Stephen Sondheim is a man well worth knowing. Warm, witty and wise in his public persona, with a catalogue of songs and shows of high quality. PS Classics’ two-disc recording can be the introduction you need.
You could, of course, seek out book length biographies, studies and profiles, not to mention the tours he has done being interviewed by (oh, horrors!) theater critics about his life and his life’s work. But for a quick introductory survey of the life and career of the man and a sampling of his output, an evening spent with this recording of Sondheim on Sondheim can be a delight.
There were apparently a lot of people who wanted to know Stephen Sondheim. At least enough to fill sufficient seats at Broadway’s Studio 54 for 37 previews and 76 performances of the show from March to June this year, earning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical Revue. The failure of the Tony Award committee to nominate the show was fairly controversial and may have contributed to its departure from the Great White Way in about three months.
The show was a unique bio-revue in that it had a pre-recorded master of ceremonies: the subject matter of the evening himself, Stephen Sondheim. Director/compiler James Lapine, who had been Sondheim’s collaborator on Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and Into the Woods, set up cameras in Sondheim’s home and interviewed him extensively on everything from his teachers (most famously Oscar Hammerstein II) collaborators (Hal Prince among others) and shows (he’s had fifteen original book musicals on Broadway … so far) to minutia such as the kind of pencil he uses.
Interspersing clips from these interviews throughout a thoroughly musical evening with a distinguished live cast singing new arrangements of some three dozen of the uncounted dozens of his songs, Lapine paints an affectionate and appreciative portrait of the man and his career without getting sickly sweet in his praise, at least for the first two hours.
Then, perhaps because time was running out and he wanted to squeeze more in than he could with comfort, he piles sterling samples a bit too densely. But that is a forgivable sin for a project which, at least on the two-disc set, had to leave out practically every speck of the masterpiece Sweeney Todd, all of the unique Pacific Overtures and any material from Sondheim’s collaboration with none other than Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?. One night may be enough to whet your appetite but isn’t enough time to cover the subject in the depth it deserves.
The recording opens just a bit differently than did the Broadway production. Instead of a sung overture of snippets from strains from his songs, the disk opens with the first sound that came directly from Sondheim’s mouth … “My name is Stephen Joshua Sondheim.” It may not have been the first thing Sondheim said when they started recording, but it is where Lapine chooses to start the evening. Sondheim follows that declarative statement with a typical explanation – one that adds a human scope to the fact, gives a feeling for the man and his history and his own willingness to reveal himself to the public to a certain degree. “The Stephen and Joshua came from the bible. My parents were not religious but they didn’t know what to call me, so they merely stuck their fingers in the bible and came out with those names. In fact, I was called Josh until I was ten years old.”
For the next two-plus hours there are samples of his output sung in solo and in ensemble by the likes of Barbara Cook who is superb on “Take Me To The World,” lovely on “Loving You” and gorgeous on “Send in the Clowns.” Fellow headliners are Vanessa Williams, who was the Witch in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods and Tom Wopat, making his first Broadway appearance singing Sondheim material. Also in the cast is Norm Lewis, who was such a fabulous Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre years back. He leads a memorable delivery of “Being Alive” from Company. Add Leslie Kritzer, Matthew Scott, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott as well as Euan Morton who is now holding forth at Signature in Chess (which is not a Sondheim musical).
The second disc opens with the only song written for the show, a self deprecatory number in which Sondheim pokes fun at those who would idolize him, elevating him to the status of a god and even endowing his chosen brands of paper and pencil to the level of religious relics. The song? “God.”
As has often been the case in other public appearances, Sondheim comes across as having a tremendous sense of pride in his accomplishments without seeming to be conceited or overbearing. He’s protective of what he’s created, but chimes in with his own criticism of those instances when time has led him to believe he made mistakes or wrong choices. Those mistakes have been exceptions to the generally exceptional quality of his output over the years. For every Merrily We Roll Along, there has been a West Side Story or a Gypsy. For every Anyone Can Whistle there has been A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or a Follies. For every The Frogs, there has been an Assassins or A Little Night Music. And for every song that didn’t make it in the development of a show, there have been dozens which have made it and become part of the treasure of the American musical stage.
Their creator is a man worth getting to know.