Postcard from Broadway: ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

During the spring that Stephen Sondheim turned 80, I guess it’s logical that Broadway should be honoring him once again. New York Magazine famously asked, “Is Sondheim God?” The self-deprecating, quirky, occasionally transcendent answer to the question, the new revue Sondheim on Sondheim, shows that the answer is no – but he’ll do in a pinch.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, an ensemble of eight famous and not-so-famous musical-theater actors perform Sondheim’s work in between pronouncements from the master, served up via video from screens over their heads. It’s less Side by Side by Sondheim, the popular 1977 musical revue, than it is 60 Minutes with songs – a weird combination, fascinating and frustrating all at once.

The interviews, actually – which spans decades, judging by Sondheim’s dress, his hirsuteness and so on – are pretty compelling if, like me, you’re a musical-theater fan with a penchant for the heady. Sondheim talks about his childhood, his musical training under such masters as different as Milton Babbitt and Oscar Hammerstein II, the songs he and his collaborators chose to scrap and why.

In one bit, he talks about lyrics and why they should be simpler than some people think – that they need to breathe so that the audience has a chance to understand what’s going on. Then the great Barbara Cook sings “In Buddy’s Eyes,” from Follies, and you hear and see exactly what he means.

Sondheim on Sondheim is at its best when it, too, is simple – when the four younger actors aren’t running up and down the stairs of the abstract, spinning set, when one or two of the cast members are just singing their songs. The gorgeous, womanly Vanessa Williams does it best with “Good Thing Going,” from Merrily We Roll Along and then later in a medley, singing “Losing My Mind,” from Follies, with Cook singing Merrily’s “Not a Day Goes By.”

Cook, at 82 the queen of musical-theater singers, may not have the notes she had in her younger years, but her soulful delivery of “Take Me to the World,” from the 1966 TV musical Evening Primrose, and of the Sondheim classic “Send in the Clowns” shows that she knows better than anybody how to sing a song.

And Orlando’s own Norm Lewis, strong-voiced and handsome, has absorbed that lesson: He is at his best with the very best of Sondheim, Company’s transcendent “Being Alive.”

Not all of the music comes off so well, and neither do all the performers. Tom Wopat has lots of panache, but he’s wasted in comical throwaways and in an out-of-context, badly sung rendition of “Epiphany,” from Sweeney Todd. And all of the ensemble members, but especially the four younger ones (Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton and Matthew Scott) are sometimes forced into strident, over-complicated numbers – Company’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” Merrily’s “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”

Too often the production feels overdone – the shifting shards of video screen that make up the set, the strangely retro costumes (flashy on some of the women and dowdy on others), the busyness. You wonder, sometimes, if director James Lapine, one of Sondheim’s best collaborators, listened to what his longtime colleague said. Simplicity really is better. Ask Norm Lewis. Ask Barbara Cook.

(Photos: Top left, the cast: Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Matthew Scott, Erin Mackey, Barbara Cook, Euan Morton, Norm Lewis, Leslie Kritzer. Middle right, Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams. Bottom left: Norm Lewis, Euan Morton and Erin Mackey. Photos by Richard Termine.)

2 responses to “Postcard from Broadway: ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

  1. Dean Johnson

    How many songs does Barbara Cook do?
    I’m off to see Karen Akers tonight. Wish you were here.

  2. She sang at least half a dozen, including a couple of biggie solos. The Playbill, strangely, lists the songs but doesn’t say who sang what. In my notes I have her singing at least these: “Broadway Baby” (part of it), “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (with Wopat), “Take Me to the World” (solo), “Not a Day Goes By” (medley with Williams singing “Losing My Mind”), “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Send in the Clowns.” She also sings a lot with the ensemble. She’s on as much as or more than anyone else.

    What a gifted woman.