In this, the season of tributes to the glorious god of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, it would be difficult to top the two days of concerts performed by the New York Philharmonic and a star-studded cast.
I attended the second of the two sold-out concerts in honor of Mr. Sondheim’s 80th birthday, which, fortunately for those who were shut out, were taped for airing on PBS’s Great Performances.
It was a memorable event, lovingly directed by longtime Sondheim aficionado and sometime actor Lonny Price (original cast, Merrily We Roll Along), with the Philharmonic smartly conducted by Paul Gemignani, long identified as Sondheim’s musical director. The program was hosted with grace and good humor by David Hyde Pierce, with a single guest hosting spot ceded to orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, another longtime Sondheim collaborator. With friends like these, Sondheim’s birthday celebration could not have been in better hands.
I’m not going to suggest that every single moment was one of sublime magic, but there was certainly enough that was to make for a richly rewarding evening. Some highlights for me:
•Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters performing “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. Both of them looked and sounded in top form as they recreated their performance from more than 25 years ago, from what to me is Sondheim’s richest, most emotional and romantic musical score. Patinkin also gave us a beautiful “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday.
•Patti LuPone, who always seems to be having such a wonderful time onstage, teamed with George Hearn and Michael Cerveris to peform “A Little Priest,” a wickedly fun number from Sweeney Todd: Mrs. Lovett with her two Sweeneys to play against. Hearn and Cerveris also offered up a chilling rendition of “Pretty Women,” climaxing with one Sweeney slitting the other’s throat.
•Patti again, doing an audacious performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, right in front of Elaine Stritch, whose original rendition of the song is legendary.
•Elaine Stritch herself, at 85 and looking rather on the frail side, summoning up some great internal power to invest authentic meaning and voice for an ovation-garnering performance of “I’m Still Here” from Follies.
•Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason singing “It Takes Two” from Into The Woods, one of my favorite Sondheim shows. Ms. Gleason looked at Mr. Zien with a slightly startled expression as she sang the first words: “You’ve changed,” a nod to the more than two decades that have passed since they first sang that number on Broadway. It’s these subtle nuances that move a performance from the ordinary to the special. (Another such moment occurred in the aforementioned “The Ladies Who Lunch;” on the line: “Does anyone still wear a hat?” Ms. Stritch gave a little nod that directed our eyes to the cap she was wearing.)
While these were my personal “wow” moments, I’ve got to give high marks to operatic baritone Nathan Gunn, whose heart-melting rendition of “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd was the first number of the evening that made me sit up and take notice, and whose duet with Audra McDonald of “Too Many Mornings” from Follies was simply gorgeous. Also performing magnificently were such powerhouse hitters as Marin Mazzie, Laura Benanti, Victoria Clark, John McMartin, and the always-wonderful-to-see Donna Murphy, whose venomous rendition of “Could I Leave You?” from Follies was enough to give pause to every married man in the audience.
The last official song on the program was the moving choral masterwork, “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park, performed by a stageful of Broadway performers. It was followed with everyone singing “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy himself, who came up on the stage from the audience to offer, in a voice choked with emotion, his heartfelt thanks. So much for the old image of Sondheim as an insular curmudgeon.
All in all, this was a special evening, a loving and fitting tribute to one of the all time greats!
During the show, I jotted down the song titles in the order in which they were performed. If I can’t wait for PBS to release a video of the event, I will create my own audio version by downloading the numbers onto my iPod.
Note: The photo of Stephen Sondheim comes from the Academy of Achievement, a Museum of Living History in Washington, D. C. Sondheim was inducted in 2005.
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