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Don’t You Just Hate Self-Aggrandizement?

The American Songbook in London is the debut event in what Jeff Harner (producer and performer) calls a 'dream to revitalise the American cabaret tradition in London,' an initiative that shows every sign of success. For the next two weeks the melodies of some of the most eminent American composers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter will be showcased in style at the delightfully intimate Jermyn St theatre after Andrea Marcovicci and Steve Ross have each played a week's residency. I was lucky enough to catch the latter's presentation of the songs of Stephen Sondheim, the 'Bard of the bittersweet' as Ross aptly describes the musical territory the composer inhabits.

Ross is a veteran cabaret artist having made many appearances in the Oak Room of New York's famous Algonquin hotel and his experience is evident, panache oozing from every pore, his material given that extra boost of being narrated with an engaging, laconic humour. He explains how no-one else quite captures the truth of relationships the way Sondheim does, his innate empathy for emotional ambivalence providing the musical theatre with some of its finest songs as Ross evinces. Famous songs like 'Losing My Mind', 'Being Alive' and 'Send In The Clowns' receive due recognition - all ably accompanied by David Johnson on bass- but there are lesser-known numbers too, the aim being to give a good cross-section of Sondheim's range.

Such an intimate setting, one that's 'bijou', as Ross wryly calls it, is perfectly suited to this type of material, the lyrical impact of Sondheim's incisive songs feeling freshly minted... Ross' consummate professionalism- hopefully echoed by his colleagues - provides a superb way for anyone to unwind after a busy week and one can only hope that the Songbook will be back in town again soon.

- Amanda Hodges, ThreesACrowdOnline.com, London, February 27, 2007

CABARET: STEVE ROSS

Over the years the New York singer-pianist Steve Ross has been indelibly associated with the frothy repartee of Cole Porter. The idea of his devoting an entire programme to Stephen Sondheim seemed unpromising on the face of it, especially for the minority of us who find that the composer’s arch wistfulness works best in carefully administered doses.

What a revelation this show was. After Andrea Marcovicci’s compelling opening residency in the American Songbook in London series, Ross managed to go one better... his immensely thoughtful arrangements ensured that this was much more than a treat for Sondheim completists.

One failsafe test, I suppose, is whether a performer can find any way of making a song as familiar as Send in the Clowns seem freshly minted. There were no doubts on this occasion. In a venue that is small enough to allow the audience to catch the faintest of sighs, Ross’s careworn delivery expressed a rare sense of pathos.

He brought so much conviction to Sorry-Grateful that you almost believed the song was as profound as Sondheim’s admirers claim it to be. The same applied to the urban hustle-bustle of Another Hundred People. As for the delightful love letter to grimy Manhattan in What More Do I Need?, Ross injected just the right note of wide-eyed optimism.

Could he make Broadway Baby sound like his personal property? Absolutely. The debonair Ross conjured an image of Fred Astaire tapping a path down the Great White Way. It made perfect sense for him later to take a detour into a brief sequence of Astaire classics.

- Clive Davis, The Times, London, February 22, 2007

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC HITS ALL THE RIGHT NOTES

The Jermyn Street Theatre is one of the West End's few cosily intimate venues, hidden in the heart of Theatreland only yards from a tourist-thronged Piccadilly Circus. It is a thoroughly friendly and welcoming theatre and, on the evening I was invited along to see Steve Ross sing Sondheim, it was filled with an audience which was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject and entirely appreciative of the performance from start to finish.

The evening was introduced by Jeff Harner as “Everything’s coming up Ross’s ” and it was. Sondheim is a fascinating composer, his songs - masterpieces of wit and bittersweet love - each telling a story, and Steve Ross’s selection was for me both a mixture of personal favourites and previously undiscovered treasures. His knowledge of, and obvious love for, the composer's work was apparent in every number and his understated singing style, dry wit and personal arrangements, always delightful. Ross intersperses his set with humorous and appropriate anecdotes and we discover that his appreciation for Sondheim stemmed from a preview performance of Company in 1970. How many can claim provenannce of that calibre for their love of Sondheim’s works?

Listening to Steve Ross bring Sondheim’s brilliance to life, on the small stage shrouded in heavy red velvet drapes, behind his Steinway, accompanied only by David Johnson on Bass, felt completely appropriate and made a thoroughly spellbinding evening. Exactly what Sondheim cabaret should be.

- Geoff Ambler, ReviewsGate.com, London, February 16, 2007

THE AMERICAN SONGBOOK IN LONDON - STEVE ROSS SINGS STEPHEN SONDHEIM

The second week in the season of “The American Songbook in London” has singer-pianist Steve Ross featuring the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, indisputably the greatest living American writer of music theatre. Although his main interest has always been working in theatre, he is one of very few people to have won an Academy Award, many Tony Awards, countless Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize.

Around the time of his parents’ divorce, aged ten, he happened to befriend Jimmy Hammerstein, son of legendary Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. It is due to Hammerstein acting as surrogate father and mentor in all things musical-theatre that Sondheim is where he is today. In his range of material he has arguably surpassed the work of his mentor, although in the field of popular hit songs that became classics, Hammerstein has the edge. Oscar did after all write the lyrics for ‘When I Grow To Old to Dream’, ‘I Won’t Dance’, ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ plus Sigmund Romberg’s “The Desert Song”, most of Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” and, with Richard Rodgers, “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music”, among others.

Sondheim, however, has one up on Hammerstein. Apart from contributing just the lyrics to three major shows, “West Side Story”, “Gypsy” and “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, Sondheim has been his own composer and lyricist and produced some of the most complex music theatre songs imaginable.

It is just this flavour that Steve Ross brings out in his Jermyn Street show. Ross is a seasoned cabaret artist well-known to New Yorkers from his engagements at the Algonquin Hotel, and to London audiences from his appearances at The Ritz and Pizza on the Park over the last quarter century.

Although he has often included Sondheim songs in his act, this is the first time he has attempted a complete Sondheim tribute. There is nobody better qualified than Ross is to present the work of Sondheim. His musical taste, like that of Sondheim, is impeccable and he presents the material not as it was written for the stage but in expert arrangements performed with his signature vocal timbre that adds another level of enjoyment to this already outstanding musical output.

Ross dates his appreciation of Sondheim from seeing a run-through of “Company” in 1970, a show that has 15 perfect numbers with no song that does not earn its place, but then this can be said of most of Sondheim’s shows. Think of “Sweeney Todd”, Sondheim’s most accomplished theatre piece with about two dozen numbers and none is superfluous or out of place. From “Company” Ross essays ‘Another Hundred People’ and ‘Sorry/Grateful’, two songs imbued (as much of Sondheim is) with a mixture of happiness and sadness, because nothing is easy in his world and everything is shot through with irony. From “Sweeney Todd” Ross sings ‘Pretty Women’ and ‘Johanna’, again bringing out the incipient sadness of what are essentially expressions of love. Even ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from “Follies” is, yes, a love song, but not as we know it.

Sondheim’s biggest hit number that everybody and his wife has recorded and one that Sondheim wrote overnight for the show’s star, Glynis Johns, is ‘Send in the Clowns’ from “A Little Night Music”. Here Ross includes the extra lyrics that Sondheim wrote for Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album and convinces us that this is exactly what the song needs – something to expand or explain the emotions depicted. On the other hand he also includes some of the less well-known numbers from less successful shows, such as “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and “Anyone Can Whistle”. It’s a stunningly well put together show, a template for others of this ilk, a sort of “Side By Side By Sondheim” but without most of the chat, just the occasional link to make the piece appear seamless.

Host Jeff Harnar introduces Steve and joins him for a few duets, too, accompanied by David Johnson on bass in a show that deserves a much longer run. Steve ends the show with a selection of his favourite songs by Cole Porter and others, and also demonstrates his excellent pianistic skills in a medley of Edith Piaf songs. A great evening indeed.

- Michael Darvell, ClassicalSource.com, London, February 13, 2007