“Happy No. 80: New York City has been celebrating Sondheim’s birthday nonstop” as reported by retired New York Times writer Diane Nottle.
News and Notes
TSR’s exclusive interview with Stephen Sondheim about his book and being creative at 80
Happy No. 80 – New York City was awash with celebrations
Birthday concert by the New York Philharmonic City Center’s tribute to Sondheim
London’s Royal Philharmonic marked Sondheim’s birthday, too
The Musical Theater: Thoughts from Stephen Sondheim in 1978
Frank Rich began his conversations with Sondheim a decade ago – here’s the first one
Stephen Schwartz describes how Sondheim affected his creativity
Librettist John Weidman discusses collaborating with Sondheim
Liz Callaway talks about singing songs by Sondheim
Bryan Andes’ first-grade class learned how Broadway performers work together
Sondheim on Sondheim’s Euan Morton no longer runs away
Sondheim taught director David Lee some important lessons
Impro Theatre riffs on Sondheim shows in Los Angeles
Signature’s Sweeney was presented with new orchestrations
Productions and Reviews
TSR’s review of Anyone Can Whistle at City Center Encores!
Interview with Donna Murphy
Reviews of Whistle at City Center
TSR’s review of the Roundabout’s Sondheim on Sondheim
Reviews of Sondheim on Sondheim
“God” – a new song!
Whistle in London
Night Music in Paris
Assassins (twice!) in Toronto
Singing Sondheim: Songs on new recordings
Cryptic Crossword: “Side by Side”
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Happy No. 80
New York City has been celebrating Sondheim’s birthday nonstop
as reported by Diane Nottle, formerly an editor at The New York Times
Though the big day wasn’t until March 22, 2010, New York City began singing birthday songs to Stephen Sondheim months in advance — mostly in his own words. On Broadway, the generally well-received revival of A Little Night Music, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, opened in December. West Side Story, which opened in March 2009, continues to run; the production recouped its investment in six months. In January 2010, that revival’s cast recording won the Grammy Award for best musical show album, and the Night Music recording, released in April, could conceivably follow suit next year.
More recently, Sondheim on Sondheim, a new revue incorporating video of the composer discussing his work, began performances at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 in March and opened on April 22. Directed by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator James Lapine, it stars the Broadway and cabaret legend Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams (a Sondheim veteran as The Witch in the 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods) and Tom Wopat. In addition to classics of the canon, the show’s second act opens with a new number, “God,” in which Sondheim, tongue firmly in cheek, speculates on his status as “something to believe in, something to appropriate, emulate, overrate.”
As if that wasn’t a big enough birthday present, the Roundabout announced at Sondheim’s March 22 birthday celebration, that it will rename Henry Miller’s Theatre (124 West 43rd St.) in the composer/lyricist’s honor. (The theatre’s name is one of Broadway’s oldest, recalling a long-ago producer; the new facility bearing Miller’s name opened on the site of the original theatre just last year.) “We hope that this marks one of many future collaborations between Roundabout and Mr. Sondheim,” said the company’s artistic director, Todd Haimes, in a statement noting that the Roundabout had already staged five Sondheim musicals, as well as the current revue and last year’s one-night-only benefit concert of A Little Night Music starring the late Natasha Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave. On the company’s website, Haimes elaborated: “The support that we are receiving through this renaming will specifically go to Roundabout’s Musical Production Fund, which means that it enables us to continue and enhance our commitment to musical productions. For artists like Stephen Sondheim himself, this translates into having the support to continue to revive his classic work at the highest level of quality possible. And Steve certainly isn’t done writing. I hope that we’ll be producing his newest work alongside the work of the next generation of musical theatre artists.”
In January 2010 at the swank Café Carlyle, Elaine Stritch, who introduced “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the original 1970 production of Company, spent several weeks performing an all-Sondheim cabaret show, At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim … One Song at a Time. (Stritch actually lives upstairs in the Carlyle Hotel.) Her set consisted of 13 songs, opening with “I Feel Pretty” and featuring those with resonance in her life and career, from the risk-taking of “Everybody Says Don’t” to the regrets of “Rose’s Turn” and “The Road You Didn’t Take.”
“The most remarkable moment,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times, “was Ms. Stritch’s dry -eyed, spoken recitation of the lyrics from ‘Every Day a Little Death’ … It became a song about time eating way at everything. As she spoke, you could almost hear the clock ticking.” The show, which closed its initial run on Stritch’s 85th birthday on Feb. 2, 2010, returned in April for several performances.
Also in January, the Manhattan School of Music, an uptown conservatory, presented a one-night concert, Beautiful Girls, a look at female characters in shows by Sondheim. With Paul Gemignani, whose long association with Sondheim has helped make him the dean of Broadway musical directors, conducting a student orchestra, the evening starred Donna McKechnie, Marin Mazzie and Jenn Colella in a lighthearted seven-ages-of-woman scenario by Lonny Price. Zoe Caldwell narrated and contributed one of the evening’s highlights, her rendition of “Liaisons.” (Caldwell previously performed as Madame Armfeldt in a concert staging of Night Music at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival in 2002.) Best of all was watching McKechnie chime in her “doo-doo-doo-doo’s” in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and knowing she had sung it almost exactly 40 years before in the original production of Company.
The Roundabout, the music-and-dance venue City Center and the New York Philharmonic each presented unique birthday galas. Participating stars included Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, several of whom were onstage in multiple events.
The Philharmonic’s spring gala (March 15-16, 2010), Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, included an orchestral suite from his soundtrack for the film Reds, which had never before been performed in concert. Reviewing the program in the Times, Stephen Holden found it “thrilling” and “a model of organization,” with “witty leitmotifs woven into its structure.” He described “one running joke [in which] the orchestra was continually striking up a theme from Sweeney Todd, only to be told to change songs.” In another, “one Sweeney Todd (Michael Cerveris from the recent revival) got to slit the throat of another (George Hearn).”
City Center presented the rarely performed Anyone Can Whistle (April 8-11, 2010), a 1964 Broadway flop but a cult favorite ever since, in its Encores! series of semi-staged musicals in concert. Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza starred in a production that Ben Brantley of the Times described as “invaluable for providing an early, precocious example of a skill that Mr. Sondheim plies better than anyone in Broadway history: a gift for defining in song characters who are a hair’s breadth away from nervous breakdowns.” He added, “Members of that ever-expanding club of Sondheim cultists can float into heaven, listening to what is really the first score that suggests what would become this composer’s idiosyncratic style, performed by a top-of-the-line orchestra (directed by Rob Berman) and cast.” On the largely classical website Musical America (musicalamerica.com), Howard Kissel added, “I hope there was a criminal there recording this performance, because it is unlikely the score will ever be performed so dazzlingly again.”
Sondheim made an unannounced appearance following the April 10 matinee performance of Anyone Can Whistle for a 45-minute Q&A with the creative team and cast.
City Center followed Anyone Can Whistle with its own birthday tribute on April 26, directed by John Doyle , noted for his innovative stagings of Sweeney Todd and Company, as well as Road Show at the Public Theater in Manhattan, also conducted by Rob Berman.
What makes Sondheim great?
Over more than five decades, Sondheim has evolved from a promising young man of musical theatre to its undisputed master. “I’ve reached an age where I’m two generations past when I was considered avant-garde,” he said in a recent interview with the Times. “I went right from avant-garde to being old hat in five minutes.” Or, as he put it nearly 40 years ago in “I’m Still Here”:
First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp
Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp
Then you career from career to career …
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are so of a piece and so integral to their shows that casual theatregoers (the kind who don’t read TSR) sometimes forget he has created only the music and lyrics, not the story nor the characters nor the dialogue they speak between songs. These same listeners often call his work “difficult.” “There’s not a tune you can hum/There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum,” a Broadway producer complains to the aspiring songwriters Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas in Merrily We Roll Along — a criticism repeatedly lobbed at Sondheim. Some critics still maintain that he is a brilliant lyricist but can’t write melody, others that his lyrics are too cerebral, even cold. He once joked about putting out an album titled “Stephen Sondheim’s Greatest Hit,” a reference to the probability that “Send in the Clowns” is his only song that most people would recognize. Still, the subtext of many birthday tributes boiled down to one question: What makes Sondheim great?
First, there is the scope and seriousness of his subject matter: the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Gypsy, the graceful romantic comedy of A Little Night Music, the operatic tale of revenge and cannibalism that is Sweeney Todd, the tensions between art and life in Sunday in the Park with George, the regrets of middle age in Follies and Merrily We Roll Along. When Assassins made its debut off -Broadway in 1991 in the early days of the first Gulf War, stunned audiences left the theatre with jaws dropped, unsure if they had just seen a masterpiece or a horror show, but leaning toward the latter. By the time Assassins reached Broadway 13 years later, history had caught up with its indictment of American values.
Sir Trevor Nunn, the British director of Broadway’s current Night Music revival, summed up Sondheim’s place on the musical theatre continuum in the context of another current Broadway show, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, about the struggles of a family whose mother suffers from bipolar disorder . “When I first went to see Next to Normal, I thought it was a stunning achievement that probably would not have been attempted if Sondheim had not shifted the frontier about what could be achieved by musical theatre,” Nunn told the Times. “And when we revive Sondheim, if done well, the frontiers can move imaginatively again.” After the musical won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama in April, Kitt concurred. “Without Rent and Stephen Sondheim, there is no Next to Normal,” he told Playbill.com, citing Sondheim’s own Pulitzer winner, Sunday in the Park with George.
Sondheim is, first and foremost, a storyteller. In her 2001-02 solo show At Liberty, Elaine Stritch described the lacerating “Ladies Who Lunch” as “Stephen Sondheim’s three-act play.” His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, taught him to structure every song as if it were a one-act play. “If the character is moving from point A to point B, it’s a playlet in itself, isn’t it?” Sondheim said in a January interview with the American Theatre Wing. “It’s not so much that they are actually plays, but that they have forward dramatic motion.” Even when writing the occasional song outside the context of a show, he added, “I had to invent a little play for myself. … If you asked me to write a song right now, I’d have to invent a situation, and then write it as if it were part of a play. I can only think theatrically and dramatically. It’s not even the way I was trained; it’s what I was attracted to in the first place. I wasn’t attracted to songwriting. I was attracted to musicals.”
Then there are, in his words from Night Music’s “Liaisons,” his style, his skill, his forethought. His style in any given show “is the style of the piece,” he said in the Theatre Wing interview, adding, “I’ve written virtually no two shows alike and no two scores alike.” But keen intelligence, dry wit and a sophisticated wielding of words run through all his works. Flashes of talent are evident as early as Saturday Night, composed in the mid-1950s but unproduced in New York until 2000. This very sophistication may, in fact , be what listeners find off-putting or difficult.
Finally, Sondheim is meticulous about every aspect of any project in which he is involved. He continues to revisit lyrics for new productions. In the recording studio, he pays close attention to detail, as witnessed during a recording session for the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies, when he hovered over the soundboard and, through a microphone, gave notes to the actors in the booth. During a preview of the current Night Music revival, he reportedly found the staging too dark and went backstage at intermission to have the lighting adjusted.
A full year of Sondheim
In the weeks leading up to his birthday, he was predictably focused on rehearsals for Sondheim on Sondheim, which began in mid-February. He was also nearing completion of the first volume of his long-awaited lyric compilation, to be published in October by Knopf: Finishing the Hat, subtitled Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, which seems to poke fun at his reputation for prickliness.
When Sondheim turned 75, actors and other theatrically minded New Yorkers showed their appreciation at Wall to Wall Sondheim, the 2005 installment in Symphony Space’s series of annual 12-hour marathons devoted to a single composer. Throughout the day, the line of those hoping for seats snaked around the corner and wound itself into three or four rows. One of the day’s enduring images came near midnight, when a sheet cake covered with candles was rolled onstage and Sondheim was brought out to hear a cavalcade of stars sing “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by the audience of 750 and a full orchestra led by Gemignani. “If it had not been for Steve Sondheim, I wouldn’t have a career,” the conductor said that night, and he might have been speaking for any number of those stars onstage.
This year’s tributes are more diffuse but no less heartfelt or widespread. All over New York City, Sondheim celebrations have been taking place, everywhere from cabarets to conservatories to concert halls — even on the Today show and in department store windows. For two weeks in April, Bergdorf Goodman had a five-window display of various memorabilia from Sondheim shows (including an array of Al Hirschfeld illustrations), in advance of a benefit auction in support of City Center and others.
The tributes are far from over. Carnegie Hall might have the last word, with a concert by the New York Pops set for November, stretching the celebrations into a full year of Sondheim. |TSR|
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.