SONDHEIM: The Birthday Concert

| November 15, 2010

Stephen Sondheim is a name that everybody knows, even if they only know his music from movies like Dick Tracy or Reds. On Broadway he is known as probably the most prolific composer alive, and so pretty much everybody who is anybody got invited to help celebrate his birthday. Lonny Price, who movie watchers would know as an actor from movies like Dirty Dancing and The Muppets Take Manhattan, directed this concert with nothing short of genius. He incorporates humor and whimsy, and puts such an amazingly delightful spin on the obligatory tribute concert. From the very beginning, as all the performers enter, as if they are merely audience members themselves, and David Hyde Pierce lectures Paul Gemignani numerous times on prematurely launching into Sweeney Todd.
David Hyde Pierce hosts the entire show effortlessly. It begins with mediocre numbers from West Side Story (“America” and “Something’s Coming”), which is a fascinating choice because Stephen Sondheim is infamously ashamed of his work on the lyrics of West Side Story, and probably doesn’t list the show on his resume.
The evening progresses with a few more numbers from shows he only wrote the lyrics for- one boring one featuring Marin Mazzie.
Victoria Clark does a song from a show called “Hot Spot”- the song didn’t make it in the show. The song leaves one without much doubt as to why.
Then the beautiful love song “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, sung well by Nathan Gunn, though it leaves one wishing for the sound of a young tenor.
Then a quartet (from “Follies”) of “You’re gonna love Tomorrow”, and “Love Will See Us Through”, featuring the beautiful, watchable, delightful Laura Osnes.
Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn sing “Too Many Mornings” (also from Follies), and it’s lovely… though not as effecting as might be expected.
John McMartin sings the song he sang in the original 1971 Broadway production of Follies, “The Road You Didn’t Take”, and though his voice has aged, it’s easy to hear the shadow of the voice he used to have, and he acts the piece beautifully, and since the plot of follies is aging stars returning to reminisce about their former glory, it actually works in a coincidental sort of way.
But then Johanna Gleason and Chip Zien return to perform one of the songs they sang in “Into the Woods”, “It Takes Two”, and the number has little to none of its former glory.
Jim Walton, who was Bobby in PBS’ Great Performances of the musical Crazy For You, sings a song that he didn’t get to sing in the original production of “Company”- and delivers beautifully.
Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sing one of the songs they did together originally in “Sunday in the Park With George”, and it’s fun to see them together again… though the song is just as weird now as it was then.
George Hearn, the original Sweeney Todd, sings a song with Michael Cerveris, who was Sweeney in the latest revival, and then the great legend Patti LuPone, who did a concert version of the show with Mr. Hearn, and was in the revival with Mr. Cerveris, sings “A Little Priest”, with both of them… and it’s great. Beyond great, actually. The best number in the show.
A lovely ballet interlude to one of the themes Mr. Sondheim wrote from the score to Reds.
Laura Benanti, who has maybe the most beautiful voice in the world, sings a beautiful love song perfectly.
David Hyde Pierce sings “Beautiful Girls”, and is hilarious and great.
Diane Von Furstenburg designed absolutely stunning red gowns for the leading ladies Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy and Elaine Stritch.
Ms. LuPone sings “Ladies Who Lunch”, she completely captivates the audience and gets all the laughs like the pro she is.
Marin Mazzie plows through “Losing My Mind” without really knowing what she’s singing. It makes you miss Barbara Cook and the 1985 concert version of “Follies”… a lot.
Audra McDonald sings a lovely song, “Ordinary Mothers”, that’s clearly incredibly difficult, and she sings it without ever making it look like work. Impressive.
Donna Murphy performs another classic comedy piece from “Follies”… but she forgot the comedy. Ms. Murphy is a famous Broadway name, and won a Tony Award for her performance as Anna in The King and I, a very dramatic musical. She’s a mystifying choice for this difficult, sardonic piece.
Bernadette Peters sings “Not A Day Goes By”. Ms. Peters looks nothing short of amazing for her age, and still sings like an angel. It’s an amazing, beautiful, sad song and she tears your heart out.
Elaine Stritch sings “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” and brings the house down. She’s definitely still here.
An enormous group of people comes from everywhere to sing a song from “Company”, and I’m sure in the theatre it was nothing short of miraculous. It’s difficult for it to translate to DVD, but it’s still lovely.
Then everyone sings Happy Birthday and Stephen Sondheim comes on stage with tears in his eyes and speaks beautifully and succinctly, and it’s all over. Mr. Sondheim, in his 80 years, has amassed an amazing career, and this concert is an excellent showcase of it.

About the Author:

Heather Trow is a nursing assistant and part-time writer. When she is not writing, she is listening to the popular podcast "NEVER NOT FUNNY". Actually, at any given time, most likely, she is listening to the podcast. It's pretty much all she does besides work. It is her favorite thing.
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