On March 21 devoted theatre fans from far and wide gathered at Feinstein’s/54 Below to worship on the eve of one of the highest holy days for Broadway aficionados: Stephen Sondheim’s birthday, or Sondheimas. Upon arrival, congregants were offered communion in the form of a “Last Midnight Manhattan,” though this reporter opted for the also-available Vodka Stinger.
The service began with Sean Doherty, Matthew Lummus, Mike Walsh and Eric Williams singing a little bit of “Baby June and Her Newsboys” to introduce puppet Sondheim. Attendees of the two previous Sondheimas services will be sad to hear that Scottie Rowell’s puppet Sondheim did not make an in-person appearance this year, although he was present in the form of a video greeting. Puppet Steve reminded attendees that as true Sondheimites, they should have known he wouldn’t be able to attend. “Tomorrow is my New York party and tonight is my party in Connecticut.”
Next we met our hosts for the evening, David Levy and Maggie Larkin, who produced the event as well. Clad in their official robes (a tank top emblazoned with a photo of Jan Maxwell performing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from the 2011 revival of Follies for Larkin and a Gypsy balloon girl costume for Levy), our Sondheimas spiritual leaders introduced the evening’s ritual offering of classic Sondheim hymns with appropriate reverence, congratulating the audience of worshippers at one point for celebrating Sondheimas every year as opposed to the more even-numbered milestones much of the rest of the theatre community seems to focus on when planning celebratory concerts.
The first of the evening’s performances was “Free” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, sung by George Abud (The Visit, Allegro). Offered as a call and response, Abud invited the audience to sing Hero’s interjections throughout. He was then joined by Nikka Graff Lanzarone (The Ensemblist, Chicago) for “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods.
Up next to read the Homily and give the evening’s sermon was none other than Martha Plimpton (The Real O’Neals, Company with the New York Philharmonic). The subject of this year’s sermon was love. “This is a place of love,” proclaimed Plimpton. “Love, like the love between Ben and Sally, or Charley and Frank.” “Too soon,” shouted a worshipper. “Yea, let us bow our heads in humble gratitude, for Steve’s love is a multi-faceted love and a multi-syllabic love, full of interior rhyme and words like ‘reticule,’ which I did in fact have to look up when I was 10 years old. But that’s good! He improves our vocabulary, does he not?” Amen.
Take a look at these photos from Sondheim's 80th birthday concert with the New York Philharmonic in 2010.
Sondheim: The Birthday Concert
Ali Ewoldt (The King and I) and Olli Hasskivi (Saturday Night, Who’s Your Bagdhaddy?) next offered a suite from Evening Primrose, which included “If You Can Find Me I’m Here,” “I Remember,” "When" and “Take Me to the World.”
Next up was a quartet of Sondheim classics, all appearing in new and unique arrangements. James Jackson, Jr. sang “Putting It Together,” arranged by Steven Cuevas and Andrei Strizek to be a more laid-back, smooth pop number. Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose sang a mashup of “Something’s Coming” and “Everybody Says Don’t,” arranged by Kurt Crowley. Steven Cuevas, Sean Doherty, Matthew Lummus and Eric Williams performed Peter Matz’s Forever Plaid-esque arrangement of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” originally created for the 1996 concert Sondheim: A Celebration. They were followed by Aaron David Gleason (son of original Into the Woods Baker’s Wife Joanna Gleason) and Brittain Ashford singing Benji Kaplan’s acoustic guitar arrangement of “What Can You Lose?”
Newlyweds Jason Forbach and Joseph Spieldenner, both currently appearing on Broadway in Les Misérables, were on hand to offer “The Best Thing That Ever Happened” from Sondheim’s most recent work, Road Show. Cabaret performer Molly Pope followed with her take on A Little Night Music’s “In Praise of Women.” Gigantic’s Larry Owens sang what is perhaps Sondheim’s wildest patter song, Merrily We Roll Along’s “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Natalie Walker appeared as K.T. to Owens’ Charley Kringas. Spring Awakening’s Alex Wyse had the final solo slot of the evening, singing a stirring rendition of Into the Woods’ “Last Midnight.”
The service concluded with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, which offered yet another much-appreciated moment of audience participation; the soloists sang the verses and the entire congregation was invited to raise their own voices for the choruses. And with a final communal recitation of “And Steve be with you,” the service ended and the congregants returned home, presumably to their private family Sondheimas Eve celebrations.
We may not yet have a 24-hour TBS marathon of Sunday in the Park with George, but luckily Sondheimites do have a proper place to meet and worship the greatest musical theatre god of them all. Steve be with you.
Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.