Stephen Sondheim has been such a dominant figure in the world of the American Musical Theater for so long, it’s hardly surprising that this concert honoring his 80th birthday (March 2010) would attract some of the finest and best-known artists who have graced the Broadway stage over the past forty or more years. After all, during that perplexing period when Broadway was overwhelmed by British (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and French (Claude-Michel Schoenberg) imports and “jukebox musicals”, in which a thin plot was written around a set of earlier hit songs, it was Stephen Sondheim who almost single-handedly kept the contemporary American-composed musical alive. Not only that, he did so by continually pushing the boundaries of what musical theater could sound like, and what it could express.
In the past few years, I’ve noticed a tendency among my American Music students to think of musical theater, past and present, as “America’s classical music”, whether referring to the innovative stylings of Michael John LaChiusa or the more populist writing of Frank Wildhorn. Certainly, in the eras of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Loesser, Styne, et. al., “show tunes” were considered part of the Popular Music world. It seemed part of the natural order of things that the songs which were most popular on Broadway would soon become part of America’s shared pop-music repertoire. I would venture to say that Stephen Sondheim is more responsible than any other single figure for the revised perception of musicals as being more closely aligned with the world of “art music” than with pop. He did not set out to write “hit songs” deftly inserted into plays to attract attention and sell tickets. His musicals are instead full-blown art works, sometimes operatic in scope, sometimes conceived on a smaller scale. In either case, they are works in which songs carry the story forward or comment on specific events within the whole, set to music which is distinctive, intricate, and variegated. Although many jazz and cabaret singers have been known to include a few Sondheim songs into their repertoires, the number of bona-fide hit singles Sondheim musicals have produced since he began writing both words and music is one - “Send In The Clowns”. And that song is curiously absent from this concert.
This 80th birthday concert - originally produced for the PBS showcase series, “Great Performances” - was the brainchild of producer/director Lonny Price. It was presented before a highly enthusiastic audience - including the composer himself - at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York. In addition to a variety of some of the best-known figures on Broadway figures, including Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and then-85-year-old Elaine Stritch, there are a number of other fine artists, both veterans and up-and-comers, most of whom have had some connection with Sondheim musicals. They are accompanied by no less than the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sondheim’s long-time conductor, Paul Gemignani. Our guide to the proceedings is David Hyde Pierce (best-known as Niles on the sitcom “Frasier”, but certainly no stranger to the Broadway musical theater stage), hosting with typically Niles-ish deadpan humor. In a running gag, he pushes for multi-lingual versions of songs, and later sings “Beautiful Girls” from “Follies” in multiple languages.
Sondheim first gained fame in 1957, as Leonard Bernstein’s lyricist for “West Side Story”. The concert begins with a segment devoted to Sondheim’s career as a wordsmith, with a nicely staged ensemble version of “America” and “Something’s Coming”, sung by one of the aforementioned up-and-comers, who just happens to be the conductor’s son, Alexander Gemignani. (The material from “West Side Story” remains to this day among Sondheim’s most familiar.) Sondheim also wrote the lyrics for “Do I Hear A Waltz”, as well as one number for “Hot Spot”, written for the legendary Judy Holliday, and delivered here with humorous aplomb by 2005 Tony winner Victoria Clark.
Sondheim’s breakthrough decade of the 1970’s is well-represented by songs from “Company”, “A Little Night Music” and several each from “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd”, but none from the decidedly operatic “Pacific Overtures”. “Too Many Mornings”, sung by Audra McDonald and opera star Nathan Gunn, proves to be one of the highlights of the concert. Another highlight is a set of two songs from the 1984 play “Sunday In The Park With George”, performed by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, two brilliant songs brilliantly performed, but which have no hit-making potential whatsoever, which is essentially the Stephen Sondheim story in a nutshell.
One of the most interesting segments presents the stars of the original productions reprising the songs they introduced to the world. Alas, John McMartin at age 80 is no longer the singer he was forty years ago in the debut of “Follies”. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason introduced “it Takes Two” from “Into The Woods” much more recently (1987), and they still have the style and voices needed to make it work. Jim Walton, accompanying himself on piano, sings a song he never sang in the original production of “Merrily We Roll Along”, as the song was added to the score later.
Though most songs are presented with minimal staging, two members of the American Ballet Theatre dance beautifully to an instrumental theme Sondheim composed for the film “Reds”. (His songs for the movie version of “Dick Tracy” are not represented here.)
A bevy of divas in gorgeous red gowns comes onstage a final medley of Sondheim classics, though they never actually perform as a unit. Unit or not, Patti Lupone, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, and Marin Mazzie wow the crowd with dazzling performances that serve as textbook examples of how to sell theater songs to an audience. Ms. Stritch may not have the vocal range she once had, but she still has her trademark chutzpah, which she uses to deliver “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” with the power and conviction it requires.This could have well served as a finale, but producer Price had something even bigger and more dramatic in store for the celebration - a huge chorus of 287 performers from then-current Broadway productions promenading to the stage to sing “Sunday”, after which they they are joined by all the participants to sing “Happy Birthday” to the tearful composer, who comes onstage to receive a long and well-deserved ovation.
If you happened to already see this on PBS, you’ve probably already ordered your copy of the DVD. If not, I should mention that this is a well-presented document of a most memorable event. It gives due credit to a man whose impact on American musical theater will continue long into the future. If you wish to sample the music of a man who may indeed be definitively regarded as one of the great American composers whose music richly deserves the appellation “classical”, I heartily recommend this concert DVD.