Good Thing Going: Sondheim on Sondheim, a Docu-Musical, Opens on Broadway

By Kenneth Jones
22 Apr 2010

Sondheim on Sondheim star Vanessa Williams with Matthew Scott
Sondheim on Sondheim star Vanessa Williams with Matthew Scott
Photo by Richard Termine

Sondheim on Sondheim, a unique musical that is part video documentary and part starry Broadway revue, opens at Studio 54 on April 22, offering the life story of Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Director James Lapine, who created the musicals Into the Woods, Passion and Sunday in the Park With George with Sondheim, conceived the new musical, enlisting a cast that includes Tony Award winner Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.

Previews for the Roundabout Theatre Company production began March 19.

The musical portrait integrates stars, songs and dance — plus candid video interviews with the 80-year-old composer-lyricist. Most of the high-def video sequences (on screens that shift in varied patterns throughout the two-act show) were shot specifically for Sondheim on Sondheim, letting the writer talk (sometimes in the setting of his Manhattan studio) about his childhood, his parents' divorce, his cold mother, his love life, his surrogate father (Oscar Hammerstein II), his work habits, and, of course, his many Broadway scores (A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, among many others).

Act Two opens with an original song called "God," written by the master specifically for Sondheim on Sondheim. In it, he pokes fun at how revered (and sometimes reviled) he is by theatregoers and critics. The number was inspired by a past New York magazine cover story that asked, "Is Stephen Sondheim God?"



This limited run (to June 13) coincides with the 80th birthday of the Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-honored Sondheim. His milestone was March 22.

Well-known and obscure — or sometimes "cut" — songs from Sondheim's groundbreaking musicals surface in Sondheim on Sondheim. Lapine taps a rich well, including West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Passion, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Anyone Can Whistle and more.

In addition to crafting solos and duets that express Sondheim's more universal songs, the director and cast recreate entire signature numbers from Sondheim shows. The troupers are in character, but the "costumes" are — for the most part — contemporary and sleek. Expect to see full versions of "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" "Beautiful" and "Opening Doors," plus pieces of Passion (between the Fosca of Cook and the Giorgio of Lewis) and a cut song from Company called "The Wedding Is Off," sung by the neurotic character of Amy (played by Williams).

Octogenarian Cook, the Tony Award winner who created roles in The Music Man and Candide, sings "Take Me to the World," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Loving You," "Send in the Clowns," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "I Read" and "Beautful."

"The songs really do come out of these interviews," Cook told Playbill.com's Diva Talk column. "He talks about his work methods, and he talks about his father and his mother and working out problems with his sexuality, all of that. And all of the music, the things we do with the songs that were chosen, come right out of those interviews. So it's totally different [from past Sondheim revues] in that sense. Nobody's ever done that as far as I know."

Here's how the Roundabout characterizes Sondheim on Sondheim: "By writing songs that reflect the complexity of his characters, he has changed the way we define a great musical. But even though millions of fans know his songs by heart, few know much about Stephen Sondheim himself. Until now. Roundabout presents Sondheim on Sondheim, an intimate portrait of the famed composer in his own words... and music. Through the use of exclusive interview footage, you'll get an inside look at Sondheim's personal life and artistic process. An ensemble cast of Broadway's best will perform brand-new arrangements of over two dozen Sondheim tunes, ranging from the beloved to the obscure."

Cook won the Tony Award for playing Marian in The Music Man and starred in the Tony-nominated concert Mostly Sondheim.

Wopat starred in Broadway's Annie Get Your Gun and A Catered Affair, and was Tony-nominated for his turns.

Kritzer also starred in A Catered Affair and Legally Blonde.

Morton was Olivier and Tony Award-nominated for his work as Boy George in Taboo.

Lewis recently played King Triton in The Little Mermaid, Javert in Les Miserables and has appeared in Side Show, Amour, Tommy and more.

Williams received a 2002 Tony Award nomination for her performance of the Witch in Into the Woods, and made her Broadway debut in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Erin Mackey's credits include Glinda in Wicked on Broadway. Scott's credits include Broadway's Jersey Boys and A Catered Affair.

The understudies are Kyle Harris and N'Kenge.

The Sondheim on Sondheim creative team includes David Loud (music direction & arrangements), Dan Knechtges (musical staging), designers Beowulf Boritt (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes), Ken Billington (lights), Dan Moses Schreier (sound) and Peter Flaherty (projection & video), plus Michael Starobin (orchestrations).

Roundabout has produced five Tony Award-nominated Sondheim revivals including Company (1995), Follies (2001), Tony Award-winning Assassins (2004), Pacific Overtures (2004) and Sunday in the Park with George (2008).

Sondheim on Sondheim plays Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2 PM.

Ticket prices range from $36.50-$126.50. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the Studio 54 Box Office (254 West 54th Street).

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British theatre reporter Edward Seckerson compiled two years worth of interviews with some of Sondheim's closest friends into a three-part series called IN GOOD COMPANY. Excerpts of the series (first commissioned by Josef Weinberger Ltd. as an 80th birthday gift for Sondheim) can be found below.

Barbara Cook

 

Patti LuPone

 

Hal Prince

 

Elaine Stritch

 

Angela Lansbury and Jonathan Tunick

 

To download the entire 3-part series click here.