Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2010
Sondheim on Sondheim Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Conceived and directed by James Lapine. Musical staging by Dan Knechtges. Music direction and arrangements by David Loud. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Video & projection design by Peter Flaherty. Cast: Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, with Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, Matthew Scott.
“Mary Rodgers has a nice term for shows like that. She calls them ‘why musicals.’ I mean, they’re perfectly okay, but why write them? They’re not necessary. They don’t improve on the original. They’re at best painting the lily and at worst they are nowhere near as good as their original source.”
All right, so Sondheim was actually referring to Do I Hear a Waltz?, his rocky collaboration with Rodgers’s father, Richard. (You may have heard of him.) But the words could not be more apt for this evening, which has been conceived and directed by James Lapine, musical directed by David Loud, and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, and is performed by a stunning cast, all of whom accomplish next to nothing lasting for their troubles. And yet, despite the prevailing pointlessness, the show is - to quote you know who - perfectly okay.
Aside from that company, which in counting Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, and Euan Morton could not be starrier or more talent-packed (and even relative newcomers Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott, who round out the cast, are unusually impressive), the production is most notable for Sondheim’s direct participation. Filmed in gloriously crisp HD in his legendary Turtle Bay townhouse, and keenly wrought on a series of ever-moving video monitors (by Peter Flaherty), he shares stories about his life, the songs he’s written, and the intersections of the two. Then the actors sing, and everyone repeats the cycle.
That makes this both the most and least pointless Sondheim revue ever. Because Sondheim, one of the theatre’s foremost living musical dramatists, ties his songs so tightly to shows, they never carry quite the same weight when extracted. So you can’t derive this collection’s worth from how much you like them or the people singing them - it's all about the man himself. If you believe, per the title of a new, ribbing lyric at the top of Act II, that Sondheim is God, you’ll thrill yourself into a puddle. If not, you’ll have a decent time, but you won’t be converted. (Not that this is a show intended for the non-devout anyway.)
How can there be any lasting impact from a show so conceived and constructed? Sondheim may be at once the most revered and underappreciated writers in Broadway history, but he’s hardly underrepresented. Of the 18 of his stage works sampled here (only The Frogs is conspicuously absent), 15 have been given either concert or fully staged productions in major New York venues since 2000 - at least four of them (Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd) twice and one (Gypsy) three times. (Roundabout alone has sponsored four full productions.) Even without counting all the other compilation concerts, benefits, cabaret acts, and smaller productions stuffed with his songs, Sondheim’s titles rival William Shakespeare’s in sheer presentational overkill.
So Sondheim on Sondheim’s only moments of true vitality arise from the very few pieces you can’t conveniently hear elsewhere. These are, predictably, few: “I’ll Meet You at the Donut,” from his first-ever musical (written in high school), By George, in 1946; and maybe a cut song or two (from Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or Company). Otherwise, any shininess is more of the standard-issue nature: Williams and Cook duetting on “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By”; a look at two different versions of “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” (one from Road Show; one from its earlier incarnation, Bounce); and a sequence about the evolution of Company’s finale, which culminates in Lewis delivering the best “Being Alive” you will ever, ever hear.
But because of the sheer wattage of the performers, you’ll never have a terrible time, even if you’re less than a Sondheim-o-holic. Williams has never sounded or looked sexier, whether baring (almost) it all in “Ah, But Underneath” or merely decked out in Susan Hilferty’s flawlessly flattering costumes. Kritzer, Morton, and Matthew Scott do a lively, cut-free rendition of Merrily We Roll Along’s elaborate two-year musical scene “Opening Doors.” Cook is typically radiant, intelligent, and astute interpreting the likes of “In Buddy’s Eyes,” Passion’s “I Read” and “Loving You,” and “Send in the Clowns” past the point of human emotional endurance.
Then there are the what-were-they-thinking elements common in any revue. Cook and Wopat doing a bewildering two-person version of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” Wopat bellowing his way through not just Sweeney Todd’s “Soliloquy,” but also Assassins’s “Gun Song,” in the two most ill-conceived moments. And the three-part Act I finale that shows exactly how “Ever After,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and “Sunday” may be great songs, but don’t necessarily sound great together.
Regardless, Lapine’s staging is sleek, stylish, and fast-moving - the kind more new musicals need. Beowulf Boritt’s revolving imagination-landscape staircase (strewn with more of those monitors) and Knechtges’s peppy but highly modest movement also give things exactly the up-to-the-minute feel you’d expect from a top-of-his-form 1970s Sondheim project.
Ultimately, however, it’s Sondheim himself who is the most interesting set piece. You’ll learn more about his personal and professional pursuits than you may have ever expected possible - his first true relationship came very, very late, for example. And those videos do a great deal to bring down to earth a figure who’s often deified, but has never represented otherworld natural ability as much as an iron-clad commitment to craft. (Sondheim says at one point that if his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, had been a geologist, he probably would have been, too - his determination and work ethic suggest we would all know his name for that.) And portraying Sondheim as genial, self-effacing, and idiosyncratic places much of his work in a realistic context most critics and more rabid fans don’t allow.
From that angle, Sondheim on Sondheim is enlightening and refreshing. In almost every other respect, you’ve seen and heard it all before. If you’re the type who just can’t stop playing the cast recording to Pacific Overtures, this will unquestionably be a must-see anyway. For everyone else, it represents a moderate education and medium-strength entertainment: fine for what it is, but not much more or less than, well, Do I Hear a Waltz?.