Judy Collins says she has had the same turntable in the studio in her apartment for over 40 years. It’s the one on which she first heard “Send in the Clowns” from the 1972 Broadway cast recording of “A Little Night Music.” Those three-and-a-half minutes began her love affair with the work of Stephen Sondheim and planted the seeds for the project that marks her return to Bay Area Cabaret this weekend at the Venetian Room.
In the early 1970s, Collins had been feeling it might be time to “career from career to career,” as a popular Sondheim lyric goes.
“I had just recorded ‘Amazing Grace’ and I didn’t know what to do next. It was the year of Donna Summer and I thought, ‘Ohmigod! I’m gonna have to learn how to dance!’ I was a bit out my mind,” she says.
She turned to mogul David Geffen for inspiration and he suggested looking at Jimmy Webb’s catalog. “I said, ‘Who’s Jimmy Webb?’ He laughed and asked if I had been living under a rock before rattling off a list of titles.” Collins, of course, made a hit out of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
Then her friend Leonard Cohen introduced her to writer Nancy Bacal, who sent her the tide-turning Broadway LP and asked her to listen to just the one song. “I didn’t know who Sondheim was. I didn’t know Hal Prince, who produced the show either, but I called him up and he answered the phone, which impressed me. He said the song had already been covered by 200 people and I said I didn’t care.”
Her soulful rendition took it to a 1975 Grammy for Song of the Year and gave Sondheim the first bonafide commercial hit.
She met with Sondheim to talk about a possible album of his work.
“He gave me all these tapes of his backer’s auditions. They’re absolutely incredible. All of the arrangements that Jonathan Tunick does [for the stage] – they’re all there. Stephen plays all the instrument parts! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” (Many of these archival recordings have since been commercially released.) In this week’s concerts, Collins appears with piano accompanist Russ Walden.
“It’s what I wanted,” says Collins. “Russ has been with me as long as I’ve been thinking about this and we’re very excited to finally be doing it.”
The City engagements mark the kick-off of a month-long tour and plans are underway for a possible television special in the next year.
IF YOU GO
Judy Collins Sings Sondheim
Presented by Bay Area Cabaret
Where: Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Feb 28, 5 p.m. March 1
Tickets: $60 to $90
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.bayareacabaret.org