by Sam Juliano
He is often referred to as the most accomplished living lyricist in the musical theatre. Some consider him much more than that. Many feel his stature is perfectly conveyed in the lyrics of one of his newest songs:
‘You have something to believe in/something to appropriate, emulate, overrate/ Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname: God!”
Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday sparked a wave of celebrations including a new Broadway revue at the Studio 54 in Manhattan appropriately named Sondheim on Sondheim, which is actually part revue, part video documentary and the glorious talking head complicity of Mr. Sondheim himself, who speaks to the audience on a large moving panel onstage relating amusing anecdotes about the writing process, and imparting a plethora of biographical information that underscores his ascendency in the musical ranks. Conceived and directed by longtime collaborator James Lapine, who worked with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods and Passion, the show presents a non-chronological look at the great composer’s career, making good on Sondheim’s promise to “jump around a bit” and include what mattered most to him (and his public) over the decades.
Unfortunately, there’s a number of mediocre ‘unpublished’ songs offered here, negotiated by a largely average ensemble, with the noted exception of 82 year-old diva Barbara Cook, who, in the second half delivers the show’s most electrifying moment when she sings Sondheim’s best-known song “Send in the Clowns” with a sense of elegiac poignancy. (Ms.Cook received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical here.) Hence, the show’s musical highlights are the standards from Sondheim’s best loved works, including “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story (where he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music and Arthur Laurents’ book) “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd, “Smile, Girls” from Gypsy, “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods, “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park With George and a number of others.
The wealth of Sondheim trivia which the composer reels off with an infectious enthusiasm includes the problems they had creating the opening number for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, coming up with the proper ending for Company and the inclusion of a new song in Gypsy, intended to alter the main character a bit, which lasted only for a single performance. The entire eight person ensemble at one point recreate the intricate and disarming octet “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” (from Follies) to superlative effect.
One of the show’s most dazzling and humorous sequences is a parade of video clips that features many of the most famous and beloved pop stars (Sinatra and Streisand among them) who sing their own covers of Sondheim’s one commercial hit – “Send in the Clowns” – in truncated succession. There’s no doubting the dazzling visual virtuosity on display here with Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious set design, which consists of moving screen panels that are set aglow by lighting designer Ken Billington. Strictly from a standpoint of staging and high tech embellishment the show is top rank, but there’s a problem here is sustaining focus and rhythm, while it strives to flawlessly mesh the musical revue with video documentary. Perhaps this gamble would have worked if the song lineup had stayed with his classic material.
In any case, there is little doubt that Sondheim himself is the star of the show, and his various reflections and remembrences are what hold the audience at bay. At one juncture, the composer speaks of his relationship with musical icon Oscar Hammerstein II, and how he once learned at the older man’s ‘knee’ and became a kind of adopted child to him. The composer steadfastly asserts that the controversial Assassins is the show he is most ‘satisfied’ with, while Sunday in the Park With George is the one he holds closest to his heart. Conversely, he laments spending a year and a half of his life on Do I Hear a Waltz?
To appreciate Sondheim on Sondheim both as a stage revue and as a celebration of an incomparable career in musical theatre, one must comes to terms with the fact that this renowned lyricist was also in possession of melodic gifts that produced songs and shows that no doubt will live on a long way into the future. Even some rightly shelved works can never diminish that.
Note: Lucille and I attended ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ on Thursday evening, May 20th at 8:00 at the landmark Studio 54 Theatre. The show ran two and one-half hours with one intermission, which was announced by Sondheim himself in a charming video clip, where he mentioned he needed a snack.