By Marilyn Lester . . .

Sometimes magic happens, and when it does, the results can be transcendent. This particular magic originated with MAC and Bistro Award-winning performing artist Jeff Harnar, who was particularly inspired by the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. As a man approaching the early autumn of his years, he heard his life story in that body of work. A one-man show followed, entitled, I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words.

It was only natural that Harnar’s magnificent show —his first solo performance as an openly gay man—be translated to an album. Released on Sondheim’s own preferred label, PS CLASSICS, I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words is richly produced, as befits the grandeur of the show. To say this album is a masterwork—from the first note to the last— is no exaggeration.

The magnitude of I Know Things Now in stage and album formats is awe-inspiring. Harnar went through the entire Sondheim catalog to choose the 25 songs that ultimately told his story, one that would be relevant for the LGBTQ community. What became a kind of song cycle is a very personal work, one that hits the ups and downs of life and love in all its grand emotions. By choosing songs traditionally sung by women and by a subtle change of pronoun here and there, Harnar offers his art in an acknowledgment of being an openly gay man. It’s a work that couldn’t have been, as he notes, made at any earlier point in his life.

I Know Things Now features a 20-piece orchestra, comprised of Broadway pit musicians, which in and of itself gives a theatrical tone to the album, further enhanced by the arrangements devised by music director-pianist Jon Weber and Harnar. Weber, a piano virtuoso and host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz”, conducted and orchestrated the album magnificently. By reinventing Sondheim’s harmonics, harmonies and chord progressions, Weber and Harnar achieved a jazz overtone to the 16 tracks, with piano forward, creative touches of individual instrumentation and splendid overall support by the full band.

Singing the work of Stephen Sondheim isn’t easy. His harmonies are unpredictable—for example, by how he juxtaposes treble and base lines, creatively uses middle-ground harmonies and employs thematic stops in his melodies, which are often written as short units. On top of musical invention, Sondheim’s strength lies in his sophisticated lyric writing, particularly in his skill to communicate enlightened concepts within his unusual musical structure. Harnar has triumphed in singing and interpreting Sondheim. He makes it seem effortless with his musicality, vocal dynamics and superior timing and phrasing.

As for Harnar’s interpretive skills—off the charts. His ability as an actor, coupled with an incisive mind, brings a keen understanding to exactly what he wants to communicate through Sondheim’s words. Many of the tracks are composed of ingenious medleys. Making a case for maturity and life experience informing a lyric, the trenchant “Loving You/Losing My Mind” (with subtle drumming underscoring the latter tune), is nothing less than heart-wrenching. For lightness, there’s Harnar duetting with guest vocalist, KT Sullivan on “Every Day a Little Death,” the duo slyly mining the intent of the lyric, with flat-hand drumming forward for emphasis. In the “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” the “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” Harnar duets with a Jimmy Durante impersonation, with a surprise riff of Bing Crosby inserted.

The theatrical soul of Harnar emerges in “Opening Doors/Live Alone and Like It/You Could Drive a Person Crazy. He not only interprets the lyric but resides in it and theatrically translates it. Part of this ability is innate and part comes from clever arranging. In “The Little Things You Do Together/Marry Me a Little/I’m Calm/Getting Married Today,” the sequence itself tells a story, with, in the jazz tradition, riffs of other tunes inserted along with the melody, such as several notes of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” dotted in, here and there. In “Could I Leave You?” Harnar is unsurpassed at mining the delicious irony of the number.

Like a cherry atop a sundae, Harnar takes another rabbit out of his magician’s hat with an ability to make the tunes we’ve heard performed over and over again, fresh. When “Send in the Clowns” debuted in 1973 it seemed there wasn’t a singer on Earth who didn’t perform it. The tune has been a favorite ever since. The album’s last track, “Being Alive,” likewise is a performer go-to. Rare is the vocalist who can take the tried and true, if not outworn, and make it seem new. Harnar is such a one. These two stellar, yet much-done, Sondheim numbers seem brand new through Harnar’s talent. Yet, these tunes are only two of a full album of spectacular creativity that provides ceaseless pleasure.

I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words is an album that can be listened to time and again, with the discovery of something wonderfully new in it every time. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all digital platforms.