‘Sondheim! The Birthday Concert’: A Suitable Celebration for One of the Giants of Musical Theatre

If ever a composer/lyricist deserved a birthday celebration with an exclamation point in the title, it’s Stephen Sondheim, who turned 80 this year. It’s hard to imagine American musical theatre without Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Sweeney Todd, to name just a few of his many shows. As if that’s not enough, he also wrote the lyrics for the perennials Gypsy and West Side Story (the latter with Leonard Bernstein). Sondheim was suitably feted on 15 March with a birthday concert in New York City featuring many of Broadway’s biggest stars, including several who were original cast members in many of Sondheim’s shows.

If you weren’t in New York this past March, you can still enjoy Sondheim’s birthday concert on a DVD (also available in Blu-Ray format). It offers a straightforward presentation of the concert at Avery Fisher Hall (whose stage appears to be wrapped up in a giant red ribbon and bow, courtesy of set designer James Noone) which places the spotlight squarely where it belongs, on Sondheim’s works and the splendid cast of performers assembled to pay tribute to the creator.

David Hyde-Pierce as master of ceremonies (as well as co-writer of the show with Lonny Pierce) keeps things moving briskly while adding a deadpan wit to the evening’s musical proceedings. One running joke is Hyde-Pierce’s suggestion that since the partially-Spanish-language revival of West Side Story has been so successful, the evening should feature Sondheim’s lyrics translated into other languages including “a Polish Pacific Overture” and “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Switzerland”. Hyde-Pierce finally gets his wish by mixing several languages into his rendition of “Beautiful Girls” from Follies. Humorously, the orchestra repeatedly begins playing music from Sweeney Todd only to be directed to switch to something else (one time admonished by Hyde-Pierce that “This is a birthday party. We’re going to eat cake, not people.”).

The show runs with precision from the opening number which has the stars arriving onstage as if for a swanky party to the finalé, in which 287 performers from current Broadway shows fill the stage and the aisles to sing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. The New York Philharmonic, directed by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani (who with Sondheim’s favorite orchestrator Jonathan Tunick arranged the evening’s overture), provides Sondheim’s music with the rich, full orchestral sound it deserves.

The singers include Donna Murphy (the original Fosca in Passion) Elaine Stritch (the original Joanne in Company), Chip Zien, Joanna Gleaason and Marin Mazzie (the original Baker and Baker’s Wife and a replacement Rapunzel for Into the Woods), Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin (the original George and Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George), and George Hearn (a replacement in the title role of Sweeney Todd). Several others have made notable impressions in revivals of Sondheim’s works including Karen Olivo (the 2009 revival of West Side Story), Michael Cerveris (the 2006 revival of Sweeney Todd and the 2004 revival of Assassins) and Patti LuPone (the 2008 revival of Gypsy and the 2006 revival of Sweeney Todd).

The musical selections (25 in all) concentrate on Sondheim’s best-known shows. There’s nothing from Gypsy and only “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music (perhaps because the latter was currently playing on Broadway) but West Side Story is represented by “America” and “Something’s Coming”, the former providing one of the few occasions when the camera operators seem unable to keep up with the performers. Follies provides the greatest number of songs included “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through”, “Too Many Mornings”, “The Road You Didn’t Take”, “Beautiful Girls”, “Losing My Mind”, “Could I Leave You” and “I’m Still Here”, the latter sung by the indomitable Elaine Stritch (who is five years Sondheim’s senior). On the more obscure side Victoria Clark sings “Don’t Laugh” from the 1963 show Hot Spot which Sondheim wrote with Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin and the theme from the movie Reds (not an obscure film, but how many knew Sondheim wrote the music?) is presented as an instrumental with ballet.

Sweeney Todd gets its share of attention, with two rival Sweeneys, George Hearn and Michael Cerveris appearing on stage together, both determined to stake their claim to the role.

Cerveris: “You first.”

Hearn: “Yes, I was.”

Cerveris: “After you.”

Hearn: “Yes, you were.”

Hearn wins that argument but Cerveris has a dangerous-looking razor so they sing “Pretty Woman” as a duet before Patti Lupone appears to sing “A Little Priest” with both of them.

As wonderful as the show is, the DVD package is disappointing: the only extra is a four-page booklet written by Lonny Price and the DVD box identifies songs but not performers. Nevertheless, time simply flies during this almost two-hour long concert. Where did the time go? We might ask the same thing about Stephen Sondheim’s career: has it really been 53 years since Tony and Maria first sang of their love, 48 since Pseudolus sought his freedom, 40 since Joanne toasted the ladies who lunch? It has, but you can’t tell it from the songs, which sound as fresh as ever. That’s the best compliment I can pay to one of the giants of the American musical theatre.

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RATING 8 / 10