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Music Blu-ray Review: Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

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The Program

Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest composers in musical theater history — an artist who has pushed the boundaries of what’s expected of musical theater composition and delivered a series of masterpieces throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Sondheim’s lyrically astute and musically complex scores for shows like Sunday in the Park with George, Follies and Sweeney Todd made them some of the best shows of their respective eras, and in a time when blockbuster musicals like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera (still!) are dominating the Broadway landscape, it’s nice to remember the work of the brilliant Sondheim.

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert is both a tribute to the man’s genius and a celebration of his accomplishments, staged around the time of his 80th birthday in March 2010 at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City with the New York Philharmonic perfroming. A slickly produced concert special that was recorded over two nights, Sondheim! features more than 20 songs from across his career, with some being sung by the original Broadway cast members.

Hosted by David Hyde Pierce, who keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace, and conducted by longtime Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani, Sondheim! includes numbers from his successes (seven from Follies, three from Sunday and Sweeney Todd) and his flops (Hot Spot, Merrily We Roll Along). The special makes it abundantly clear what a talented composer he is, whether dealing with the complexities of the pointillism-inspired score of Sunday or the relatively straightforward ballad “So Many People” from the long-shelved Saturday Night.

Producer and director Lonny Price assembled a fantastic selection of Broadway talent — young and old — to perform the numbers, but the highlights undoubtedly come when the original cast members are on stage. Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien sing “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters reunite for the enormously moving “Move On” from Sunday and two former Sweeneys (George Hearn and Michael Cerveris) perform several numbers together, including a wonderful reinterpretation of “A Little Priest” with Patti LuPone.

Perhaps the most striking movement of the evening comes in the form of six Broadway divas — LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Peters and the venerable Elaine Stritch — coming on stage to Hyde Pierce’s rendition of “Beautiful Girls” from Follies, then each belting out a number while the other five sit in a row. The series ends with the 84-year-old Stritch performing an enormously charming rendition of “I’m Still Here” from Follies that sends the audience into uproarious applause.

Sondheim’s influence on the theater community is confirmed with the finale — almost 300 current Broadway and off-Broadway performers packing the stage and aisles while singing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. It’s a fitting conclusion to the two hours of spectacular music and performances.

The Blu-ray Disc

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert is presented in 1080i high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The interlaced transfer doesn’t present any noticeable problems, as the transfer features solid contrast and image stability. Colors are consistent as are the skin tones of the performers. The only times the image suffers are the brief shots of Sondheim watching from the darkened auditorium which are riddled with obnoxious noise due to the low light conditions.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is superb, with perfect clarity, allowing every note to ring out true. An uncompressed stereo track is also presented as an option.

Special Features

The disc itself is featureless, but a set of liner notes by producer/director Lonny Price is included, explaining the history behind putting the show together.

The Bottom Line

Sondheim! is a classy and entertaining presentation of some of the best numbers from one of the best musical theater composers.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • Sera G

    Can’t wait for the PBS event. LOVE Sondheim.