Few occasions in theater are more frustrating than going to a musical by Stephen Sondheim, the most extraordinary composer to have ever written American musical drama. His music is accessible upon first hearing, but his lyrics-the most complicated and devilishly clever lyrics in musical theater-are impossible to catch whole during one performance.
The ideal way to see a Sondheim musical is to study, in advance, the intricacies and wizardry of the words. And the best way to do that is to listen intently to the original Broadway cast recording and study the libretto.
When digital audio compact discs arrived five years ago, it appeared that Sondheim and CDs were as perfect a marriage of art and technology as one could imagine. And now comes the laser videodisc to show us how video, when combined with digital audio, can, in many ways, make the Sondheim experience at home even more exciting and rewarding than in the theater.
No other lyricist today writes such precise and complicated words. The clear CD sound makes it possible to catch every syllable, every nuance. This adds to the listener's comprehension of Sondheim's complicated score.
But when you add video's capacity to focus in on characters offering key verses, to show you the staging in detail, to give you the ability to replay complicated passages, you have an experience superior to watching a Sondheim musical unfold on the stage.
No other composer uses silence as powerfully as Sondheim. The silent surfaces of the CD enable his music to affect the ear the way the artist Georges Seurat's dots of paint affect the eye.
It is Seurat's painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte," which inspired Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning triumph, "Sunday in the Park With George." A laser videodisc with digital sound presents an accurate sonic and video picture of that musical (Image Entertainment laser videodisc, 147 minutes, under $35; a vastly inferior videotape is available from Media Home Entertainment). CDs have given us a standard of sound thth video analog sound simply cannot match. The laserdisc offers digital sound as crisp and clear as the "CA Red Seal CD version of this same production.
Mandy Patinkin as Seurat, and in Act II as Seurat's great-grandson, and Bernadette Peters as his model-mistress, Dot, and in Act II, the daughter, Marie, do what Sondheim asks: They enunciate every syllable and sing with passion and concern. Peters has become the perfect Sondheim heroine-she sings with a clarity that makes it possible for an audience to unddrstand the word, as well as the action. Patinkin is a marvel-his voice ranges all over (from bass to falsetto), and he brings both Georges to life in an unforgettable performance.
The sound is better than the video. The direction is mediocre-it does a prosaic job of capturing the action but ignores the sweep of the drama and often goes in for a close-up when the knowing viewer wants to see what else is happening on the stage.
Sondheim's greatest work, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is s guably the finest musical written for the American stage. Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber's much-ballyhooed and vastly inferior "The Phantom of the Opera," "Sweeney Todd" is, in the truest sense, an opera in the worthy tradition of the masters. Everything is brilliantly staged to music, and the arias are as powerful and as moving as anything in opera history. "Sweeney Todd" is to "Phantom" what Fred Astaire is to "Dirty Dancing."
Happily, the complete opera is available on "KO Home Video tape or Image Entertainment laserdisc. Unhappily, it is not yet available on laser videodisc. Although the original videotape on which the home edition is based has excellent detail and sound, the home copies are poor replicas, with fuzzy picture and low buzzing sound.
Still, nothing can dim the performances of George Hearn as the barber and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. The sweep of the drama and the sharp wit of the lyrics carry the day.
A prosaic documentary-type account of Broadway's tribute to "Follies," staged in 1985 by Sondheim expert Thomas Z. Shepard, is also available (Fries Entertainment videotape and Image Entertainment laserdisc).
"Follies in Concert," the video, seen on cable and public television, is a truncated record that includes some of the great names of musical theater: Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Licia Albanese, Erie Mills, Liliane Montevecchi, Andre Gregory, Barbara Cook, Phyllis Newman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Elaine Stritch, Daisy Prince, Hearn, Howard McGillin, Patinkin and others.
The audio CD version includes full accounts of all 22 numbers, ones that stay in the memory. This video, muddy with analog sound, doesn't compete well. Since it is a concert version, the pictures don't add much to the performances, and the documentary portions, while revealing, are more annoying than illuminating. The video becomes more of a companion piece to the CD than a work in its own right. Still, some of "Follies" is better than none.