Rare recording of early Sondheim musical 'Phinney's Rainbow' is found Broadway-legend-in-training Stephen Sondheim was a college sophomore in 1948 when his musical Phinney's Rainbow was produced — and recorded — at Williams College in Massachusetts.

A rare recording of a musical by an 18-year-old Stephen Sondheim surfaces

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A rare live recording of a show that the late Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote and performed in in college has been discovered hidden in a bookshelf in Milwaukee. With 18 major musicals to his credit, from the vaudeville-inspired romp "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEDY TONIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) Something for everybody, comedy tonight.

KELLY: ...To the ghoulish "Sweeney Todd"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDE/OPENING BALLAD")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) The demon barber of Fleet Street.

KELLY: ...The mature Sondheim is easily the most respected figure in American musical theater. But he had to start somewhere. Critic Bob Mondello now knows where.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Spring of 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Williams College in Massachusetts is presenting a four-performance run of a show featuring songs by 18-year-old sophomore Stephen Sondheim, who's playing the overture you're hearing. The title was "Phinney's Rainbow," a riff on the then-popular musical "Finian's Rainbow" and the middle name of college president James Phinney Baxter III. The plot has to do with turning a college a lot like Williams into party central. And it is arguably Sondheim's first produced musical.

It's the stuff of legend in theater circles because nobody's heard much of it. There's this overture recorded at one of the Williams College performances and an orchestrated but lyricless version of one song recorded that same year that was included in an album collection called "Sondheim Sings," even though Sondheim doesn't sing on it, because it was the first of his own songs he ever heard on the radio. But with no known copies of the script or lyrics, that's been more or less it until journalist Paul Salsini started reorganizing his office shelves after years of messing them up as founder and editor of The Sondheim Review and writer of his recently published memoir, "Sondheim And Me: Revealing A Musical Genius." And he noticed a gap.

PAUL SALSINI: I have so many Sondheim CDs, and I have them mostly in chronological order. So this was way at the left-hand side of the shelf. And I could see that it slipped down. It literally fell through the cracks and fell into the next shelf below it.

MONDELLO: And stayed there for who knows how long. But as soon as he played it, he realized what he'd found - all those never-published, long-missing songs from "Phinney's Rainbow."

SALSINI: Nineteen tracks for a total of an hour and 20 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHINNEY'S RAINBOW")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters, singing) Phinney's rainbow, Phinney's rainbow, Phinney's rainbow, Phinney's rainbow.

SALSINI: I immediately got excited. I knew the value of this right away - that this was the first original cast recording of a Sondheim show.

MONDELLO: Which came as a surprise to Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress whose specialty is musical theater and who worked with Sondheim on several projects.

MARK EDEN HOROWITZ: As somebody who has lived and breathed Sondheim to the degree I've been able to for my entire adult life, this is a score I really don't know. This is a live performance of the production I had absolutely no hint existed.

MONDELLO: So how did it get recorded? Salsini has a theory that Sondheim's mentor, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, put him up to it.

SALSINI: I read somewhere that Hammerstein encouraged him to buy a acetate recorder and would record his work. And I'm sure that's on himself, this recording.

MONDELLO: Horowitz hadn't heard that but finds it plausible.

EDEN HOROWITZ: Steve was always sort of an early adopter of technology, and it wouldn't surprise me. I think he always loved gadgets. And I know he used to make home movie type things, and he got one of the first home movie...

MONDELLO: Also arguing that he did the recording, it switches off whenever the music stops. So what's there? Salsini knows Sondheim's later shows well and hears in his work as an 18-year-old...

SALSINI: Hints of what is to come. There's a song called "Strength Through Sex" because they want more parties. And it reminded me of "Gee, Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRENGTH THROUGH SEX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) There once was a czar in Russia. Of course, there once was a king.

SALSINI: But the one that really stood out for me was a song called "What Do I Know?" And this was written in an hour by Sondheim. They had to change scene, so they asked Sondheim to write a song that could be sung in front of the curtain. And let me just read a little bit of the lyrics for you. (Reading) You said goodbye when I said hello. And I asked you when...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DO I KNOW?")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) And I said, hello. And I asked you when, and you said I would know. But how do I know when I know that you said no?

SALSINI: That sounds so poignant to me. Here's this 18-year-old teenager who is discovering himself and was sent away to school, and he was longing for affection. It's so indicative of other songs. "Being Alive" was in my mind from "Follies." There's so many songs that espoused yearning for affection. And in this song from "Phinney's Rainbow," I think he is expressing that for the first time in - you know, I don't want to psychoanalyze it all so much, but it does sound like there's something for scholars to look at.

MONDELLO: The reason they've not been able to look at it, ironically, is that Sondheim sort of hid his early work, even from Salsini's magazine The Sondheim Review.

SALSINI: I know how he felt about juvenilia because he got so upset when we published lyrics for his high school show "By George," and he wrote and said, do not publish my juvenilia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Pillar, how are things in the philosophy department?

EDEN HOROWITZ: My experience with Sondheim is all depends on his mood and when you approached him about things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) So we've thrown a dandy flower on Pascal and Schopenhauer. We find students who are witting to get tangled up with knitting.

EDEN HOROWITZ: He was certainly a collector himself, and he appreciated collections of things. So from that perspective, I think he would be at least moderately approving. The fact that it's happened now - he's often reported as having said things like he doesn't care what happens after he dies. He'll be dead. So of all the things he has to worry about in the world today, I think if he were coming back from the ether, this would not be something that he would get apoplectic about.

MONDELLO: In fact, Horowitz says the mentor and teacher in Sondheim might even approve.

EDEN HOROWITZ: He thought it was valuable for people to see early work and mediocre work and realize that even one's heroes grew over time.

MONDELLO: That said, Salsini doesn't have the rights to the recording, so he can't release it to the public. He's not even sure where this particular discovery came from, though he's certain it wasn't from Sondheim.

SALSINI: I wish I could remember how I got it or where I got it from.

MONDELLO: And logically, since it's a CD and they weren't invented until 1982, it's a copy.

SALSINI: It's not unique. There has to be other ones out there. But I don't know how many - two, five, 10.

MONDELLO: With a few hours of nosing around, Horowitz found another copy of "Phinney's Rainbow" in the private collection of playwright and screenwriter Michael Mitnick. So juvenilia or no and whether Sondheim's collegiate efforts strike listeners today as literally sophomoric...

EDEN HOROWITZ: He's still pretty smart and talented. And, you know, it may not reach the exalted levels that his later work achieves. But I've never seen anything among this work that I would think he would be embarrassed by.

MONDELLO: It is, after all, a clue to how he first developed the art of making art that he would practice for the next seven decades. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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