Monday, February 1, 2016

Sondheim Confab: Sondheim on Sondheim

The cast of Sondheim on Sondheim (with Sondheim, on screen) at Boston's Lyric Stage. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

By now there have been almost as many Sondheim revues as Sondheim musicals. The first one, Sondheim: A Celebration, was a one-night-only tribute in 1973, while A Little Night Music was running. It set the tone for subsequent showcases of his songs, combining performances by original cast members, covers (Nancy Walker’s rendition of “I’m Still Here” from Follies has yet to be surpassed) and obscure deleted items: “Silly People” and “Two Fairy Tales” from Night Music, “Pleasant Little Kingdom” from Follies, “Love Is in the Air” and “Your Eyes Are Blue” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was nectar for early Sondheim diehards. Side by Side by Sondheim was put together by Brits and had a successful run in the West End in 1976 (where I saw it) before crossing the Atlantic. Putting It Together also began in London; its 1993 Broadway cast included Julie Andrews and Christopher Durang. Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (also 1993) was televised in truncated form; luckily the entire concert is available on CD. But TV audiences got to see some amazing pieces, like Madeline Kahn singing “Getting Married Today “ from Company, Liza Minnelli and Billy Stritch performing a totally unknown ballad called “Water Under the Bridge” (written for an unproduced movie called Singing Out Loud), and the Boys Choir of Harlem bringing an unlooked-for poignancy to “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim’s eightieth birthday was the occasion for another event, Sondheim The Birthday Concert (2010), on Live from Lincoln Center; this one had John McMartin recreating his performance of “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, as withering and heartrending as it had been on Broadway four decades earlier. The show’s finale was breathtaking: dozens of alums from Sondheim musicals marched through Lincoln Center singing “Sunday,” the sublime first-act finale of Sunday in the Park with George. A TV doc called Six by Sondheim in 2013 focused on half a dozen significant songs.

Lyric Stage in Boston is currently producing Sondheim on Sondheim, which opened in New York in 2010. What distinguishes it from earlier revues is that it literally stars Sondheim himself. He appears on film upstage of the eight cast members to talk, as a spry, witty octogenarian, about his career and his life and relay anecdotes about how one song or another happened to be written – “Comedy Tonight” because neither of the previous attempts to find a suitable opening number for A Funny Thing (“Forget War,” “Love Is in the Air”) had panned out; “Being Alive” because a plot change rendered the original finale to Company (“Multitudes of Amy”) obsolete and the director, Harold Prince, protested that Sondheim’s next try, “Happily Ever After,” was a downer; “Ah, But Underneath” to replace “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” for the London production of Follies because Diana Rigg, unlike her Broadway counterpart Alexis Smith, wasn’t a dancer. The vast army of Sondheim aficionados know some, if not all, of these stories; they certainly know about how Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, Pennsylvania neighbors, more or less adopted him when he was a lonely kid neglected by his bitter, divorced mother and Oscar tutored him in the art of writing musicals. I didn’t know until I saw the revue in New York that Sondheim’s mother once wrote him a letter telling him that the only thing she regretted in her whole life was giving birth to him, or that he regrets never having had children.

Leigh Barrett, Davron S. Monroe, Aimee Doherty & Christopher Chew in Sondheim on Sondheim. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Sondheim is so interesting and articulate, and some of his revelations are so moving, that any production of this show has to contend with the reality that no matter how well the cast may perform his songs, the footage – which also includes clips from interviews he gave at different stages of his life, when his hair was longer or thicker and he did or didn’t have a beard – is the true raison d’ĂȘtre of the revue. That isn’t to say that the musical portions of Sondheim on Sondheim aren’t worthwhile. Actually, though some of the numbers are overacted (especially for a space as intimate as the Lyric) and Ilyse Robbins’ choreography is mostly expendable – and the video looks awfully worn – I had a better time at Spiro Veloudos’ production than I did at the Broadway version, which had such an oddball mix-and-match cast that it never came together. Barbara Cook was more or less in the role of special guest star, as if she were appearing on a variety special from the fifties or sixties, and the show didn’t know what the hell to do with her. At one point she was stuck in a period gown singing “I Read” and “Loving You” from Passion, though she was years too old to play Fosca (a fact that wouldn’t have been so obvious if she’d performed it as an art-house song instead). In the Boston mounting, “I Read” and (if I’m remembering correctly) Cook’s other songs are given to Leigh Barrett, a fine singer-actress with seven previous Sondheim shows in her credits. That her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is quizzical rather than plaintive refreshes the familiar lyric, but good as it is, her best number is “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies. It’s a high point of the evening. I also liked her reading of “Beautiful” from Sunday in the Park, and when Christopher Chew joins her on the second verse, she grounds him; left to his own devices, he has a tendency to embroider lyrics – like “Finishing the Hat,” from the same musical – that are far better understated.

Another highlight is “Ah, But Underneath,” which Aimee Doherty performs (with the help of the three younger men, Patrick Varner, Sam Simahk and Davron S. Monroe) as it was written, as a striptease. (It’s easily the best staged number in the show.) And the biggest surprises, to me at least, are “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Opening Doors,” both from Merrily We Roll Along – the first sung by Simahk to a mute, increasingly furious Varner, the second a trio by Simahk, Varner and Maritza Bostic, with Mala Bhattacharya coming in at the end to turn it into a quartet. The surprise is in how good these songs can be when they’re removed from that damn hopeless musical, especially when they’re performed as skillfully as they are here. Simahk stops the show with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”

To be honest, I’ve seen most of the Sondheim shows way too many times to be excited by the prospect of new revivals. (Nothing could induce me to go back to Into the Woods or Assassins. In the footage Sondheim asserts that Assassins is the only musical he’s ever written that he wouldn’t change a word of, and certainly I can see that it’s all of a piece: changing this or that element in it wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with it – the loathsome concept.) But the revues still accord their pleasures, like the rarities they uncover. Sondheim by Sondheim is a feast for fans; he even shows us his studio and talks about what position he writes in (semi-prone!) and what implements he uses (pencils!). The show is overlong (more than two and a half hours), and some of the arrangements are miscalculated (“Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By” simply don’t work together in counterpoint). But overall it’s quite enjoyable.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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