When you don’t even realize it, he turns things in such a way that they’re there, you’re hearing them, and you’re feeling them before you even realize it.
For more information and to purchase physical copies of Sondheim Unplugged: The NYC Sessions, visit sondheimunplugged.com. The series is also available on Spotify and all other digital streaming platforms.