The pleasure of his Company, his Passion, his Follies and scores of other scores — 19 in 64 years of writing and 80 years of living — informs the third major Broadway musical made up of Stephen Sondheim hand-me-downs, Sondheim on Sondheim, which was installed April 22 at Studio 54.
Unlike Side by Side by Sondheim (1977) and Putting It Together (1999), this Sondfest brings The Great Man himself along to the party — via a series of recent and archival film interviews projected on a gigantic screen. He introduces and/or annotates numbers that are then executed by a gamely gaggle of eight. He looms majestically over the proceedings — and the performers — with the silver-haired seniority of, say, Laurence Olivier doing Zeus in "Clash of the Titans."
Indeed, hot off the Sondheim presses is a brand-new song called "God," written expressly for this show to start up the second act. It is his self-deprecating, mortal response to the New York Magazine headline, "Is Sondheim God?" — and the film accompanying this shows him, idiosyncratic and ungodly, in the heat of creativity.
He began writing songs at age 16 while at the George School, bowing with a site-specific ditty about a popular meeting-spot on campus called "I'll Meet You at the Donut" (which he, preemptively, flags down after the title is sung). Framing his real career are two of his most beautiful ballads — "So Many People" from Saturday Night (written in 1954 but not produced in New York until 2000) and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" from 2008's Road Show. James Lapine, Sondheim's frequent collaborator (Sunday in the Park With George, Assassins), is credited with conceiving and directing this enterprise — and no doubt some cajoling was involved as well. But, once that particular light bulb went on, Sondheim surrendered completely to the high-def video cameras. Not only is he uninhibited by them, he seems oblivious to them.
Professor Sondheim holds forth about himself and his craft with remarkable charm and commendable candor. There is a moving story about Oscar Hammerstein II, his surrogate father and guiding influence ("I've always said if he had been a geologist, I'd have been a geologist") and a ghastly story about his mother that draws gasps.
Along the way, he reveals the one Sondheim show he couldn't improve upon, his "one song hit," his only autobiographical song and the song that changed its sexual orientation from straight to gay in rewrites. He also guides us through the three different songs that it took to begin A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and three different songs that it took to end Company.
Illustrating the lecture and looking a little like Lilliputians in Sondheim's shadow is a gang of eight. The size of the cast was set posthumously by Jerome Robbins when he suggested Sondheim change "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from a duet to an octet. Group numbers run from that to a bisexual merry-go-round rendering of "Happiness."
[flipbook] The opening-night party was held, of all planets, at Planet Hollywood — tantamount to coming down in an elevator too fast, given the smart, elegant tone of the show — but Sondheim was in the first wave of arrivals, mixing merrily with the masses, even signing autographs. He had skipped the post-show interviews going on back at Studio 54 and would almost visibly clench whenever a press person approached.
Specialty cocktails for the evening consisted of "A Little Night Cap" (Pomegranate IZZE and Hangar One Madarin Blossom Vodka) and The Sweeney-Tini (Cranberry Juice and Hangar One Lime Vodka), but Sondheim just stayed with the red wine.
The musical director and vocal arranger for the show, David Loud, said that he and Lapine had put in two years on this project. "Over the past year, James has been doing the interviews with Steve," he relayed. "They had four or five different shoots. James really constructed the evening to tell a story as well. The material in the show was dictated very much by the footage we had. We tried to find songs that would reflect interestingly on what Steve was saying — not always in the most obvious ways, but in ways that would put together this impressionistic view of him."
It was hard work, Loud allowed, but hardly the Chinese water-torture test. "It's my favorite material in the world to work on. He has been such an inspiration to me."
Virtually the whole cast continued to sing the praises of Sondheim — and just as loudly as Loud. "Oh my god, I had the best time!" trilled Leslie Kritzer. "It's been incredible, just hanging out with him." Her favorite moment in the show is "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along, but her funny-girl quirkiness jumps out from time to time and runs around on the stage, keeping things light.
"I," Tom Wopat said, on the other hand, "get all the drama" — meaning, specifically, Sweeney's "Epiphany" and George's "Finishing the Hat." "Steve and I worked on 'Finishing the Hat' one day about 20 minutes. It was like a master class."
Wopat's most frequent playing partner is the incomparable Barbara Cook. "We have a blast. I'm her escort in this show — and I'm comfortable with that."
Sondheim on Sondheim is Cook's first Broadway book musical (such as this is) since The Grass Harp in 1972! Her welcome-back applause is deafening.
What prompted her, at 82, to make such a snappy change of pace? "Well, it's Sondheim's work," said the lady who can make emotional worlds out of his words. "He gives you so much to say. I think he writes more profoundly about the human experience than anybody."
There was another point of attraction for Cook: "James Lapine. His ideas intrigued me, and I was right because what he has done with the show has been amazing."
The glamorous Vanessa Williams is the only member of the company who can claim a Tony nomination for a Sondheim part — the Witch in Lapine's last go-around of Into the Woods. "When James called back in the fall, I knew it was going to be a very important project," she said. "It was kind of a no-brainer. I knew it was going to be something that was unique and original — plus I get to work with James and Stephen again. Stephen is very shy but full of life. What I like best about working with him is making him smile or cracking him up with a line or a song." "He is the actor's composer and lyricist," Norm Lewis said of Sondheim. "He gave us notes and things to think about and to look for while we're singing certain parts of the song — and he gave us the reasons why. He is what I call — and I've been saying this a lot — the Shakespeare of musical theatre. Every night we find new meaning in phrases that we've been singing — or The Meaning, where we say, 'Oh, I get it now.'"
The most unexpected — and, perhaps, most effective — member of the ensemble is Euan Morton, who made his Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Boy George in Taboo. "I'm very lucky: I'm challenged," he declared happily. "I think 'Franklin Shepard, Inc.' is a great chance to show off some acting chops, and then I get to sing 'Beautiful' with Barbara Cook. I get to run the gamut of emotions in this piece. The whole thing's extraordinary — to be part of this celebration for him.
"That was one of the really exciting reasons to take this show — apart from the obvious one of working with these people. It's a chance to say that I'm not just Boy George in spirit and it's not just pop music for me — but also I can sing the legit stuff and I really love doing it. I wanted to be able to show that there are other facets to me — even though it's not about me. Of course, it isn't. It's about Steve. It's about Barbara. But I'm very lucky that I get to say, 'There are other things I can do.'"
The young twosome in the show — Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — have Broadway credits but have never had a new show to work on before this one.
"It's been really exciting to work with James," Mackey admitted. "I have obviously been a fan of his shows for a long time. He gave us a lot of freedom to try different things. We all kinda created it together, which was a really neat process. "I just made my Broadway debut in Wicked in August, but this is the first time I've originated a role. It was a thrill, too. You're working with the best of the best. It's challenging. It makes you better. It's been so exciting, all the way through."
A former Jersey Boy who, as an understudy, sometimes showed up as Kritzer's groom-to-be in A Catered Affair, Scott felt more than slightly déjà vu about being in this show. "This is a dream come true for me," he confessed. "I played Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along when I was a sophomore in high school. My director and best friend, John Housley, is sitting right over there. He is largely the reason that I'm here now, 12 years later, up there on a Broadway stage, performing those same songs in that same track."
Working with Sondheim was a special joy for him. "He's very hands on. He gives notes. He shapes the scenes. He's very accessible. When you get a note from Steve, you take it. Then, you go out on stage, and you see how much better it works now that you've taken his note. He lays out the lyric. He lays out the text. He lays out the music. So everything is in place. Then he comes in and says, 'You're about a quarter of an inch off the mark' and tweaks you, and, all of a sudden, you're square on it — there's a big difference. To originate a role in a Sondheim show has always been a goal of mine. In fact, I think that it must be a goal for every single person on stage."
Scott's wife, Kirsten, is in that number. She was recently seen in the Los Angeles launching of the Broadway-bound Minsky's — "I was Flame, the one who popped out of the banana," she cheerfully volunteered — so she understandably asked that show's composer, Charles Strouse (present for the Sondheim opening) about its scheduled date of arrival. "It's going to be soon," Strouse promised. "I have two more songs to write."
Lewis Cleale, who stands by for Morton and Lewis, is somewhat overqualified for that assignment but took it on willingly — for a reason. "I got a call a few months ago from James, and he said, 'I don't have a part for you, but would you do this? I trust you, and I want you to do it.'" Cleale relayed. "It's Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, and I moved to New York to work with them. I was a business major in Miami when I took an acting class, and my teacher said 'I don't think you should be a lawyer. I think you should do this [act] with your life.' He gave me the cast album of Into the Woods, and I became obsessed with it. I remember going to my final exam in the spring of '89. It was seven in the morning, and I had a tape deck in my car, and I had this tape playing. It was Robert Westenberg singing, and I got fixated on the lyrics. I'm supposed to be thinking about statistics, and all I could think about was lyrics. So it was, in fact, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. They came to see me in Passion in Washington, and that's when I met them. It's a very full circle with these guys. You don't usually get to meet your heroes and work with them. It's an odd thing. I've never understudied before, and I'll never do it again, but, for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, I'd gladly do it."
A herd of Roundabout directors — Walter Bobbie, Michael Greif, Mark Brokaw and Gordon Edelstein — headed the first-night guest-list, which included the illustrious likes of Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick; Amy Irving; playwrights Terrence McNally and Paul Rudnick; Philip Bosco and Tovah Feldshuh from the original Lend Me a Tenor; John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey; lawyer Mark Sendroff and cabaret queen Marilyn Maye; Phyllis Newman; Victoria Clark ("I was supposed to be in Denmark this whole week teaching at a conservatory, but my flight was canceled because of the volcanic ash from Iceland"); Dana Ivey; Roundabout founder Gene Feist; uber agent Biff Liff; Anne Kaufman Schneider, whose dad, George S. Kaufman, wrote the original 1934 play version of Merrily We Roll Along with Moss Hart); Ana Gasteyer; Margaret Colin; Speech and Debate's Gideon Glick; Dee Hoty (who's going to recreate her role in Footloose this season at the MUNY in St. Louis); Jefferson Mays; F. Murray Abraham; composers Stephen Flaherty and Larry Grossman; lyricists Lynn Ahrens and Sheldon Harnick; Blythe Danner, nixing the rumor that she and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, would be replacing Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music ("Tantalizing, isn't it? But she won't leave London"); John Scherer; Jane Summerhays; the post-Temperamentals Michael Urie, who's going to do a master class for Red Bull ("TV was just a fluke — I was doing Shakespeare in the regions long before 'Ugly Betty'"); Penny Fuller; Das Barbecu wordsmith Jim Luigs; and the dancer-singer-actor with the longest Sondheim track record on the Planet Hollywood, Harvey Evans ("I go back to 1957 with Mr. S: West Side Story. Then, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle and Follies").