Contributed by Carlos Stafford
It was an immediate standing “O” for Sondheim on Sondheim at Roundabouts’ Studio 54 production in New York City. Still in previews, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat and the doyenne of song, Barbara Cook, head up a joyous biographic tribute to Stephen Joshua Sondheim.
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and numerous Tony’s, this prolific lyricist has enjoyed a storied career spanning five decades . Starting with his childhood neighbor and mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, he has collaborated with many luminaries from the Broadway Stage; Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Rodgers, to name a few.
His overriding themes and ideas are adult and poetic, and his idiosyncratic music and lyrics often convey neurotic people on an emotional precipice. Some of his major successes for music and lyrics include Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Passion, A Little Night Music, and the great Sunday in the Park with George; and lyrics for West Side Story, Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz, and Candide.
Video projections of Sondheim commenting on his childhood, his early years as a struggling artist, and the creative process for each of his works, were artfully delivered. They showed Sondheim as warm, relaxed and humorous–in his home, at his piano, lounging on a couch, his poodle nearby, an a his desk. All is very intimate and friendly. He recounts his close relationship with Oscar Hammerstein, and how he adored him. He said he would have done anything Oscar would have done–if Oscar would have been a geologist, he relates, he too would’ve been a geologist. All this comes at a tumultuous time in the young boy’s life, his parents having been recently divorced. Oscar became a friend and mentor, and was a pivotal figure in his early development.
Another intimate revelation is the fact that he wrote about love relationships and marriage, but had never been in love, or in a relationship, until he was sixty years old. When he wrote Company, a stark look at urban marriage, he had no idea what to write; so he interviewed a friend who had been married, pencil and yellow pad in hand, and he received his information. That, he said, was the unlikely genesis of the musical. Always charming and articulate, he walks us through similar moments of his life in a graceful and easy manner.
Underscoring his own words, comes the musical arrangements of his most successful works. The cast is terrific, the songs are delivered with energy and passion, and there are many moving, electric moments. The lyrics have sweep and majesty as in Sunday; great depth in Being Alive; and profound melancholia with a song covered by Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Collins,and Barbara Streisand, and countless others, Send in the Clowns. My personal favorite, was a small, but charming song, Anyone Can Whistle.
It was bliss, I think you’ll agree.
It’s a completely different kind of Sondheim evening: an intimate portrait of the famed composer in his own words…and music. An ensemble cast, led by Tony Award winner Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat, will perform brand-new arrangements of over two dozen Sondheim tunes, ranging from the beloved to the obscure.