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

From a production of The West Side Story on Broadway

This is Broadway at its best -- alive, glittering, and absolutely thrilling -- in tribute to one of its creative geniuses, Stephen Sondheim. The talented cast includes many from the original roles, and the songs are as fresh as ever.

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

Director: Lonny Price
Cast: David Hyde-Pierce, Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch
Distributor: Image Entertainment
Studio: WNET
Release Date: 2010-11

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.

Watch the full episode. See more Great Performances.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.