Stephen Sondheim’s Lost Musical Reveals a Vision of a Giant

NEW YORK — A copy of what is called Stephen Sondheim’s first original cast recording has been found on a misplaced CD, capturing the legendary composer’s budding skills in a student-run musical while at Williams College in 1948.

Sondheim was an 18-year-old sophomore when he wrote the music for “Phinney’s Rainbow,” a show that ran for just four performances sponsored by Williams’ theater organization, Cap and Bells.

Paul Salsini, journalist and author of the new memoir “Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius,” he recently found the CD while putting away material he had amassed for his book and realized it contained “the first original cast recording of Sondheim.”

“I played it and I was like, ‘My God, this is really weird,’” Salsini, who also founded and edits The Sondheim Review, told The Associated Press from his home in Milwaukee. It is a find.

The college show had music by Sondheim and a book and lyrics by Sondheim and another student, Josiah TS Horton. Sondheim was at the piano and there was no orchestra.

Salsini suspects that Sondheim himself recorded one of the shows on an acetate recorder, noting that his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II had urged him to purchase such a device. “I’m 90% sure Sondheim put this recorder next to his piano.”

The show’s title has two amusing references: one to “Finian’s Rainbow,” which recently opened on Broadway, and the other to James Phinney Baxter III, Williams’ president.

The show was a satire centered on a school called Swindlehurst Prep, whose students are divided into three types: athletes, wolves, and intellectuals. When the president is away, the students go crazy. Salsini calls humor “collegiate.” In a joke, someone says, “Students are disgusting.” The answer: “The college is not that good either.”

Sondheim wrote 25 musical numbers for “Phinney’s Rainbow,” including a dreamy ballet. The show had a cast of 52 students, all men, since Williams did not admit women until 1971. The budget was $1,035.

The Salsini CD consists of 19 tracks, with a total duration of 1 hour and 20 minutes. Somehow, the disk had gone missing and she couldn’t include it in her book, despite herself. He’s not sure how he got it in the first place. Salsini believes that other copies might exist, although none have been found in the Library of Congress or Williams, in Massachusetts.

The sound quality is pretty poor, with laughter and applause sometimes overwhelming the lyrics, but the find is exciting nonetheless. Many of the songs hint at what the musical theater giant will become, such as “How Do I Know?” of the first act. with witty pun: “And I asked you when/And you said I would know!/But how will I know/When I know you said ‘no’?/I just don’t know!”

Salsini points to that song as an early example of a theme Sondheim would return to often. “That’s a precursor to a lot of Sondheim’s songs where he expresses a longing, a longing for love, a longing for affection, that runs through a lot of his songs throughout his career.”

Sondheim, who died in 2021, became a musical theater giant and influenced generations of songwriters, particularly with iconic musicals like “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for Best Original Score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the movie “Dick Tracy “), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“Phinney’s Rainbow” gave Sondheim an early career boost. Cap and Bells signed an agreement with Broadcast Music, Inc. for the publishing rights to three songs from the sheet music: “Phinney’s Rainbow”, “How Do I Know?” and “I still have my heart.”

Salsini, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree from Marquette University and returned there to teach, plans to donate all of his Sondheim material to the school’s research collection, including the CD. It is open to the public, which means anyone can listen to the music. “This belongs there,” he said.

But Salsini knows Sondheim well enough to suspect how he would react. “He doesn’t like his youth recaptured and going public, so I don’t think he’s going to like this,” she said. But that’s none of my business. I am a journalist and this is news”.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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