A Rare Recording of Stephen Sondheim’s 1948 Musical Satire ‘Phinney’s Rainbow’ Was Just Unearthed

Ellen Gutoskey
Stephen Sondheim in New York, 1972.
Stephen Sondheim in New York, 1972. / Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication
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Before West Side Story, and Company, and Into the Woods, and all the other musicals that made Stephen Sondheim a titan of musical theater, he wrote Phinney’s Rainbow

It was, according to Sondheim’s website, “a satire on college life,” and therefore reflective of the setting in which Sondheim developed it in 1948: Massachusetts’s Williams College, where Sondheim was an 18-year-old sophomore and co-founder of the newly minted Cap and Bells drama society. Its title played on Finian’s Rainbow—the hit musical that had opened on Broadway the previous year—and also the name of Williams College president James Phinney Baxter III. 

As Meryle Secrest wrote in her biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life, the plot “centered around the efforts of Dogma Nu fraternity at Swindlehurst Prep to replace their compulsory [philanthropy] with more house parties, their motto being Strength Through Sex.” Sondheim drew heavily from the proceedings of an actual fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, much to the alarm of its members.

Phinney’s Rainbow was performed just four times in the spring of 1948—making it Cap and Bells’ first-ever musical—and has pretty much faded into obscurity for all but the most ardent Sondheim aficionados. According to NPR, only two recorded numbers ever reached the public: the overture from one of the original performances; and an instrumental version of the song “How Do I Know?”, recorded later that year and released on the 2005 album Sondheim Sings (Volume II, 1946-60). In short, there’s no original cast recording to stream on Spotify.

But one of those first four performances did get recorded in full. The circumstances are a mystery; Sondheim scholar Paul Salsini told NPR that it’s possible Sondheim recorded it himself at the urging of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. The files have been preserved in private collections—and “How Do I Know?” just got uploaded to YouTube—though exactly how many people harbor copies is also a mystery. 

Salsini, who founded the now-defunct magazine The Sondheim Review and authored the memoir Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius, recently discovered that he himself owns one—a CD with an 80-minute recording of Phinney’s Rainbow on it.

“I noticed that there was a space between a couple of CDs and I looked at the shelf below and found that this recording had fallen down into the next shelf. It had literally fallen through the cracks,” Salsini told BBC News.

The 87-year-old Milwaukee resident plans to turn over the CD—whose provenance he can’t recall—to Marquette University’s Sondheim Research Collection, which he established in 2011. Sondheim-heads will be in for a treat if the recording ends up getting digitized or reproduced in some publicly consumable manner; according to Salsini, the songs lightly evoke various Sondheim classics, from West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to Company’s “Not Getting Married.”

[h/t BBC News]

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