“Mandy Patinken Sings Sondheim” by Mandy Patinken

Mandy Patinken is in many ways the Michael Bolton of the Broadway Musical scene. In both cases, the singers are acknowledged even by most of their detractors to have fine voices, but their sometimes frighteningly hammy performance style causes them to get wildly polarized reactions: people either love them or run screaming from the room every time they are played.

For those who are novices to the subject and might be outraged at the comparison I just made, the similarities become a lot clearer on Patinken’s albums than they are in his actual Broadway work. Apart from the LaChiusa Wild Party and the Concert cast of Follies, Patinken usually tones down his trademark mannerisms in his actual Broadway shows…this is particularly true of his two most famous roles in Evita and Sunday in the Park with George. But on his own albums, he tends to let the crazy out, and perhaps no album epitomizes his sheer Mandy-ness as much as this one. The album alternates between slow, drawn-out, almost lugubrious legato singing, wildly hyperactive patter sections and flat-out insane screaming. So if that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, this album is probably not for you. If, however, you’re one of the faithful (like me), by all means read on, because I’ve got a treat for you.

This album is the perfect illustration of how to build a true Concept Album entirely out of pre-existing songs. This practice used to be quite common…indeed, when Frank Sinatra essentially invented the Concept Album, this was the approach he used…but it has fallen to the wayside in these singer-songwriter-dominated days. This album is far more than just a standard songwriter anthology…it’s a single unified whole, almost one continuous song, with most of the tracks flowing directly into the next without a break. To illustrate the extent of this, the album was recorded before a live audience, and there are a total of maybe five tracks with applause on them, simply because those are the only places where Patinken stopped singing long enough to allow for it.

I’d argue that of all the Sondheim anthologies I’ve ever heard (and this includes the famous ones that have actually played Broadway, like Side By Side By Sondheim or Putting It Together), this one encapsulates the scope of the man’s artistry better than any other. This is partly becausePatinken sings it like a manic-depressive lunatic, which is exactly the perspective Sondheim generally writes from, but there are certainly other factors.

For one thing, the album frames the entire catalogue with the one Sondheim show Patinken actually appeared in on Broadway, Sunday in the Park with George, beginning and ending with the opening and closing lines of that show. Beyond being something of an obvious choice for Patinken, this has significance because, while Sondheim has never admitted this, the 20thCentury descendant of George Seurat who is the focus of Sunday’s second act is quite obviously an author avatar for Sondheim himself.

The album focuses primarily on the first eight of Sondheim’s ten peak-period shows. There are only three selections from his Sixties Broadway productions, one from each of the three (“Free” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle, and “Take the Moment” from the Richard Rodgers collaboration Do I Hear a Waltz?, the only song here not written solely by Sondheim). Oddly enough, the obscure television musical Evening Primrose gets two selections here (“If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” and “When?”), although given that Patinken was the first to make that score available on recording back in 1990, that’s probably not too terribly surprising.

There is also one song from the Dick Tracy film included (interestingly, Patinken opted here for “Live Alone and Like It” rather than the song he himself had performed in the film, “What Can You Lose?”). For some reason, nothing from the last two shows of Sondheim’s peak era, Assassinsor Passion, was included. Granted, the songs in Assassins are probably too situation-specific for this album’s purposes, but it seems a shame to exclude Passion, as songs like “Happiness”, “I Wish I Could Forget You”, and “Loving You” would have been natural choices for this kind of project. Perhaps Patinken simply saw them as too obvious, given that Passion is already structured in much the same way as this album.

As the album’s neurotic torment gradually seems to grow quieter and more peaceful over the course of the second disc, culminating in an exquisitely gentle solo rendition of the central chorus number “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, it feels like the climax to a hard-won journey toward inner peace. And the closing lines of the album…the same as the lines that close Sunday’s second act…have never sounded as much like Sondheim’s personal credo as they do here: “White—a blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities”. If you are looking for a way to get the full impact of the Sondheim experience without actually listening to his entire catalogue of cast albums, then, 1. Why? but 2. This album is probably your best bet. And even if you’re not looking for that kind of shortcut, or have already heard the catalogue of works in question, this album is well worth hearing just to further refine your understanding of both of the artists involved.

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