Eleri Ward Breathes New Life Into the Sondheim Canon

The singer and guitarist dives into the musical makeup of the songs and, in some cases, alters the harmonies and adjusts the melodies, sometimes changing the notes, sometimes just shifting the emphasis.

Beth Naji
Eleri Ward performs at Sony Hall. Beth Naji

Eleri Ward
‘A Perfect Little Death,’ ‘Keep a Tender Distance’ (Ghostlight Records)

When Sarah Vaughan first started singing “Send in the Clowns” during her concerts, around 1975, not everyone dug it. Essentially, the great jazz singer took a very personal song, written for a specific character in a specific moment in a specific story, and made it into a kind of an epic.

Vaughan was already a jazz legend, but by the 1970s, she was also, in Martin Williams’s memorable phrase, “an opera singer without an opera” — except that now she indeed had an aria that could grow as large as she willed it to be. Vaughan essentially layered the Stephen Sondheim song with tons of business, inflating it to grandiose proportions, making every note bigger, every space more dramatic, every pause more pregnant, magnifying all the ironies. These weren’t just your common garden-variety clowns anymore; they were larger-than-life, gigantic clown balloons floating down Central Park West on Thanksgiving.  

Now, Eleri Ward has taken that same bunch of clowns and given them a whole new bag of tricks to perform, a brand new tiny car to tumble out of. 

Last year, Ms. Ward released “A Perfect Little Death”; more recently, her second album, “Keep a Tender Distance,” has been streaming. (The CD version will be available about the time she goes on her first national tour, in February.) Both albums consist of what have been described as “acoustic folk music” adaptations of the Stephen Sondheim canon, though to be honest Ms. Ward doesn’t use that term, not in the notes to “Little Death,” and not at her concert, this past Monday, at Sony Hall.  

Rather, in her notes to that first album, she tells us that her intention was to de-contextualize these songs not only “from the original shows themselves, but from the world of musical theater altogether. What life do these songs live when they stand on their own? What else do these songs reveal when they are stripped down to their core?” Still, she’s not only stripping the songs down — like Vaughan, she’s adding something.

Just as Vaughan layered all of her embellishments on top of Sondheim’s anthem, Ms. Ward is piling on a new set of levels to what might be the most widely known and loved of all of the late maestro’s songs. She’s also diving into the musical makeup of the songs and, in some cases, altering the harmonies as well as adjusting the melodies, sometimes changing the notes, sometimes just shifting the emphasis, which serves to make them sound like entirely new tunes.

Her most significant enhancement is a vocal mannerism wherein she switches rapidly between the chest and the head voice, which produces a unique sound sort of like a subdued yodel. It’s a sound that Broadway, opera, and jazz singers would be embarrassed to emit — it would play like a mistake in those contexts. Here, it loudly proclaims the folkie status of this project, the kind of a device you’d hear in the singing of Joan Baez or Judy Collins, not Barbara Cook or Patti LuPone. 

The voice itself is the biggest part of the interpretation, but Ms. Ward’s effect is enhanced even further by her imaginative arrangements and her compelling guitar work. She also supplements her singing by further layering on additional vocal tracks to achieve a specific effect. 

At Sony Hall, she was accompanied by keyboardist Brian Fitzsousa, but also brought out a succession of guest stars to help her achieve these effects. Sam Pauly, Jen Simard, Julia Murney, and Bobby Conte took their turns at the second mic, but they weren’t so much singing duets with her as supplying additional harmony lines.    

Ms. Ward understandably gravitates toward those Sondheim works set in the 19th century or earlier, especially “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sunday in the Park with George” — though nothing from “Pacific Overtures” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” There are comparatively fewer songs from those shows that transpire in the current day, like “Company” and “Follies.” The many numbers that evoke the past seem tailor made for Ms. Ward’s approach, though I have to confess that it’s primarily the excellence of her treatments that makes them seem that way.

Eleri Ward’s two albums of Sondheim, containing some 27 songs, strip away the original implications — dramatic, moral, philosophical, and musical — of the songs while simultaneously retrofitting them with new ones. The performances are simple and complex at once; “Take Me to the World” (from “Evening Primrose”) has her laying down a deceptively minimal guitar pattern, and a rich vocal line embellished with those gentle trills and yodels, first adding and then removing levels of vocal tracks.  

In the classic 1979 show, “Sweeney Todd” is presented like a Victorian murder ballad; more recently, singer and comedian Lea Delaria has famously reconstructed it along the template of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” itself another more modern version of a “moritat.” If Macheath’s murderous activities make for a swinging single, why not Sweeney’s? 

Ms. Ward returns the song to its quasi folk inspiration, but now Sweeny himself has become something more like the Demon Barber of the Allegheny Mountains. In this interpretation, Sweeney becomes altogether less demonic and more sympathetic, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Ms. Ward flows directly from “Sweeney Todd” to “Being Alive” from the end of “Company”; there’s no better way to appreciate being alive than to survive an encounter with a killer wielding a straight razor.  

Likewise, “Agony” loses its ironic edge, but gains something in the process. In “Into the Woods,” the Prince tells Cinderella that he was raised “to be charming, not sincere.” Somehow, in Ms. Ward’s rendering, he becomes both.

The New York Sun

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