Stephen Sondheim’s master work has been seen on Broadway in revival several times, and in a movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Onstage it has attracted the likes of Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou, George Hearn, Dorothy Louden, Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris and others. It’s been done “big” (Hal Prince’s original production on Broadway tied it to the industrial revolution and set it in a giant warehouse), “small” (John Doyle’s 2005 production on Broadway, in which the principals played musical instruments). It’s been televised (the national company on tour in 1982), and won dozens of awards including the Tony, the Drama Desk and Olivier. Opera companies have done it, as have dozens of amateur companies around the world. And now the New York Philharmonic has produced a staged concert version for five performances at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, with an all star cast headed by Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson with Alan Gilbert conducting the full orchestra, and utilizing an ensemble of 30 singers.
The result of all this: a vast new invigorating reading of a great work that explodes again and again over a long evening, delivering the kind of night to remember that pops up only now and then to remain indelibly imbedded in the minds and hearts of those of us fortunate enough to have been present.
I tell you about it for, although it has finished its short turn at Avery Fisher Hall, it’s been captured digitally and will be shown on PBS in the near future. Keep a weather eye out for it; it’s not to be missed. It’s that night at Carnegie Hall when Judy Garland reminded us she was one of a kind, it’s the night Gwen Verdon emerged from the shadows and became a super star when she stopped Can Can cold . It’s Merman in Gypsy, Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, Chita Rivera in West Side Story, and all the other unique theatre experiences all wrapped into one.
The size and scope of Sondheim’s score is so well served by this orchestra, making exciting use of Jonathan Tunick’s superb orchestrations. It’s the inventive ways of director Lonny Price, who begins the evening with his company of almost 40 marching in from the wings to fill the entire proscenium dressed in gorgeous formal togs, creating magic for the eye and ear with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, only to have them turn their elegant evening wear into tattered rags more suitable to the Victorian nights of scary Fleet Street.
Price nicely controls the focus so that the vast stage can be made to seem intimate when needed. Mr. Turfel’s luscious baritone is immediately effective as he cynically sings there is “No Place Like London”. Then we meet Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett, whose business she admits is to sell “The Worst Pies in London”. Thompson is a favorite with the audience, and her appearance brings welcome applause, for this is her first appearance on a New York stage. But as she starts her first number, there is an instant charge of energy out front. The feeling is palpable; it communicates itself as “My God, she can sing!”
Two Oscars, one for acting, one for writing, a slew of raves for her great range in playing everything from mild mannered Elizabeth in “Pride and Prejudice” to a First Lady not unlike Hillary Clinton in “Primary Colors” to the French Princess in “Henry V” to the irascible Ms. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” to Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing”. But can she sing? And the roar of approval is instantaneous. “Yes, she can!” From that moment on, Sweeney struts and frets its almost three hours upon the stage and is, in a word, triumphant.
There are others up there making their own special contributions. Mr. Terfel is a marvelous Sweeney, though his characterization is clearer in the singing than in the acting. He tends to sneer a bit with a curled lip that has a mind of its own, but he also manages to show at least the hint of a lighter side when he duets with Ms. Thompson in “By The Sea” and “A Little Priest”. And his dark arias are bone chillingly effective. Youngsters Jay Armstrong Johnson and Erin Mackey as the young lovers who figure prominently in the plot, are absolutely right, and sing with great delicacy and feeling. “Joanna” is gorgeous, and “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is charming.
Christian Borle, who has risen fast these past three seasons in Peter and the Starcatcher and on TV with “The Sound of Music” and the series “Smash”, is effective as Pirelli, Sweeney’s tonsorial competition. And the “surprise guest” Audra McDonald, whose luscious mezzo gives substance to the pathetic Beggar Woman, and prominence to the woman and her share of the story. Kyle Brenn, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Philip Quast all contribute, so what we have here is A Night to Remember.
It’s our bad luck that Ms. Thompson seems to prefer film to stage, at least at the present time. Now that we know that this actress, comfortable in everything from the classics to the vernacular, she who can fit her accent, her body english, her entire being to any region of the world that requires her to be there, can sing — well, remember she did play the female lead in London in Me and My Girl opposite Robert Lindsay so maybe one day she’ll tackle an Annie Get Your Gun, a Mame, a Gypsy of her own. Or even better, an original musical fashioned just for her. I can think of six composers who’d get to work fast were she to give the nod. Meanwhile, we are to be grateful that she took on this enormous role for a limited run of only five performances, that she nailed it, and that we’ll all be able to enjoy it again when it shows up on PBS.
This production was performed March 5 – 8, 2014 at Avery Fisher Hall, NYC.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.