Sondheim on Sondheim: Roundabout’s Studio 54, 6/16/10

30 06 2010

Celebrating the composer/lyricist extraordinaire’s 80th birthday, Roundabout Theatre Company’s Sondheim on Sondheim is a smart and talented revue, featuring a remarkable cast and innovative direction by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator James Lapine. The latest in a host of Sondheim revues, Sondheim on Sondheim is a fitting tribute to both the creator and his fans, who do regard Sondheim as “God” (as suggested in the revue’s witty new song). Nonetheless, this production suffers from the same fundamental issues that I grapple with in all Sondheim revues – such as Side by Side by Sondheim, seen at the Attic Theatre in Los Angeles this past spring.

To clear the air, here are a few of my common gripes with Sondheim revues:

  • Revues recontextualize a song – sometimes offering a bit of the musical’s background, sometimes making autobiographical connections, sometimes explicitly reconfiguring meaning. Since Sondheim’s musical numbers are so character- and show-specific, a revue presents undeniable challenges. Most songs in Sondheim on Sondheim are performed with a nod toward their original musical context – and an audience of devoted fans will have no difficulty locating the selections in Sondheim’s oeuvre. Still, Tom Wopat strains and struggles with Sweeney Todd; not only is Wopat vocally the production’s weak link. but Sweeney’s terrifying, dissonant “Epiphany” is probably one of the most context-specific and character-driven songs Sondheim has ever written.  Without a dramatic build to “Epiphany,” the performance is simply awkward. The most successful moments in Sondheim on Sondheim are extended musical sequences from the 1981 flop Merrily We Roll Along: “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Opening Doors.”  Drawn from the most explicitly autobiographical of Sondheim’s musicals, these selections are more easily extractable – outstanding mini-productions from an underperformed work.
  • Sondheim fans grow to an obsessive knowledge of original arrangements – so much so that new arrangements often surprise, for better and worse. David Loud’s arrangements are largely enjoyable – but make some unnecessary rhythmic alterations that throw off my mental expectations.  Sondheim composes so precisely for the performer, why change too much?  One unexpected and delightful new arrangement, however, is the counterpoint of Barbara Cook’s “Losing My Mind” from Follies to Vanessa Williams’ “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along.  While the counterpoint requires some melodic adjustments, the overlay of these songs draws attention to a theme in Sondheim’s works: obsession with someone who is just out of reach.
  • Sondheim revues tend to recycle the same stories: the one about Sondheim writing two songs for the opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum before Jerome Robbins’ intervention inspired “Comedy Tonight” – or the one about “Being Alive” (Company) as a replacement for Sondheim’s first two versions, which were far too ironic and depressing.  (Third time’s a charm, apparently!) Here, we face an interesting paradox: Sondheim revues are created not for random theatergoers, but for avid Sondheim devotees who already know the musicals and the backstage drama. I suppose some people don’t mind repetition of these stories, but they grow tiresome for me.

Despite these inherent challenges, Sondheim on Sondheim exceeds its standard revue trappings to truly impress:

  • When the show does get autobiographical, the stories are refreshingly told by Stephen Sondheim himself.  On a sleek set of puzzle-like, “putting it together” flatscreen televisions (designed by Beowulf Boritt with video and projections by Peter Flaherty), video interviews with Sondheim provide the connective tissue for the revue. Even the old, familiar tales are reinvigorated when told firsthand. Lapine’s direction effects a playful interaction between Sondheim on screen and the performers on stage – sometimes interrupting songs with more background information and even humorously cutting off “I’ll Meet You at the Donut,” a song from his 1946 high school musical By George.
  • The television monitors occasionally fragment and disperse to illuminate the orchestra behind – which is small but mighty, providing beautiful underscoring to video interviews before sweeping into support for the live performances onstage.
  • The cast is unbelievable: Barbara Cook may be the big headliner for Sondheim aficionados and Vanessa Williams the draw for celebrity-searchers, but Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott are all such solid and remarkable contributions to the ensemble.  (Apologies to Tom Wopat, but his talk-singing just didn’t do it for me.) Norm Lewis’ “Finishing the Hat” is stunning and veteran Barbara Cook soars in “Send in the Clowns” and “In Buddies’ Eyes.”  But surprisingly, I was most taken by the younger cast members, who may not have had as many opportunities for solos, but whose crystal-clear harmonies and blend in the ensemble stunned me. Loud’s music direction is precise, just as Sondheim would demand.
  • While not taking too many liberties in recontextualization, Lapine plays with differently gendered, raced, and sexual pairings than Sondheim’s work originally calls for – which is an entertaining and welcome reimagining of a few favorites.

I wouldn’t recommend Sondheim on Sondheim to the average theatergoer, but for a Sondheim devotee, it is a lovely tribute and enjoyable concert evening.  Sondheim on Sondheim showcases witty interviews with the composer/lyricist, stunning performances from some of his long-time interpreters and new voices, as well as an excited audience of fellow fans that keeps the revue buoyant and alive.

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