Sunday, 5 September 2010
Julia at midnight
I'm obsessed. By the master's infernal, internal rhymes; by the little bean-cells that sprout tunes; by the whole intricate fairytale-meets-human-dilemma machinery of Sondheim's Into the Woods. Having seen that far from perfect Regent's Park production, I ordered up the original London cast recording to take me back to the palmy days of Richard Jones's show (I went twice, and the second time I took my pal Stephen Johnson to convince him this was up there with the greats. He agreed).
Well, further examination leads me to an outlandish claim: this stands in the same relation to Sweeney Todd as Britten's Turn of the Screw does to Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. It has something like the same thematic rigour, the same symmetries, and even some equal felicities of chamber scoring from Sondheim's inimitable house orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.
Most of it doesn't work out of context. But the track I've been playing over and over again is Julia McKenzie's Witch delivering the apocalypse-now of 'The Last Midnight'. It's the apogee of what I'm guessing is Sondheim's (and Tunick's) obsession with Ravel's scarier waltzes. Especially the burbling clarinet against my favourite lines (witch to world: 'You're just nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not nice, I'm not good, I'm just right.')
Alas, it's not on YouTube; you'll have to get hold of the recording for yourselves. But what I did find was sublime Julia performing Sondheim's wicked Astrud Gilberto spoof 'The boy from...' She does it deadpan, and savours the place-names like no-one I've heard. All as a riposte, I'm guessing, to Kit and the Widow's famous parody 'People who like Sondheim'.
As for 'The Last Midnight', the best I can do is a piano-accompanied version by the Witch of the Regent's Park production, Hannah Waddingham. It will give you some idea of the number's insidious genius.
The Guardian's Martin Kettle claimed that instead of concentrating on his interview with Tony Blair last week, he was plagued by the 'earworm' of Mahler's First Symphony. But I came away from the beautifully played, more questionably interpreted Berlin Phil/Rattle Prom featuring that wonderful work and found myself earwormed by 'The Last Midnight'.