A CurtainUp Review
Sondheim On Sondheim
By Elyse Sommer
West Side Story and A Little Night Music, for which he wrote the lyrics, are enjoying Broadway revivals. The Encores! concert series recently assembled a stellar cast to give Sondheim's many fans a chance to reconsider Anyone Can Whistle, which was doomed to be one of his flops by a terrible book.
Leading the pack of theater folks eager to pay homage is the Roundabout Theatre Company. They've renamed the beautifully restored Henry Miller Theater as the Stephen Sondheim Theater. They've also mounted a brand-new musical, Sondheim on Sondheim. This mix of musical autobiography and concert is playing at Studio 54, the elegant venue where Assassins and Sunday in the Park were given stunning revivals in the not too distant past. (Assassins review & Sunday in the Park review)
To be honest, while I'm a Sondheim enthusiast, this show somehow seemed to promise more than it was likely to deliver. It was billed as "an intimate portrait of the famed composer in his own words. . .and music." The promise of "exclusive interview footage." sounded like a way to use the projected interviews as a means of having a concert masquerade as a musical with a regular show run. Happily, it took just a few minutes to send my low expectations soaring.
Sondheim on Sondheim does indeed give a delightful inside look into Stephen Sondheim, the man and his creative process. Sondheim isn't live on stage, but thanks to Peter Flaherty's clever video and projection design he comes across not just as a musical genius but as a charming, likeable man with a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor.
The screen used for the videographed images initially looks like a giant version of Apple's i-pad. Next it becomes an amazingly chameleonic design, and ultimately a Sondheim à la Chuck Close image. The songs discussed by the videographed Sondheim are illustrated by eight live and very lively performers. The singers are accompanied by eight musicians who never drown out the lyrics and are occasionally and effectively visible in silhouette. The integration of Flaherty's computer wizardry, Beowulf Boritt set and Ken Billington's gorgeously evocative lighting (especially for the Assassins segment) is a master class in merging filmed and live content — and it works beautifully for this concept by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine, who directs it all fluidly.
Given the long list of musical theater, concert and recording artists who have interpreted the many hundreds of Sondheim songs, audiences might have their own wish list for casting this show. Yet, while not all are equally well known, the group's diverse talents and styles make for a good mix.
Barbara Cook, a favorite Sondheim interpreter, sees to it that we have an octogenarian on stage as well as on screen. She still has the pipes to deliver a memorable "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Send in the Clowns." For glamour as well as vocal sizzle there's Vanessa Williams. and to underscore that Sondheim's music will continue to attract performers as well as audiences, we have the lesser known young singers Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. It's too bad that Leslie Kritzer wasn't given at least another solo. Among the male half of the cast, Norm Lewis too seems underused, though he does get to shine "Finishing the Hat. " Like Tom Wopat and Euan Morton, he could probably belt out his numbers without any amplification. All eight songsters are sensational in an intricate rendition of "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs/"
Having chalked up an amazing catalogue of work as lyricist and lyricist/composer, the man's name really should be Songheim. Given the sheer volume of work and eight decades of a complex and accomplished life it's obvious that even at two and a half hours, the autobiographical footage (much of which seems especially shot for this production) and the songs presented required choices about what to include.
Some of the material touched on in Sondheim's on-screen reflections is treated in much greater and more analytical detail in Meryle Secret's outstanding 1998 biography (my review). To give just a few examples: While Sondheim on Sondheim makes it clear that his relationship with his mother was never fully resolved, what leads up to her telling him "the only regret I have in life is giving birth to you," Secret provides details about what led up to it and what followed (while he severed his relationship with her, he supported her until her death at ninety-five). The reflections in the show's footage touch on his personal and professional friendships so much fascinating material is omitted, like his collaboration with his prime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. It would also have been interesting to hear his comments on John Doyle's casting Company with actor/musicians. review).
Lapine and Sondheim (who no doubt had a hand in the choice of music to be presented) deserve a special shoutout for not limiting themselves to the big hits and most familiar arrangements, but including new arrangements and also never used material — not to mention a brand new song, "God," which isn't listed in the program but is amusingly inserted as part of a view of Sondheim at work The springboard for this little ditty was apparently a 1994 New York magazine article, "The Cult of Saint Stephen Sondheim") geared around the question " Is Sondheim God?"
Perhaps watching Sondheim reflect on his life and share his working process, is best summed up by this lyric from the title song of Anyone Can Wistle (a tune he played and sang himself at a 1973 one-night fund-raising tribute to him at the Shubert Theater):
What's hard is simple
\What's natural comes hard
Maybe you could show me
How to let go
Lower my guard
Learn to be. free
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me
Isn't it nice that unlike that Shubert concert, Sondheim on Sondheim isn't a one-night stand but a smartly staged full run? For sure, it will have you whistling for this man who has learned to make what's hard simple, and who has lowered his guard enough to let us know him a little better.