Thank God for Stephen Sondheim. Not just for his songs, but for his running commentary, which punctuates the new revue "Sondheim on Sondheim" at regular intervals.
Funny, informative, occasionally self-deprecating and often deeply touching, his insights -- shown on moving video screens -- have more life than the wan performances onstage.
Indeed, even with such skilled interpreters as Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams on board, the numbers flatline. The visuals are theater, the music is glorified cabaret.
Though Sondheim's been hailed as the king of the integrated musical, his songs have lent themselves to several jukebox shows over the decades, including "Side by Side by Sondheim" and "Putting It Together."
This Roundabout offering -- conceived and directed by one of the master's regular collaborators, James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park With George," "Into the Woods") -- stands out by offering a more intimate look at its subject and how his life relates to his art.
And so it covers Sondheim's entire stage career in a thematic rather than chronological manner, balancing hits like "Send in the Clowns" with lesser-known numbers and songs that were cut from final productions.
That may please his hard-core fans, and yet it seems downright insane to do "The Wedding Is Off" from "Company," instead of its superior replacement, "Getting Married Today."
Other ideas work better, like juxtaposing Williams' "Losing My Mind" with Cook's "Not a Day Goes By": Not an eye stays dry. Similarly, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" is done both as a straight love ballad, when the work it's from was called "Bounce," and a gay one (from when it was remounted as "Road Show").
Yet "Sondheim on Sondheim" never takes off.
A big reason is, sadly, musical: The orchestra is too small and David Loud's horrid arrangements sap the life out of most of the songs. Doing "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story" and "The Gun Song" from "Assassins" in a lite jazz, Manhattan Transfer style is wrong, wrong, wrong. Unbelievably, a medley of "Company" and "Old Friends" is borderline barbershop.
Out of the cast of eight, Cook and Williams get by on chops, while Tom Wopat and Norm Lewis disappoint. Leslie Kritzer and Euan Morton, representing the younger generation, are the only ones who look as if they're having fun. Unlike the others, they lend the material a loose, playful energy, seemingly uncowed by The Genius looming behind them. And that dash of irreverence is the best tribute Sondheim could get.
God has spoken on the subject of His existence. And you will be pleased to know that He seems resigned to and amused by the obeisance and sacrifices that are made in His name. Listen, O children of Broadway, to His own words, chanted by a chosen tribe of His disciples at the theater at Studio 54 (once a pagan temple to the gods of disco) as His sardonic image smiles down upon them.
“You have to have something to believe in,” they sing, “Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate. Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname: God!”
Thus does the composer of those lyrics address the question of his divinity in a little number called “God” at the top of the second act of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a genial, multimedia commemorative scrapbook on the life, times and career of you-know-who. The song was inspired by the title of an article featured inside a 1994 New York magazine: “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” And the answer, for those of us for whom musicals are truly a religion, is — now as then — yes. Or to use the language of the common folk, “Well, duh.”
Mr. Sondheim turned 80 last month, and the occasion has already been honored by more tributes than are normally accorded the Yankees when they win the World Series, with more to come. This is not overkill. Mr. Sondheim bears a relationship to his vocation that is unlike that of any artist in any other field.
In the world of American musicals he is indisputably the best, brightest and most influential talent to emerge during the last half-century. Even when his shows have been commercial flops, they are studied, revered and eventually reincarnated to critical hosannas. No other songwriter to date has challenged his eminence, and it seems unlikely that anyone will in his lifetime. It is even possible, if sadly so, that he may be remembered as the last of the giants in a genre that flourished in the 20th century and wilted in the 21st.
But such brooding thoughts have little place in a discussion of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” which opened Thursday night. This is a chipper, haphazard anthology show that blends live performance of Sondheim songs with archival video footage and taped interviews with Himself. Conceived and directed by James Lapine, Mr. Sondheim’s frequent (and, to me, best) collaborator over the years, this somewhat jittery production never quite finds a sustained tone, a natural rhythm or even a logical sense of sequence.
It does, however, have a polished and likable eight-member cast (that includes Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams and the great Barbara Cook); a savory selection of Sondheim material that never made it to Broadway as well as canonic standards; and heaping spoonfuls of insider dope about the creation of shows like “Company” and “Follies” and the changes they underwent on the road. And then there is Mr. Sondheim, who appears in appropriately larger-than-life form on artistically arranged monitors, typically concealing as much as he reveals in quick takes of self-portraiture.
It is these interviews that provide the shape and, in many cases, the direct cues for the live action onstage. Occasionally this is achieved with a literal-mindedness that is too cute for comfort. Footage of Mr. Sondheim on the Mike Douglas show talking about why he likes to write about neurotics is followed by Ms. Cook and Tom Wopat singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from “Company” (1970).
More often, though, the performers channel their master’s voice in direct, annotative illustrations of what he’s talking about. Three different versions of the opening number in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (from 1962, Mr. Sondheim’s first full Broadway score) are spliced into his accounts of rewriting them. There are similarly illuminating insights into the labor pains of “Follies” (1971), “Passion” (1994) and “Road Show” (2009), the musical formerly known as “Bounce” (2003).
This format has the disadvantage of often giving the performers the status of audio-visual tools. Mr. Sondheim says he’s always most comfortable when he can create for a specific character instead of an abstract type or emotion. And it’s not easy for singers to reflect that specificity in a show like this one. At its least inspired “Sondheim on Sondheim” has the smiley supper-club blandness of previous Sondheim revues, like “Putting It Together” and “Side by Side by Sondheim.”
But there are also blessed if infrequent examples of singers making songs their own. Most often they involve the 82-year-old Ms. Cook, a longtime and exceptionally sensitive Sondheim interpreter. But the vulpine Ms. Williams has her moments too, slithering through the striptease of “Ah, but Underneath” (from the 1987 London production of “Follies”) and singing “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) in counterpoint to Ms. Cook’s profoundly wistful version of “Not a Day Goes By” (from the 1981 show “Merrily We Roll Along.”)
As an ensemble the cast — stylishly filled out by Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — is strongest in its haunting choral delivery of two songs from “Assassins” (Mr. Sondheim and John Weidman’s dark journey through American history), the grim contemporary relevance of which requires no epigrammatic explanation. And they are well served by a crisp physical production that includes Peter Flaherty’s witty, perfectly synchronized video and projection designs and Beowulf Boritt’s moving-building-block set.
In the autobiographical “Opening Doors” number from “Merrily We Roll Along” (nimbly performed here by Ms. Kritzer, Mr. Morton and Mr. Scott) a young songwriter is told by an old Broadway pro that “there’s not a tune you can hum” in his work. That was a standard complaint about Mr. Sondheim for decades. Yet when you hear many of the numbers in this revue, you’re struck by how they’ve penetrated and stuck in your consciousness in ways deeper than merely hummable songs allow.
Of course there are also songs that have turned out to be surprisingly hummable, like “Send In the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” (1973), which is here presented in the first act as a hilarious YouTube collage of widely (and wildly) ranging interpreters, professional and otherwise. Then in the second act Ms. Cook takes up the same song and delivers it with a simple, sweet bereftness that breaks your heart.
It’s a lovely reminder that for all his much-touted cleverness, Mr. Sondheim is great not because he’s a wizard with rhyme, rhythm and key changes. It’s because he senses and conveys the darker currents of pain and loneliness that swirl beneath even the shiniest surfaces. He sees inside us. And there is something kind of Godlike about that.
What better birthday present could Stephen Sondheim receive than a chance to finally star in his own Broadway show?
Musical theater's greatest living composer and lyricist, who turned 80 in March, is getting just that with Sondheim on Sondheim (***½ out of four), the funny, affectionate and revealing tribute that opened Thursday at Studio 54.
Conceived and directed by James Lapine, one of his librettists, Sondheim is less a revue than a retrospective. While an octet of expert singers led by Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat and the incomparable Barbara Cook is on hand, the main attraction of this Roundabout Theatre Company production is the tunesmith himself.
Granted, Sondheim doesn't appear on stage — at least, not in the flesh. But he's seen and heard throughout, via large screens hanging over the stage, showing both new interview clips and archival footage.
While a less gracious or articulate subject might have made this approach disastrous, Sondheim is a predictably witty, endearingly self-deprecating narrator who never seems stuffy or glib.
It helps that his story is compelling, and not just for musical junkies, who will relish his backstage tales. Sondheim also addresses personal issues with surprising candor — particularly his troubled relationship with a distant mother and, conversely, his close bond with Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim's surrogate father and mentor.
Structurally, the show doesn't strain to draw parallels between life and art. But Lapine does find connections in songs and vignettes from the shows, however diverse their source material. Sondheim's words and music are, for all their intelligence and sophistication, most striking for their emotional fidelity to his characters and the universal struggles and joys informing their disparate journeys.
Thus the frustrations driving Sweeney Todd's demon barber and the gunslingers in Assassins are as eerily accessible as the romantic obsession captured in the songs Losing My Mind and Not a Day Goes By. We're reminded, too, of Sondheim's capacity for tenderness and hope: Norm Lewis' soaring Being Alive is a highlight, as is the more fragile Beautiful, a duet for Cook and Euan Morton.
No Sondheim fan will be entirely satisfied with the lineup, which excludes both numerous classics and choice cult favorites. But like the musicals it culls from, the show uses songs to illustrate its themes and ideas, not merely to embellish them; certain gems were bound to be sacrificed in the process.
The man himself has written about the challenges of putting art together. With Sondheim on Sondheim, Lapine embraces those tasks with unique insight and obvious love.