This has been a year to remember for fans of Stephen Sondheim. The legendary Broadway composer turned 80 this year, which was celebrated in the form of tributes and revues all over the world. Sondheim was also given the ultimate honor in September with a Broadway theater named for him.. Even he got in on the act, releasing Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, where he critiques his own work – and those of his major influences – with his trademark candor and wit that serves as a master class in lyric writing, as well as provides a fascinating look inside his creative process.
One of the aforementioned tributes was Sondheim! The Birthday Concert, which was filmed over two nights at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall in March shortly before his birthday, and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. All-star tribute concerts, of any genre, are usually a hit-or-miss affair. In an attempt by the producers to be inclusive and grab as big an audience as possible, too often the participants lack a genuine connection to the honoree, and celebrity pairings fail to live up to their billing. And in rock music, you always live under the fear that Daves Grohl and/or Matthews are going to show up and ruin everything.
Thankfully, Sondheim! The Birthday Concert avoids these pitfalls. In fact, there’s hardly a misstep throughout the concert, thanks to the show’s director, Lonny Price, whose association with Sondheim began in 1981 when he appeared as Charlie Kringas in the Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along. Price had the good sense to get Paul Gemignani, Sondheim’s longtime musical director, to conduct the New York Philharmonic. He also hired David Hyde Pierce to serve as host, and the script they co-wrote featured a handful of running jokes that could have devolved into schtick, but struck the perfect tone in Hyde Pierce’s capable hands.
The show was, more or less, divided into three segments. Following the overture, we get a handful of Sondheim chestnuts sung by some of Broadway’s brightest young stars. This is highlighted by Jenn Coletta, Matt Cavenaugh, Laura Osnes, and Bobby Steggert singing the bouncy “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” from 1971’s Follies, and opera singer Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald duetting on the gorgeous “Too Many Mornings.”
The middle portion features songs performed by the actors who sang them on Broadway. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason sang “It Takes Two” from Into The Woods” as if they were still doing it onstage every night. But what should have been one of the highlights turned out to be the evening’s weakest moment. Mandy Patinkin, whose voice has darkened over the years, had considerable difficulties with his signature number, Sunday In The Park With George’s “Finishing The Hat.” Thankfully, he quickly recovered when Bernadette Peters, who still looks and sounds beautiful, joined him for “Move On” from that same show.
This also led to a dilemma. In George Hearn and Michael Cerveris, there were two actors who had performed the title role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Price solves this by having the men duet on “Pretty Women,” with Cerveris playing Sweeney and Hearn singing Judge Turpin’s part, but not before some clever dialogue that acknowledged that Hearn had played the role. Then, Patti LuPone joins them to sing “A Little Priest” with the men alternating Sweeney’s part on one Sondheim’s wittiest songs.
In the third portion, Peters, LuPone, McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, and Elaine Stritch – all decked out in red – took a turn with one of Sondheim’s showstoppers. That’s more diva than one stage should ever be allowed to contain, but they all pull it off beautifully. LuPone sets the bar high with a jaw-dropping take on the “The Ladies Who Lunch,” with Stritch, who sang it in the original Broadway production of Company in 1970, sitting 15 feet away from her. And it gets better from there, with each woman bringing something different to their interpretations, culminating in Stritch belting out “I’m Still Here,” a tale of Depression-era survival from Follies, with plenty of swagger and wit.
Price pulled out all the stops for the finale, in which 287 active cast members of Broadway musicals filled the stage, aisles, and rafters in Avery Fisher Hall to thank Sondheim for his work by singing “Sunday,” the first act closer from Sunday In The Park. As the song’s majestic harmonies filled the room, the camera cut to Sondheim, overwhelmed with emotion, burying his face in his hands.
As with any tribute, you can think of performers and songs you would have liked to have seen, but this wasn’t a “greatest hits” show. Price wisely added some obscure songs at the expense of some of his most famous. So instead of the 18,240th take on “Send In the Clowns” or “Being Alive,” we got Victoria Clark performing “Don’t Laugh,” which Sondheim wrote for Hot Spot, a Judy Holliday vehicle that ran for 43 performances in 1963. Another interesting choice that worked was when Jim Walton, who created the role of Franklin Shepard in Merrily, sang “Growing Up,” which was written into the show during one of Sondheim’s later attempts to fix what was arguably his most famous flop.
Over the years I’ve seen and heard many celebrations of Sondheim’s work, and Sondheim! The Birthday Concert compares favorably with 1973’s famous “Scrabble concert” (which Price says in the liner notes that he attended as a 14-year old) as one of the greatest collections of Stephen Sondheim’s work ever recorded. You may have seen this on PBS’ Great Performances recently, but you’ll want the DVD, which features more performances and doesn’t stop for pledge breaks. The full range of Sondheim’s brilliance – the soaring melodies, the complex characters, and those lyrics that have dazzled audiences for over 50 years – are on full display.