Sondheim on Sondheim
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 25, 2010
In a Broadway musical season that has been all about looking back (The Addams Family, Million Dollar Quartet, Fela; American Idiot, even) Sondheim on Sondheim stands out among the pack for having (a) a clear purpose (i.e., celebrating the master's 80th birthday) and (b) the most theatrical and sophisticated (and to my ear and brain, pleasing) material. I liked seeing "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from Follies and "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along re-created with faithful felicity. I liked hearing Leslie Kritzer perform the heck out of "Now You Know" (also from Merrily), and wished she'd had more opportunities to show off her prodigious talents. I liked hearing Norm Lewis perform "Being Alive" from Company. And I liked hearing Barbara Cook sing "In Buddy's Eyes" (Follies) and "Loving You" (Passion), although I was distressed by the costume provided to her for the latter number—a shapeless black cape and hood that's more suggestive of Hansel & Gretel's witch than a lovelorn spinster.
Now if you're familiar with the shows of Stephen Sondheim and understand the contexts surrounding each of the aforementioned songs, then you'll likely find things to enjoy in this new production at Roundabout's Studio 54. But I fear that if you're more of a casual acquaintance of Sondheim's oeuvre, then this show may confuse more than it enlightens. Though it includes videotaped narration by Sondheim himself about his life and his work, it assumes a good deal of knowledge on the part of its audience. So, for example, you may find "The Wedding is Off" interesting if you know that it was eventually replaced by the similar (but superior) "Getting Married Today" in Company, but if you don't know that, well, I don't know what you'll make of it.
The revue, conceived and directed by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine, feels haphazard and uneven. For every choice moment like the ones mentioned so far there are jarringly disappointing ones, notably Tom Wopat's attempts at "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd and "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George, and Vanessa Williams's lackluster "Ah, But Underneath" from Follies. The material is presented in no particular order, skipping around chronologically and thematically; some important themes of Sondheim's work are virtually unrepresented here, especially his wit. Where are the funny songs like "Impossible" or "Barcelona" or "I Never Do Anything Twice"? The Sondheim shown here is resolutely serious and melancholy; the only real laugh in the show comes from a naughty anecdote about Ethel Merman.
Sondheim on Sondheim is also, sadly, a little depressing. I think part of this stems from the knowledge that there will never be another new Sondheim score—something we didn't feel in the previous greatest hits compilations Side by Side by Sondheim and Putting it Together. And part is a result of the narrative provided by the subject in the video excerpts. Why is it important for Sondheim to tell us that he felt Do I Hear a Waltz was, essentially, a waste of time? Why do we need to know the details of his apparently very troubled relationship with his mother? The celebratory aspect of the show deflates utterly as we sit through these uncomfortable revelations. Though some of the insights Sondheim provides in the narration are interesting, maybe it would have been better just to let the work speak for itself?
And it might have been better, too, to let the work really exist in its natural context. Vanessa Williams does a credible "Good Thing Going" as a bluesy ballad, but that song is one of the very few that Sondheim created intentionally to sound like a pop hit. Cutesy rethinkings (like "Happiness," from Passion, done as a jokey and vaguely homophobic round-robin) and odd pairings ("Losing My Mind" in counterpoint with "Not a Day Goes By") diminish great theatre songs.
I haven't yet mentioned Euan Morton, Matthew Scott, and Erin Mackey, who complete the eight-member cast; Scott and Mackey are terrific in almost everything they do here, which is not all that much, unfortunately, while Morton seems less at home with the material. Beowulf Boritt has supplied a simple set based around a staircase that sometimes works quite well and sometimes seems to be a hindrance. Peter Flaherty's video and projections are generally distracting when they don't feature Sondheim speaking. Susan Hilferty's costumes are bland, except for some of the frou-frous Cook is given to wear, which are frequently unflattering.
I don't mind looking backward from time to time, especially at a body of work as rich and deep as Stephen Sondheim's. But I couldn't help thinking that this tribute to an artist who during the performance is explicitly compared to God (or, at least, a god) is a little more perfunctory and indulgent and a little less thoughtful and exciting than it ought to be.