The words and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim, master songwriter for the theatre, are on display in the fascinating and entertaining new musical “Sondheim on Sondheim” – ingeniously conceived and directed by James Lapine which has just opened at Studio 54.
It is a cross between a retrospective musical revue of some of his best and least known songs and a PBS documentary utilizing video taped interviews compiled over the years (check out the various hairstyles) and still photos of family and friends where through the magic of modern digital technology Mr. Sondheim seems to be live on stage, dishing and delving into how he works; giving us an intimate (or as intimate as he will allow) glimpse into his what some have called “His God-like genius”.
With eight of the best singers – the indomitable Barbara Cook whose voice is one of the seven wonders of the world, the gorgeous Vanessa Williams, leading man Tom Wopat, funny man Euan Morton, the virile and handsome Norm Lewis, quirky Leslie Kritzer, beautiful Erin Mackey with a voice to match and a man with a bright musical future Matthew Scott – to interpret Sondheim’s smart and witty lyrics with their complicated rhyme schemes that explore the heartache and humor, the passions and melancholy of his mostly neurotic characters.
Neurotic himself, (and who isn’t) he is the first to tell you they are the most interesting characters to write about. From Sweeny Todd to Bobby in Company, to Fosca in Passion and Mama Rose in Gypsy we are treated to the songs he has written over the decades. Songs that are interrupted by the observations of a candid, intelligent and humorous Sondheim who has a knowing twinkle in his eye as he strolls down memory lane without becoming the least bit sentimental.
Growing up an only and lonely child – his parents were divorced and his mother Foxy thought him an “inconvenience” he was farmed out to the neighboring Hammerstein family where Oscar Hammerstein became mentor and surrogate father. This is where young Stephen learned his craft. His mother may have regretted having given birth to her son but the world is and will be forever grateful that she did.
He is a complex man. He enjoys being alone but enjoys collaborating. It’s the family he never had. He suggests that lyrics should be clean and precise so that the audience can understand on first hearing but listen to some of his more complicated lyrics and you might wonder…
Aiding Mr. Lapine, side by side by side are set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Ken Billington and incredible video & projection designer Peter Flaherty without whom Sondheim on Sondheim would not be the same. The revolving set made up of various sized and angled screens and a larger screen that is like a giant puzzle which can be used in any combination of ways is put to great use as bit by bit his songs and life are deconstructed and brought together in many moments of brilliance with a small slump midway through Act I.
Go see this poignant Sondheim sampler and be awed and amazed at the immense output of this musical genius whose biggest commercial hit “Send in the Clowns” is given an hysterical send up with the many stars that recorded it then beautifully and simply sung by the only person in the world that could upstage Stephen Sondheim, Miss Barbara Cook. She is sublime.
www.roundabouttheatre.org Limited engagement through June 13th, 2010
Photo: Richard Termine
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