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Coverage of Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim

There's not a tune you can hum, not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum? Have people actually said such a thing about Stephen Sondheim's musicals?!

If it were true, how on earth could Symphony Space have put together the three-hour concert that closed out Saturday's Wall to Wall Sondheim, a 12-hour spree of performances, reminiscences and panel discussions held in honor of the composer's 75th birthday. Yes, the Sondheim zealots—some of whom waited in the cold all day to get in—were plotzing at a succession of performances by Angela Lansbury, George Hearn and other Sondheim vets. But even if you had just stumbled in from under the proverbial rock, you would have had to been entranced by the sheer loveliness of the music. As arranged by the likes of Jonathan Tunick and Jason Robert Brown, as sung by everyone from the Juilliard Choral Union to Patti LuPone, and as played by an orchestra under the direction of the tireless Paul Gemignani, almost every song in the concert sounded so...melodic...tuneful...so pretty. (Y'know, all those things Sondheim has been accused of not being.) Has any opera company ever delivered a multi-voice euphony as divine as Wall to Wall's "A Weekend in the Country"?

"Nobody ever questions his genius gifts as a lyricist," Gemignani told the audience in explaining why he included an orchestral performance of "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along. "People often forget he's a dual threat. He's a genius with a gift for melody also."

While such delicate Sondheim pieces as "Giants in the Sky" and "Someone in a Tree" made that abundantly clear, songs of every tempo and temperament sounded crisp and gorgeous in the concert. (One tidbit of Sondheim lore doled out during the event: He has cited "Someone in a Tree" as his favorite of all his work. Another: Gemignani was the drummer for the original Broadway production of Follies.) The singers were accompanied by the American Theatre Orchestra, except for a few piano accompaniments by Brown and Chris Fenwick.

Click here for photos!

The 8-11 p.m. concert, dubbed the "Orchestral Segment," concluded a marathon begun at 11 that morning with a mayoral proclamation and a children's production of Into the Woods. Throughout the day there were themed performance segments (comedy, waltzes) as well as segments devoted to each of Sondheim's shows, often with comments from someone associated with the original production (e.g., Barbara Barrie introduced songs from Company); discussions about various aspects of the Sondheim legacy, including "A Talk With Steve" himself (joined by James Lapine and John Weidman); and performances of his lesser-known compositions, from TV and movie music, to songs cut from shows, to instrumental compositions such as a violin sonata and a two-piano concertino that he wrote in the early '50s while studying with Oscar Hammerstein.

Some of the highlights, from 5 p.m. on...

Sondheim and American Popular Culture discussion

Between-Shows Broadway performances

Merrily We Roll Along

My Favorite Lyrics discussion

Orchestral Segment (a.k.a. the concert)

At the discussion of "Sondheim and American Popular Culture," moderated by Frank Rich:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon talked about Buffy's Sondheim-esque musical episode from 2001.
  • Melissa Bernardo of Entertainment Weekly connected Sondheim to Jennifer Lopez, who used a West Side Story motif for her recent Fashion Week show and who costarred in Jersey Girl, in which Ben Affleck takes his young daughter to see Sweeney Todd and later performs "God, That's Good" with her at a grade-school talent show.
  • The Wild Party and john & jen composer Andrew Lippa likened him to a consumer brand that's an inextricable part of American life: "The name Sondheim has become like Kleenex or Band-Aid..."
  • It was mentioned that several episodes of Desperate Housewives are named after Sondheim songs (exec producer Marc Cherry's idea).
  • Sondheim, on being imitated, sampled or otherwise appropriated by songwriters in other music genres: "I like it when people take liberties, as long as they take plenty of liberties. When they just take a note here or a note there, it drives me crazy."
  • And on musical theater in the rock-and-roll age: "I don't think it ever occurred to anybody in my generation—certainly not to me—that when rock came in, there was going to be anything but: That's pop music on the radio, and we're [theater composers] going to continue down our path. They would not be related... So it quite surprised me when rock musicals started to come in and then started to become popular and then started to try to tell stories."
  • After Sondheim said he doesn't listen to a lot of new music, Lippa offered to make him a mixtape. "You will not be the first," Sondheim replied with a smile.
  • Sondheim's favorite art form is film, but he doesn't really like movie musicals. "It's very hard to make a movie out of a musical play," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen one that I think worked, not just of my own. It's something about the repertorial quality of the cameras that's antithetical to what happens on the stage." The movie of West Side Story? It has "efficient" parts, but he's not even that enthusiastic about them. He does approve of the planned film of Sweeney Todd, to be directed by Sam Mendes and written by John Logan (The Aviator), because they know both movies and stage musicals and understand the differences.
  • If he had worked in movies, he'd have been an editor: "I love the process of putting a movie together, the whole puzzle aspect."
  • When the conversation turned to Sondheim's favorite directors, George Stevens came up. "Except for one category," Sondheim said, "I think he directed the best of every genre: the best Western, Shane; the best adventure picture, Gunga Din; the best comedy, More the Merrier; the best romance, Place in the Sun. But he never did film noir, which is, I suppose, my favorite." He did note about Stevens: "He got long-winded, the way that everybody got long-winded after the studio system broke up and there was no one to say 'Keep it to an hour and a half.'"

    Between-Shows Broadway featured a half dozen or so numbers by people currently in a show in New York, who came over to Symphony Space between their matinee and evening performances. Among them:

  • Joanna Gleason, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, did "The Boy From..." (while sitting cross-legged on top of the piano).
  • Carolee Carmello (Mamma Mia!) with a fab rendition of "There's Won't Be Trumpets."
  • Judy Kaye, still wearing her Old Lady's wig and makeup from New York City Opera's Candide—it would take too long to reapply—sang "Broadway Baby."
  • Michael Cerveris, not in the program—and not in a current cast—sang "Anyone Can Whistle." It's his father's favorite Sondheim song, and he said he chose it to honor the man to whom he owes his love of Sondheim. (Cerveris was one of the day's workhorses, also performing in the Sunday in the Park With George and Passion segments during the afternoon and in the finale concert at night.)
  • Tony Roberts, now appearing in Endgame at the Irish Rep, showed up unannounced—and had to persuade ushers to let him in—so he could share a Sondheim story. It went like this: When Roberts was a child, his mother once came home from a dinner party all aflutter over the pianist she had heard that evening. She insisted her son take piano lessons, but he never acquired the talent possessed by that dinner-party pianist. "Eventually I gave it up, and developed a tremendous inferiority complex every time this story was told," Roberts told the audience. "As I got older and realized that it was Stephen Sondheim who had been playing the piano, I gradually become more confident in all the areas of my life. With each passing year that his genius is even greater than it was, I feel even more and more vindicated."

    Click here for photos from Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim

    The Merrily We Roll Along segment featured:
  • Segment host Len Fleisher with possibly the greatest line of the day: "Prior to its opening, the show experienced what can only be described as epic tsuris, spiced with a particularly virulent brand of show-business schadenfreude." (Talk about les mots justes!)
  • The pre-opening problems, Fleisher recalled, included numerous rewrites, a last-minute lead replacement, firing of the choreographer, completely revamping sets and costumes, and a cost-prohibitive out-of-town preview. "The agonies of the creative process became fodder for a very hostile press," he said.
  • Original cast members Daisy Prince and Lonny Price shared a few memories. Price, age 22 when he costarred in Merrily, had worked with Sondheim and Hal Prince since he was 15 and, as "a pushy Jewish kid," had connived his way into a gofer job on Pacific Overtures. When Fleisher asked Prince—a high school sophomore when she appeared in Merrily—to confirm the story that her father (director Hal) was struck with the idea of musicalizing Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along for a young cast one day while shaving, she apologetically responded: "You know so much more than I do, and I was there! I honestly don't know... I've never seen him shave."
  • A whip-smart performance of "Opening Doors" with Alexander Gemignani in the Frank role, Danielle Ferland as Mary, Thom Christopher Warren as Charley, plus Sidney J. Burgoyne, Emily Loesser, Ivy Austin and—providing Charley's typing sound effect—Jason Robert Brown.

    Excerpts from the last panel of the day, "My Favorite Lyrics," moderated by Joel Fram:

  • Richard Maltby, lyricist of Baby and Big, selected "A Weekend in the Country": "It's a complete piece of playwriting subsumed into perfect lyric writing."
  • Georgia Stitt, songwriter and Broadway conductor, went for "How I Saved Roosevelt" from Assassins. "When Joel asked me to think of my lyric, the first thing that came to my mind was...'left bereft of FDR.'"
  • Parade creator Jason Robert Brown, explaining his choice, from Sweeney Todd: "What's brilliant about 'By the Sea' is it's a series of tricks—it's a trick number. He says to us, We're going to let you off the hook [of the show's macabreness] for about four and a half minutes, but he doesn't let himself off the hook in terms of what he has to accomplish character-wise or plot-wise." (Pacific Overtures cast member Freda Foh Shen then sang the song, accompanied by David Shire on piano.)
  • Maltby noted that it's not Sondheim's brilliance that makes "Weekend" so extraordinary—anyone can be brilliant, he said—but the precise elements of his brilliance. He then delineated each of them in a three-minute appraisal of the song, after which Brown wryly remarked: "I love how you say 'that brilliance is available to anybody.' What the hell is wrong with you?"

    The grand finale! The three-hour concert included:

  • To begin, The Frogs' "Invocations & Instructions to the Audience"—which requests they don't curse or intrude when someone's nude or brood if the show's crude or fart, because "there's very little air and this is art"—sung by Symphony Space artistic director Isaiah Sheffer (who hosted the entire 12-hour event) and Equity prez Patrick Quinn.
  • Angela Lansbury and George Hearn—Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd—reuniting after 25 years for "A Little Priest." Huge ovations, not surprisingly, on both ends of the performance.
  • Lonny Price still in peak Charley Kringas form 23-plus years later for "Franklin Shepard, Inc." (Michael Cerveris played the non-singing interviewer.)
  • Also re-creating a role: Barbara Cook sang "In Buddy's Eyes," as she had in the 1985 Lincoln Center Follies concert; Patrick Cassidy, the Balladeer in the original Assassins off-Broadway, sang "The Ballad of Czolgosz"; Cerveris, Becky Ann Baker, Merwin Foard and James Clow, all in last year's Broadway revival, did "The Gun Song."
  • Three divas for three of Sondheim's most famous anthems: Patti LuPone on "Being Alive"; Debra Monk, "I'm Still Here"; Donna Murphy, "Losing My Mind."
  • Other former Sondheim stars who took on new Sondheim roles for the night: Neil Patrick Harris, of last season's Assassins (and Sweeney Todd concerts), sang "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George and "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" from the teleplay Evening Primrose; B.D. Wong, recently out of Pacific Overtures, did "Children Will Listen" (Into the Woods); Alvin Ing, who was in both the original and revival casts of PO, with another selection from Primrose, "Take Me to the World"; Gregg Edelman, the most recent Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods, dueted with Michele Pawk on "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" from Sondheim's newest show, Bounce.
  • Young Buddy, Ben and Sally from the original Follies in 1971, Harvey Evans, Kurt Peterson and Marti Rolph, graduated to the their older counterparts in "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs."
  • Husband-and-wife teams: John Dossett played Frederik to Pawk's Desiree when she sang "Send in the Clowns." Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley performed "Happiness" from Passion (in between some serious smooches) and "Too Many Mornings."
  • Triumphant orchestral performances of "Comedy Tonight" and the Merrily We Roll Along overture.
  • Little Night Music's original choreographer Patricia Birch introduced "A Weekend in the Country," which she called "perhaps the best instructive, eminently stageable number that I've ever been involved with or seen." Wall to Wall's sextet comprised Laura Benanti, Kate Baldwin, Dossett, Randy Graff, Cerveris and Danny Gurwin. Benanti, Dossett and Gurwin also performed "Now/Later/Soon."

    And when the last note had been played, out came the cake. Sondheim blew out his candles and tearfully thanked all, as Lansbury, Hearn and others dabbed their eyes. Four decades of adulation crescendoed into one final ovation on a remarkable day of theater and music.

    Click here for photos from Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim

    A CD of the celebration will be out soon; contact Symphony Space for information.

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    Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri, one of BroadwayWorld's original columnists, created and writes the Gypsy of the Month feature on the website. She also does interviews and event coverage for BroadwayWorld, and is a member of the Drama Desk. Adrienne is also a travel writer and the author of the book "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways," published by Wilderness Press.


     
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