With the curtain about to rise on the holidays, if you're still shopping for a gift for that theater-loving friend, here are some suggestions that are slightly more unusual than the soundtrack of Rent or The Producers (not that we'd kick either of those out from under the tree).
No true Stephen Sondheim fan should be without both volumes in the Sondheim Sings series (PS Classics, $18.98 each). Volume I, 1962-1972, contains the thoroughly familiar ("Send in the Clowns") as well as the totally obscure ("No, Mary Ann," written for a never-made movie that William Goldman was hoping to adapt from his 1967 novel, The Thing of It Is).
Sondheim describes his own singing voice this way: "I tend to sing very loud, usually off pitch and always write in keys that are just out of my range." What the listener gleans from these recordings, however, is not only the enthusiasm exuded by the composer as he sings, but also insights into his creative process. The recordings include lyrics and entire songs that were discarded or replaced.
Volume II, 1946-1960, ventures into more rarefied territory. Here you find piano excerpts from Sondheim's very first musical, By George, written when the fledgling composer was a student at the George School in Newtown, Pa. Sondheim showed this musical to his friend and mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who promptly assigned him an intensive course of study that involved writing a series of four musicals. Not only does Volume II include two songs written in 1952 for the fourth of those unproduced musicals, it also includes a Christmas greeting to "Ockie" (a nickname for Hammerstein) recorded by Sondheim at age 13.
If you're looking for something a little less specialized, try a CD by Jason Robert Brown, a Broadway songwriter often described as one of Sondheim's successors. Brown, whose two-person musical The Last Five Years broke box office records at Everyman Theatre in the fall, released his first solo album, Wearing Someone Else's Clothes (Sh-K-Boom Records, $14.99), earlier this year.
The 11 songs on the album vary from the ebullient title track to a comic love song, "I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You," to an achingly poignant anti-war ballad, "Over." Brown's talent as a tunesmith is matched by his sophisticated ability as a lyricist. And, as those who heard him perform in concert at Everyman can attest, his singing and piano playing are irresistibly dynamic.
Finally, switching from audio to visual - Hirschfeld's British Aisles (Glenn Young Books, $39.95) is a delightful portfolio of drawings by the late, great Al Hirschfeld. The artist, whose work frequently appeared in The New York Times, captured performers so deftly with pen and ink, he proved that the best lines in theater aren't just the ones in the script.
Consider a portrait of Charles Laughton from the 1940s. The actor's round, pliable features are rendered so fully, they take on depth and bulk, without benefit of shading. Or, examine a much more recent drawing of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (1998). In the words of designer and director Tony Walton - one of more than a dozen luminaries whose commentary is scattered throughout the book: "Hirschfeld has encapsulated everything we remember of this vibrantly cheeky pair as they tottered into their prime. ... All it needs is the noise."
Of course, if none of these suggestions seems quite right, I can recommend nothing more highly than theater tickets themselves. After all, though the gift of live theater may be ephemeral, it's something no one can take away from you, something you can savor long after the curtain has fallen.
Supporting new play
Center Stage has received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of the coming American premiere of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's The Murder of Isaac. This is the 11th consecutive year that Center Stage has won an NEA grant.
The Murder of Isaac is set in a Jerusalem rehabilitation center where, as part of their therapy, patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stage a play about the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It will be produced at Center Stage, under Irene Lewis' direction, Feb. 3-March 12.