It’s his party and he’ll cry if he wants to, and if you watch Steven Sondheim sitting on the aisle in the orchestra of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center as both the stage and the aisles fill up with crowds of Broadway minions singing “Sunday” in honor of his 80th birthday, you’ll see there is no question but that he wants to. And who can blame him: it’s neither every day, nor to celebrate just anyone, that so much glittering talent would be likely to show up.
Now for those of us not lucky enough to have been there on either of the two nights it ran to see the gala performance and sing “Happy Birthday” along with the stellar cast, there is the DVD: Sondheim! The Birthday Concert.
Hosted by David Hyde Pierce, the concert gathers an array of Broadway’s finest, the likes of which you’re not likely to see in one place other than perhaps at the Tonys, performing selections from the Sondheim canon ranging from his work on the lyrics of West Side Story to shows like Follies and Sweeney Todd. You’ve got all the glamour and beauty and a hell of a lot more art, and you don’t have to listen to any of those dissembling thank-you speeches. Instead you get Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin singing “Move On,” opera star Nathan Gunn singing “Johanna,” and the ladies from the cast of the new production of West Side Story singing and dancing to “America.” They are accompanied by the New York Philharmonic conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator, Paul Gemignani.
In a show filled with brilliant performances, it is foolhardy to single out highlights. Nevertheless there are some real show stoppers. Patti LuPone joins with George Hearn, the original Sweeney Todd, and Michael Cerveris who played Sweeney in the popular revival, in a beguiling performance of the darkly comic “A Little Priest.” “Don’t Laugh,” one of two songs which Sondheim wrote with Mary Rogers and Martin Charnin for their show Hot Spot, gets a brilliant reading from Victoria Clark. “Too Many Mornings” is a showpiece for the glorious voices of Nathan Gunn and Audra MacDonald. Mandy Patinkin reprises Sunday in the Park with George’s “Finishing the Hat” with all the over-the-top dramatic flair only he can get away with, and his duet with Peters is a gem.
The show builds to a climax with Hyde Pierce’s comic take on “Beautiful Girls” which introduces six of the great Broadway divas resplendent in red: LuPone, MacDonald and Peters, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, and the young-at-heart Elaine Stritch. They take seats at the front of the stage. Then, one at a time, they take center stage for a solo performance, each one brilliant, each one more exciting than the last.
LuPone begins with an arch version of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Marin Mazzie changes the pace with a gorgeous rendition of “Losing My Mind.” MacDonald’s “The Glamorous Life” is elegantly controlled. Donna Murphy follows with a bravura performance of the wickedly witty “Could I Leave You,” and Peters is her usual perfection in “Not a Day Goes By.” But then, but then, let me repeat, but then, up steps Stritch, and let me tell you here’s one old lady who still knows how to bring down the house. When she was finished with “I’m Still Here” she had the audience and all the divas on the stage on their feet and cheering. No question about it, she is still here.
Pierce is an engaging host. Playing off the translation of some of the lyrics in the current production of West Side Story into Spanish, he uses the idea of foreign language versions of all of Sondheim’s lyrics. His petulant reaction to the idea’s poor reception is classic. And then when he comes on to sing his solo, and adds foreign translations, his “I’ll show them” attitude is priceless. He is the master of the deadpan reaction. His byplay with Gemignani over the conductor’s attempt to begin the show with music from Sweeney Todd sets a nice tone for the rest of the evening.
There was a time when musical comedy meant some songs and dances patched more or less haphazardly into a play. Sometimes they were relevant to the action, sometimes not. Sometimes they developed from character, sometimes not. Not any longe; now any musical worth its salt makes sure to integrate music and book in one artistic whole. Stephen Sondheim may not be the only one responsible for changing this aesthetic, but he is unquestionably its most glorious practitioner. The crowd of singers that lined the aisles and stage at the show’s end—287 of them, according to Lonny Price’s liner notes—are not only there to wish the man well on his birthday, they are there to pay tribute and to thank the artist for what he has managed to accomplish. They are there to thank him for the rest of us.