It feels like it was only yesterday that theater celebs like Patti LuPone, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, Laura Benanti and Elaine Stritch were gathering to pay tribute to Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday at Symphony Space and the New Amsterdam Theatre. Well, actually that was five years ago. So now it's time for another batch of "Happy Birthday, Steve!" events, with great singers performing alongside a big orchestra. Hey, no complaints from me or from any other Sondheim junkies.
In the five years in between the 75th and 80th birthday concerts, Broadway has received revivals of "Sweeney Todd," "Company," Sunday in the Park with George" and "A Little Night Music" with extremely pared down orchestras. I happened to like all these revivals, but I do really miss hearing Sondheim's scores with a full orchestra. And perhaps that's why these opportunities to hear songs like "A Little Priest," "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Move On" with a full orchestra have become even more rare and important.
"Sondheim: The Birthday Concert" premiered tonight, Monday, March 15, at the New York Philharmonic, and will be repeated tomorrow night too. Tonight's performance was filmed for PBS, to be broadcast at a later date. (I'm guessing it'll be part of the next pledge drive.) Except for a few minor glitches, the concert (directed by Lonny Price and conducted by Paul Gemignani) was truly wonderful, musically rich and consistently entertaining. Among the scores highlighted, "Follies" received an unusually large amount of attention, while "Assassins," "Pacific Overtures," "Passion," "Road Show/Bounce," "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Gyspy" were neglected entirely.
After Paul Gemignani took the stage, the orchestra jumped into the "Swing your razor" motif from "Sweeney Todd," only to have David Hyde Pierce leap onstage to beg Gemignani to start with something more festive. As the overture continued, the cast arrived onstage one by one, acting as if they were arriving for a birthday party. (The stage was marked by a giant red birthday present ribbon.) The title of the overture, which combined pieces of many different songs, was apparently titled "Happy Birthday Steve, now I don't need to give you a present."
Pierce, acting as host, was more annoying than affable. I don't know who came up with the idea of him constantly suggesting that Sondheim's songs should be sung in different languages (a la "West Side Story"), but it got less and less funny as the evening went along. (Perhaps that would have actually been in the case if Arthur Laurents directed the concert. Let's be very glad he didn't.) At while he was a fine singer in "Curtains," he should not be allowed to sing "Beautiful Girls."
Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls from the "West Side Story" revival performed "America" in costume, with a slightly reconfigured version of the choreography to suit the Philharmonic stage.
Then, as if by necessity, rare Sondheim songs were performed from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and "Hot Spot." Not too much fun.
Jonathan Tunick then announced that the next few songs would highlight Sondheim's 1970s shows. He claimed their quality is "unsurpassed." Nathan Gunn gave an operatic rendition of "Johanna," to be followed by him joining Audra McDonald in "Too Many Mornings. Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Collela, Bobby Steggert and Laura Osnes came together for "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow." John McMartin reprised his "Follies" performance with "The Road You Didn't Take."
The theme of original cast members returning continued with Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason reprising their roles as Baker and Baker's Wife with the delightful duet "It Takes Two." Mandy Patinkin, clad entirely in black, performed "Finishing the Hat" with more vibrato and louder projection than he did in the original Broadway production. In a glorious moment, Bernadette Peters joined him in "Move On."
In one of the evening's most amusing moments, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone all arrived onstage at once with the opening of "The Worst Pies in London" playing in the background. LuPone, seeing both, left them to duke it out. Hearn took a seat, learning Cerveris to shave him in "Pretty Women," with Cerveris as Sweeney and Hearn as Judge Turpin. LuPone, returning, performed "A Little Priest" with both men. It was great, but where was Angie??
Act Two began with two dancers performing with music Sondheim wrote for Warren Beatty's film "Reds" in the background. (Waste of time? Eh.) Laura Benanti delivers a gentle, piano-only "So Many People in the World" from "Saturday Night."
While Pierce butchers "Beautiful Girls," six of Sondheim's women enter, all in red: Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald and Bernadette Peters. They all sit down and then take turns singing a solo.
LuPone begins with a conversational rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch," which ended with Stritch giving her a tight hug. Precious, heartwarming stuff. Mazzie then gave one of the fiercest performances of "Losing My Mind" I've ever seen. She's certainly the most beautiful woman I've ever seen perform it, giving the song a real 1940s femme fatale feel. (Is she doing anything in May 2011? Will she be in Washington, DC? I hope so...) Audra followed with the solo version of "The Glamorous Life" from the film version of "A Little Night Music," nailing this hard soprano song that was meant for a little girl. Donna Murphy reprised her lauded Encores! performance in "Follies" with "Could I Leave you?."
And then the mini-series ended with a thud: Elaine Stritch making a mess of "I'm Still Here," performing about five to ten seconds behind the orchestra, getting totally lost at one point, forgetting lyrics, ad-libbing, and barking up a storm. But hey, the audience ate it up and gave her a standing ovation.
Finally, a giant chorus made up of actors littered not just the stage but the entire theater (on every level) with "Sunday." Sondheim, who was sitting on the aisle at the front of the orchestra, finally took the stage to the tune of "Happy Birthday." Noticeably crying, he offered not a speech but a single quote: "First you are young, then you are middle-aged, then you are wonderful."
Here is the full song list:
Overture (bits of "Sweeney Todd," "Comedy Tonight," "Rich and Happy," "Old Friends," "Company," "Side by Side")
"America" - Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls
"We're Gonna Be Alright (from "Do I Hear a Waltz") - Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley
"Don't Laugh" (from "Hot Spot") - Victoria Clark
"Johanna" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Nathan Gunn
"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" (from "Follies") - Bobby Steggert, Laura Osnes, Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella
"Too Many Mornings" (from "Follies") - Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald
"The Road You Didn't Take" (from "Follies") - John McMartin
"It Takes Two" (from "Into the Woods") - Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason
"Finishing the Hat" (from "Sunday") - Mandy Patinkin
"Move On" (from "Sunday) - Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
"Pretty Women" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Michael Cerveris and George Hearn
"A Little Priest" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn
"Goodbye for Now" (from the film "Reds") - performed by dancers Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto
"So Many People in the World" (from "Saturday Night") - Laura Benanti
"Beautiful Girls" (from "Follies") - David Hyde Pierce
"The Ladies Who Lunch" (from "Company") - Patti LuPone
"Losing My Mind" (from "Follies") - Marin Mazzie
"The Glamorous Life" (from film version of "A Little Night Music") - Audra McDonald
"Could I Leave You?" (from "Follies") - Donna Murphy
"Not a Day Goes By" (from "Merrily") - Bernadette Peters
"I'm Still Here" (from "Follies") - Elaine Stritch
"Sunday" (from "Sunday") - huge chorus