Monday, April 26, 2010


Going Out on a Bang

...As Sara Jane Moore Might Say

Okay, Stephen Sondheim isn't retiring, at least he hasn't announced that he is. After all, there's at least one more book rewrite and another title left in Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show alone, I'd say.

But if you're going to mark your 80th year -- and if you have pretty much indicated that, at this point, there'd be so much pressure for your next work to be such a hit out of the park that it basically dooms it from the start -- you could do worse than to do it the way it's been done this year. And since he composed so many of our favorite Broadway musicals (well, all of Tom's and almost all of mine, with a nostalgic detour for Meredith Willson and Rodgers & Hammerstein thrown in there by me), we decided to celebrate his birthday this year, too. Actually, if you were buying tickets to shows this year, it was kind of hard to avoid it.

First, in January, I think, we saw the revival of A Little Night Music, starring Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Alex Hanson, which we both said at the time was one of the most satisfying shows we'd seen in a few seasons. More recently, we saw the City Center "Encores" concert staging of Anyone Can Whistle. That assertion remains to be seen, but Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster sure knew how to put their lips together and sing. (Okay, enough with the heyday review-speak, right? Sorry.)

In there somewhere, we saw the Michael Feinstein/Dame Edna warring-but-costarring vehicle (sorry, I'm doing it again) All About Me. Dame Edna declared it a "Sondheim-free zone," given all else that's going on in town this year, but she nonetheless did a pretty well acted rendition of "Ladies Who Lunch" as one of her musical contributions to the show. (And if anyone still wears a hat, it's Dame Edna. And probably Michael Feinstein, actually. She's wearing some fantastic Ascot-worthy number; he's in a Homburg. Personally, I found it a fun show, but some people thought it a waste of time. I'd say they were people who didn't particularly like one or the other performers already, so they wouldn't like this. Whereas if you'd enjoyed both of them, singly, as we had, then you were more likely to feel it was a kind of party with some of your favorite people.)

Tonight was #3 (if you don't count Michael & the Dame) in our Year of Sondheim, and probably the big one for us of the year: City Center's One-Night-Only Benefit Gala in Celebration of Stephen Sondheim. We were led to believe that the hefty ticket price went toward the City Center refurbishment (this is the theater on West 55th St. just west of Sixth Avenue; home of the "Encores" series, but also a pretty serious dance performance venue, I understand, plus some other major productions and performance institutions in this town.)

This was a gift from "me" to "us" for Christmas, and it was a gift tonight as well. It was hosted by John Doyle, who has recently immersed himself as a director of Sondheim's works (Road Show) and the most recent revivals (Sweeney Todd and Company), and Mia Farrow, whose only claim to being onstage (besides being famous) is an apparently lifelong friendship with Stephen Sondheim. Thanks to her commentary in particular, he will henceforth in this post be referred to merely as "Steve."

The two of them did a great job, making their jobs as co-narrators for the evening feel both heartfelt AND rehearsed, which is a nice combination. And along with singers on the stage (we were led to believe, at least, and it was a benefit for City Center, after all), they donated their time for this performance. And it was a pretty fantastic -- nearly fantastical -- list of performers, I have to say.

Not in order of appearance, but giving prominence to the artists already mentioned above: Lansbury ("Liaisons"), Zeta-Jones ("You Must Meet My Wife" with Hanson and Len Cariou, who himself first appeared onstage in a trio of "Pretty Women" with Michael Cerveris and Mark Jacoby; later Zeta-Jones sang "Send in the Clowns"), Raul Esparza ("Being Alive," which was probably the best number of the night; he also had a lead part in the closing number), and Foster ("Anyone Can Whistle"). Along the way: Debra Monk reprising her darkly hilarious role as Sara Jane Moore in Assassins, and Joanna Gleason (looking not a day older) reprising her post-prince song "Moments in the Woods." As well as, not in order, but as they come back to mind: Donna Murphy (whom we saw most recently in Anyone Can Whistle as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper) reprising two of her heartbreaking songs from Passion; Chip Zien in a reunion with the original Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from Into the Woods singing "No One Is Alone"; Nathan Lane using a combined Frogs "Prologue" and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Comedy Tonight" as a jumping off point to do a send-up of Sondheim, although not without poking fun at John Doyle first (he walked onstage and started by trying to play the tuba and cello simultaneously; the cello was eventually destroyed in the process); B.D. Wong (with others) for "Someone In a Tree" from Pacific Overtures; and Maria Friedman, who from what I can gather is basically the West End's Sondheim answer to Bernadette Peters or Donna Murphy and who sang at least two solos and had a featured part in the final song from Merrily We Roll Along, "Our Time." (Her solos were "Children and Art," from Sunday in the Park with George, and "Broadway Baby" from Follies.)

Actually, Alexander Gemignani deserves special mention too, because not only did he perform with Michael Cerveris in the first number, in a duet between the two brothers in Bounce/Road Show, he also had a role in the Pacific Overtures number, carried Joanna Gleason onstage for her number (being a prince, you see); and was part of one other number that escapes me at the moment. No solos, I think, but still managed to be on stage a good amount of time.

The lesser-known, shorter-run shows got the bigger applause, as each person in the audience was obviously there to fly their Sondheim geek flag.

And that's all more (unless you are a die-hard Sondheim geek) than you care to know, I'm sure, and someone somewhere has probably already blogged far more complete and far more accurate details than I just have, if you really are that big of a fan. But we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and when Mia Farrow brought him out on stage to a the audience's thunderous ovation, Steve seemed to have enjoyed himself too.

If he noticed that Len Cariou's voice wasn't what it used to be -- and of course he noticed, he always notices -- he didn't seem to mind. For that matter, Sondheim wrote some of his best songs for roles where the person doesn't necessarily have a great singing voice: for singing actors (as in musical theater) far more than for acting singers (as in opera), in other words.

Mia Farrow said, in her introduction, that Steve once gave one of her daughters, his goddaughter (don't ask; I have no idea how a Christian baptism with a Jewish godfather works, if that's actually what she meant; just go with it), a thesaurus as a present when she was four or five. I wish I had a good one right here in front of me to find a way to say just how much fun this evening was for Tom and me.

We still have an appointment for one more night of Sondheim, Sondheim on Sondheim. There will probably be some overlap with some of the songs we heard tonight (at least we hope there is: as good as Sutton Foster's was, Tom Wopat's version of "Anyone Can Whistle" is the best either of us have heard), but that's okay. If we're going to saturate on Sondheim it, this would be the year. We likely won't get another.

"Just remembering you've had an 'and'
When you're back to 'or'
Makes the 'or' mean more
Than it did before."

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