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 zealotssome of whom waited in the cold all day to get inwere 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.
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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 generationcertainly not to methat 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: