Sondheim and New York City: Melissa Errico Gets Both

Sondheim and New York City: Melissa Errico Gets Both

Melissa Errico
‘Sondheim in the City’
Concord Theatricals Recordings
Appearing at Birdland Theater
Through February 18

New York is the original mixed message. Melissa Errico makes this point during her show this week at Birdland and in her new album, “Sondheim in the City.” Early in the album we hear a jingo-istic anthem — the kind of rah-rah show tune that everyone from Leonard Bernstein to John Kander and Fred Ebb has written. This is that uniquely New York kind of a song that celebrates the city even while complaining about it: “Who wants to live in New York? / Who wants the worry, the noise, the dirt, the heat? / Who wants the garbage cans clanging in the street?”

Yet knowing Stephen Sondheim, we realize there’s going to be a deeper, darker aspect to that same sentiment. Later in Ms. Errico’s show, the same melody comes back, only now it’s a fuller, sadder tale of lost love and vanquished innocence. Now the same tune becomes “Good Thing Going,” a torch song of almost atomic-level power: “It could have kept on growing, / Instead of just kept on, / We had a good thing going, going, gone.”

As suggested by the title, “Sondheim in the City,” produced by Rob Mathes, does double duty, as a songbook package to celebrate the great composer-lyricist (Ms. Errico’s second, following the 2018 “Sondheim Sublime”) and as a set of songs meditating on the highs and lows, the ins and outs, of life in New York. In her album notes, Ms. Errico quotes Sondheim as saying, “I was born in New York City. In the middle of Manhattan. I have lived my whole life in what amounts to twenty square blocks.” 

“Who Wants to Live In New York?” comes from Sondheim’s 1981 landmark show, “Merrily We Roll Along” as part of “Opening Doors,” and within the course of that story, the same melody is also heard as “Good Thing Going.” Ms. Errico performs it both ways; she and her musical director, Tedd Firth, repurpose “Who Wants to Live In New York?” as intro to “What More Do I Need?” The latter is the best-remembered song from Sondheim’s first musical, “Saturday Night,” and is a rare example of the composer presenting an unabashed youthful exuberance without any darker overtones. 

The album starts with a genuine Sondheim rarity, “Dawn,” from an unproduced 1992 movie project called “Singing Out Loud,” a relatively bright depiction of the city at break of day, halfway “between yesterday and tomorrow,” a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed text that gifts us with a brand new day, full of infinite possibilities, further illuminated by an optimistic trumpet solo from Bruce Harris. “Not a street that doesn’t have a shine / Not a sound except the milkman’s rattle / Not a stream of seven million cattle/ And the city’s mine.”

In general, Ms. Errico leans heavily into Sondheim’s most metrocentric works, “Company” and “Follies” in addition to “Merrily,” including rarities and deleted songs, as well as more familiar ones.  From “Follies” she gives us “Broadway Baby,” “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen,” a very obscure but very moving tale of regret and recrimination, and “Uptown, Downtown.” The latter is a vivid illustration of the inherent, contradictory nature of Manhattan, the city of glamor and sleaze, where Fortune 500 CEOs intermingle with the homeless; as Sondheim puts it very tersely in a three-word observation, “It’s so / Schizo.” 

At Birdland especially, Ms. Errico charges the texts with as much autobiographical relevance as she can; she didn’t exactly grow up in the city itself, but immediately outside of it, in Manhasset, and thus she appreciates it more than most lifelong Manhattanites — other than the composer himself.  In “Company,” the song “Another Hundred People” conveys a sense of overwhelming sheer statistics, the incredible numbers of the city; you don’t see a few people getting off and on the subway, you’re in the middle of a multitude. Ms. Errico imbues it with a quality of wonder — reminiscent of Gordon Jenkins’s “Manhattan Tower” — as if the Long Island Rail Road were a magic carpet transporting her to the Emerald City.

New York is the only place in the world that you’re supposed to love and hate at the same time — nobody ever writes that kind of song about Chicago, Atlanta, or Mumbai. In mixing the highs and the lows, the glorious contradictions, Ms. Errico gives us the Great City, warts and all, which is really the only way it’s worth singing about.

The city isn’t perfect, but we love it anyhow, in fact the imperfections are an asset, not a liability; a feature, not a bug, part of the reason why we can’t even begin to imagine living anywhere else. No one knew that better than Stephen Sondheim, and Melissa Errico knows it too. Start spreading that news some time.

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