It’s hard to believe that Stephen Sondheim, musical theater’s enfant terrible, is 80. But that’s because his music still sounds so fresh and different. And to clarify: by music, I mean music and lyrics.
With a new book out, Finishing the Hat, specifically about his lyric-writing process; with revivals of his musicals cropping up all over the country with no sign of abating; and with youthful interest in musical theater fanned by reality shows, Glee, and the High School Musical franchise, we hardly needed a big birthday to occasion a glitzy Sondheim retrospective.
But the occasion came in handy for Ellen M. Krass Productions, Stewart F. Lane, and Bonnie Comley, who, in association with Thirteen/WNET and Image Entertainment, produced a pair of star-spangled birthday concerts earlier this year at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Sondheim: The Birthday Concert is the richly filmed result. Hosted by David Hyde Pierce, it will be broadcast on PBS Nov. 24.
Sondheim’s lyrics elucidate witty but emotionally clear—if often complex—stories and moments. As such, you usually don’t need the context of the shows to appreciate the songs. In some cases, like Company, context wasn’t all that important anyway. And Sondheim’s words fit his melodies and rhythms so inextricably that you can follow what’s happening even if you’ve never heard the song before. That, I suppose, is just an awkward way of saying the man is a genius songwriter. It’s also a big part of what makes the PBS birthday concert more than an indulgent acknowledgment of an important figure.
The concert actually turns out to be less a celebration for the Broadway royalty in-crowd (although it is that too) than a pretty good way to appreciate the work. The composer’s longtime collaborator Paul Gemignani conducts the New York Philharmonic, accompanying performances by many of Broadway’s leading lights, including original cast members. The producers concocted big showstoppers: Patti Lupone belting out Mrs. Lovett opposite dueling Sweeney Todds (Michael Cerveris and, from the original production, George Hearn); Audra MacDonald making the most of “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music; Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters reprising their roles from the original production of Sunday in the Park with George, and more.
But the producers, along with writer Lonny Price, aimed to provide a full retrospective, with a number of surprises: a pas-de-deux set to music Sondheim wrote for the Warren Beatty film Reds; a production number from the currently running bilingual production of West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Sondheim); and a nifty performance by Victoria Clark of the little-known “Don’t Laugh,” a Sondheim contribution to 1963’s relatively obscure Hot Spot (whose songs were mostly by Mary Rogers and Martin Charnin).
A quieter and even more touching moment comes when John McMartin, four decades after starring in the original production, ambles on stage to sing “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies. No longer strong-voiced, McMartin brings pure emotional weight to bear instead; sung by a now-elderly man, the song’s sharp message about lost opportunities takes on fresh pathos. There’s no need for bombast as he finishes up:
The Ben I’ll never be
Who remembers him?
Stephen Sondheim won’t have that problem; generations of theatergoers will remember him as long as theater is alive, and particularly as long as people like Ellen Krass continue to produce TV broadcasts of theater classics. (Prior to this, Krass did broadcasts of several Sondheim musicals, as well as other shows, enabling millions to see productions only thousands could experience in person.)
The question is: how much bleed is there between, on the one hand, those who know and love Sondheim, love the musicals from Broadway’s golden age, even love the more pop-inflected music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz—and, on the other, those who passionately follow the exploits of the Glee kids? As depicted on Fox’s hit show, the connections between school glee clubs and Broadway musicals are tenuous at best. For every “Rachel Berry” there are probably 20 talented kids who simply like to dance or sing, and whose musical touchstones are rock, rap, and soul.
And after all, what the Glee kids do is not musical theater, but (mostly) production numbers of pop songs, hardly different from MTV music videos like “Thriller” and the generations of small-screen production numbers it engendered. When they do dust off a song from a musical, it’s usually for a diva turn. Nothing wrong with that, but I wonder: is there room for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harnick and Bock, Sondheim or the next Sondheim, between their earbudded ears? For some, of course there is, but are we seeing a genuine expansion of interest in a new generation, or just a blip? Does a child’s obsession with Wicked flower into a lifelong love of theater, or is it distilled down to nothing more than the memory of a catchy song about escaping the limits of childhood? Lots of kids love to do theater in school, but most grow out of it as if it were soccer, and too many of those fail to become adult theater-lovers. With tickets costing well over $100, it’s certainly hard to imagine Broadway, at least, ever being for the masses again.
It’s also worth noting that theatrical performance has changed for good now that everything is amplified. During the birthday concert, one of today’s brightest young Broadway stars, Laura Benanti, contributes a performance of “So Many People” (from the early Sondheim effort Saturday Night). She has a lovely voice and is a fine actress—I’ve seen her on stage and can attest to that. But put her on a stage with Patti Lupone and you can tell from her small-brush vocal style that Benanti came of age in the era of amplification. (You can hear Lupone herself sound off about this issue in one of the extra features on the DVD of Rick McKay’s priceless interview feature Broadway: The Golden Age). Broadway voices aren’t what Broadway voices used to be, even when they belong to singers who could probably do it the old-fashioned way if they had to.
On the other hand, there has been a fan backlash against the overuse on Glee of Auto-Tune, the next step after amplification in the over-perfection of the once-merely-human voice. People will tolerate only so much fakery, and it’s as true as ever that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And that’s what Sondheim teaches us: you don’t have to fool us. Do the work; make the art. Give us a chance, and we’ll get it, regardless of where we’re getting it—on the Broadway stage, in a dark Off Off Broadway basement, regionally—or just on TV.