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."
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