Thursday, January 4, 2024

Play It Again: "Our Time"

PLAY IT AGAIN: “Our Time” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This first installment will consider
Stephen Sondheim’s “Our Time,” the deceptively sweet but devastating final song (in most versions) from Merrily We Roll Along. In this song, new friends Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas, and Mary Flynn celebrate the launch of Sputnik as a symbol for their own hopes and dreams as young artists; the audience knows that their friendships will gradually disintegrate and their dreams will face mixed results. This song also includes my favorite orchestral gesture from any Sondheim show, the impossibly wistful rising five-note phrase in the woodwinds heard in the middle of each verse (obviously the work of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick as much as Sondheim).

This famously “problematic” show has nevertheless spawned five cast recordings, spanning productions from the infamous original, a 16-performance flop, to the current hit revival, Broadway’s hottest ticket. These versions differ not only in the quality of the singing, sound, and orchestrations, but also in terms of exactly how much music and dialog is presented.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

- YouTube

Franklin: Jim Walton; Charley: Lonny Price; Mary: Ann Morrison

SINGING: Director Hal Prince famously chose to go with a younger, less experienced cast, and that comes across when listening to this track alongside the others discussed below. Walton sounds a little tentative, with a very unadorned delivery, but of course some of this is likely a character choice. Although Morrison has no solo, hers is clearly the best voice of the three. Their group singing is not quite as tight as subsequent versions.

*ORCHESTRA: This recording features the fullest orchestration, which I assume includes the Broadway pit and a few extra players. Lots of lovely details can be heard on the recording, including a subtle French horn part that is either missing or hard to hear on other versions.

SOUND: The recording is mostly very clear, except at the very end when the full ensemble and orchestra seem to melt together as one very loud sound.

MISCELLANEOUS: The version of “Our Time” presented here includes the least material of any of the five - really just the sung parts, without any dialog or the transitional music heard when Mary enters the scene.

- YouTube (part one), YouTube (part two)

Franklin: Michael Cantwell; Charley: Evan Pappas; Mary: Maria Friedman

SINGING: Cantwell’s voice sounds extremely thin on this recording, giving the impression at first that he’s actually the junior partner to Pappas’ Charley. The two do sound good when they sing together, and even better when Friedman joins in.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration sounds a little less full than either the original or Encores recordings, but still very satisfying.

*SOUND: As is usual with JAY’s studio recordings, the sound is excellent throughout, with a fine balance between singers and orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: This is the most complete recording of the song, with introductory and mid-song dialog. Unfortunately - as is also usual with JAY’s recordings - the dialog sounds a little awkward and rushed. After the beautiful instrumental transition, the music stops cold as the three discuss Sputnik; in other versions, the transitional music is used effectively as underscoring for this dialog. The tempo is quite slow on this recording and seems to drag at times.

OFF-BROADWAY CAST (1994) - YouTube

Franklin: Malcolm Gets; Charley: Adam Heller; Mary: Amy Rider

*SINGING: For my money, Gets delivers the best vocals of any of the five Franklins recorded so far. His delivery may be a little too confident for this particular moment of the story, but he finds lots of nuance while singing the notes (he wrings the most out of the word “everything”). Heller’s voice contrasts nicely with his, and the two sound great together, as does Rider.

ORCHESTRA: This version features the smallest orchestra of all. This is usually a huge problem for me, but there’s enough of a woodwind section to evoke the bittersweet poignancy of the song, and the active piano part fills in enough of the rest to make for a satisfying overall sound.

SOUND: The sound is generally good, but the voices are maybe a little too prominent and the recording strains a bit on the loudest parts.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This version is the best “put together” in terms of the amount and arrangement of music, singing, and spoken dialog. A fast-paced version of the Sputnik discussion is included, underscored by the existing transitional music. Speaking of fast-paced, the tempo is pleasantly brisk on this recording. 

NOTE: This was the first full Merrily recording I listened to (though not the first version of “Our Time”), and it remains my favorite despite some very worthy competition (and despite the small orchestra). I hope my choice is not unduly driven by nostalgia!

- YouTube

Franklin: Colin Donnell; Charley: Lin-Manuel Miranda; Mary: Celia Keenan-Bolger

SINGING: Donnell’s voice sounds very fine on this recording, though his notes tend to be a little clipped for my taste. Miranda is probably at his most effective as a performer here; though he doesn’t have that much to do, his sung and spoken delivery meshes well with Donnell’s. Keenan-Bolger is as wonderful as she always is, and uniquely gets a little solo in this version of the song.

ORCHESTRA: I assume the orchestration is very similar to the OBC recording, but it comes across as slightly less full here, without as many audible instrumental details.

SOUND: As with the off-Broadway recording, my only issue with the sound is the prominence of the singing voices over the orchestra, perhaps contributing to the slightly restrained sound of the large orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: This version also includes a nice mixture of singing and (underscored) dialog, incorporating not only the Sputnik section but also a bit of the introductory dialog where Franklin proposes to turn Charley’s play into a musical. It also includes the final few notes of the show, basically just a final statement of the ubiquitous “yearly” motif.

) - YouTube

Franklin: Jonathan Groff; Charley: Daniel Radcliffe; Mary: Lindsay Mendez

SINGING: I believe one’s appreciation for this version of “Our Time” hinges on how one feels about Groff’s unique, very delicate delivery of the lyrics. I know his nakedly emotional interpretation makes this a game-changing favorite for some, but I unfortunately am not a part of that group. I have complete faith that I will appreciate this song as an organic part of Groff’s overall performance when I finally see the show, but on this recording I find his choice of vocal acting over singing to be more distracting than affecting. (That famous “everything” is a case in point.) That being said, Groff and Radcliffe’s voices complement each other nicely, and when Mendez joins in they might be the best trio of them all.

ORCHESTRA: Similar to the York production, the orchestration is significantly thinner than the other versions, but it works just fine for this song.

SOUND: The sound is well-balanced between voices and orchestra, but probably the least clear and dynamic overall.

MISCELLANEOUS: This version is similar to that heard on the OBC, with neither dialog nor instrumental transition, but it does include the final section of post-”Our Time” music, which in this case sounds slightly sinister and then quite stark (again, I’m sure it will make sense when I see the show). The tempo is moderate and effective.


  1. Hello. In 1994, Amy Rider played Mary, not Michele Pawk who was Gussie.
    Agree with you, it’s my favorite cast. And my first ever Sondheim show I ever saw !

  2. Hi! Thank you for sending in that correction. And thank you for visiting our blog!


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