Here We Are

Off-Broadway Cast, 2024 (Concord Theatricals) 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5) As staged Off-Broadway at The Shed in late 2023, Sondheim’s final musical — which combines two Luis Buñuel films to create one story about a group of wealthy friends who struggle all day to find a place to eat and then can’t leave the room — offered strange, surreal satisfaction. The cast album of Here We Are captures the show’s bizarreness while still showcasing the small-scale treasures of Sondheim’s last songs. The wise inclusion on the recording of significant patches of David Ives’ book scenes (there is very little music in the second act) helps to capture the show’s shifting flavors, even if parts of the story will likely remain inscrutable to some listeners. Sondheim’s music sometimes goes beyond evoking his past work; certain sections seem to quote Passion and Sunday in the Park with George outright. But there are worse things than revisiting some of his most wistful melodic gestures, and there are moments in this score that suggest a self-referential wink, too. His lyrics remain outstandingly specific to character in their rhythms, vocabulary, and grammar, particularly in the comic “Bishop’s Song” for a character (played by David Hyde Pierce) who would rather be working in another field, and in the show’s most glistening addition to the canon, the aria “Shine” for Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones). “I want things to gleam / To be what they seem / And not what they are,” she sings in one of Sondheim’s last perfect constructions. It’s not his most densely rhymed score, nor his most unimpeachable; for example, a parodically mournful ballad, “It Is What It Is,” for Tracie Bennett (doing a ridiculous French accent), misfires on the recording as it did onstage. But Sondheim clearly relishes the unique weirdnesses of each of his characters, and sometimes gives them notably lush, romantic melodies as in “The Soldier’s Dream,” sung brightly by Jin Ha and Micaela Diamond. (The most frustrating aspect of the album is how often the richest music is interrupted by spoken asides referencing stage business by other characters, doing little to clarify or enrich those moments.) While Here We Are is a true ensemble piece, Jones is especially delightful in animating Marianne’s willful ignorance masquerading as innocence, and lovely as she sounds when singing, it’s the recorded book scenes that demonstrate the complexities she squeezes out of a defiantly superficial character, as when she makes a meal out of delicious consonants in sultry, silly lines such as “I found you a credenza for your embassy.” Perhaps more than anything else, this score in album form is a testament to the 50-year-plus collaboration between orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and Sondheim. The recording not only exquisitely communicates Tunick’s sumptuous, quirky, and always dramatically motivated treatment of Sondheim’s compositions but also demonstrates, through the inclusion of several Act II interludes and the substantial, shimmering exit music, how lovingly Tunick developed those melodies in instrumental sections presumably constructed after Sondheim’s death. (The entr’acte, for instance, fleshes out a gorgeous, brief melody sung by Steven Pasquale in “The Road 4 — Part 2.”) When it comes to that partnership, to quote Marianne, “Don’t we all feel blessed?” — Dan Rubins