BWW Reviews: Sondheim Shares First-hand Insights in Retrospective Concert
Making good on his promise to eventually show up in Orange County to speak about his enduring career in the theater, legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim finally made his long-awaited appearance at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Despite scheduling this previously missed engagement coincidentally on Friday the 13th—a day infamously plagued by spooky superstition—the landmark event Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation, actually happened this time as anticipated—with all the expected participants present.
Part talk show, part concert showcase, the event was once again steered by host Michael Kerker, ASCAP's Director of Musical Theatre, who lobbed candid and sometimes intriguing questions at the now 82-year-old Broadway genius, which were repeatedly met with witty quips and straightforward inside tidbits. While fanatics have no doubt already heard (or read) some of these revelations before, it was all still a treat to hear them spoken as first-hand testimony from the Oscar-winning, 8-time Tony winner himself. Introduced by Kerker as a "giant among giants," Sondheim certainly spoke his mind without much filtration, and summarily spent the evening quashing any notions of deeper things to find in his otherwise incredibly thought-out body of work.
And, as promised, Broadway stars Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell (backed by pianist and musical director Tedd Firth) were also back to add live musical performances that demonstrated exactly why Sondheim continues to be one of our nation's living treasures. Admittedly, though, I still contend that it was a "happy accident" that Sondheim's originally-scheduled appearance in October was derailed by a freak snowstorm, allowing Ebersole and Mitchell (who were already in town) to give Orange County Broadway lovers a hastily "cobbled-together" evening of gorgeously-rendered Sondheim tunes that became one of the highlights of the Center's season (which I reviewed HERE). To have them back was a delightful treat, even though part of me really wished that they were allotted more time to sing more songs.
But, with that said, the night's agenda was mesmerizing to take in to say the least. Not so much gruff-sounding in his responses as he was just matter-of-factly unfazed by bullshit, Sondheim peppered his shared recollections with the tone of a smart and sensible guy that doesn't give much credence to intense examinations or layered interpretations of his work—as intellegently thought-out as his work may be to the world.
Late in the program, when queried about an on-going theory posed by a teacher about the loaded significance of using vowel sounds vs. consonants in musicals—particularly his—Sondheim gave Kerker an almost frustrated glance of "seriously?" that had the sold-out house snickering. "That oversimplification is just nonsense," he dismissed. "I have no patience in generalizations. This teacher should retire!"
The thunderous applause that followed suggested that the audience very much agreed with him: that the pure enjoyment of a Sondheim "invention" (a term he self-coined for his work) is all that really matters. "Matters of nomenclature is just a waste of time," he continued. "Terminology is for the critics."
Before delving into the world of musical theater—for which, he admitted, he had no prior reference library to partake from—Sondheim was first influenced by the grand sweeping nature of Hollywood music, a genre that hovered between big-band and concert music. It was at the age of ten when Sondheim met lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II—who would later go on to become not only a substitute parental figure, but be the ultimate spark that triggered his already burgeoning love of stage scores.
Refreshingly honest, Sondheim spent much of the evening truthfully summarizing his working relationships with well-known colleagues—most of whom are no longer around to corroborate. Hammerstein, whom he already described as an important, early mentor, was also the person Sondheim attributed as the one that got him "interested in songwriting." His big break came, of course, was writing lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY, which introduced him to composer Leonard Bernstein (whom he affectionately called Lenny). Of Bernstein, Sondheim plainly said that "he made me less square," pointing out that the brilliant composer allowed Sondheim to create more freely and to never play it safe.
His candidness throughout, of course, allowed for other, well, interesting assessments. When asked about Jule Styne, whom he collaborated with on GYPSY, Sondheim flatly stated: " I can't say I learned a lot from him. If anything he learned more from me and [book writer] Arthur Laurents!"
Other revelations proved eye-opening: "Losing My Mind" from FOLLIES, according to Sondheim, was created to reflect a Gershwin pastiche. A focused writer that's not easily distracted, he wrote half of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC sitting in the middle of a noisy steakhouse.
Kerker, for his part, did a valiant job with his line of questioning, trying to coax out profound answers. Carefully treading, our evening's host brought up the subject of composer Richard Rodgers, whom Sondheim had an admittedly tumultuous collaboration with on DO I HEAR WALTZ? (Sondheim was brought in to replace Hammerstein, the production's original lyricist, who had died in the middle of the project). Despite Rodgers' obvious brilliance, "he was less confident," revealed Sondheim. "He rewrote [a lot of the music] because he was out of ideas."
"We're Gonna Be Alright"—a duet from the show which Sondheim described as very "Lorenz Hart-like" because it "adds a little acid into a show instead of a lot of bland sweetness"—was sung superbly well by Ebersole and Mitchell. This opener, naturally, continued the trend of wonderful performances throughout the program. Ebersole, wowed the audience with a riveting rendition of "Losing My Mind" and showed perfect comic timing on "The Little Things You Do Together" and "I Never Do Anything Twice" (from the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution). Mitchell—who for me personally is quite possibly Broadway's best living male Baritone belter—once again sings exceptionally well, tackling "It Would Have Been Wonderful," "Pretty Women" (by himself! too), and "Finishing the Hat." The two Broadway superstars later concluded the evening with a rousing "Move On."
And, besides the great performances themselves, it was also a treat glancing over once in a while to observe Sondheim himself watching Ebersole's and Mitchell's singing, at times sitting back in his chair contentedly with a huge, beaming smile like a proud papa, and at other times, fidgeting in his seat while rubbing his face—as if a bit bashful of all the attention his life's work was getting.
The bashfulness seemed genuine—and understandable. When asked what he thought about critics' opinions, Sondheim timidly offered that he stopped reading reviews of his work after FOLLIES. "I don't have that kind of thick skin," he confessed.
But perhaps the best point brought up by the evening's musical lecture was highlighting Sondheim's ultimate contributions to the genre itself, ushering in new waves of musical theater within each decade forever affecting how shows are thereafter. With FOLLIES and COMPANY, for example, Sondheim found it intriguing to create shows that were also partially revues, opening the door for musicals that don't necessarily have a plot, but are intriguing nonetheless.
Rather than adhering to the rules of a traditional book musical, songs in many of his shows became interruptions to the dialogue, but still kept the show moving forward towards a trajectory. The same can be said about A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM—where the songs became "breaks" from the comedy—and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC—where the songs became short pauses within "two hours of people flirting with each other," Sondheim joked.
Above all, though, Sondheim's goal with all his musicals is that they sustain the interest of the audience. "Clarity is everything," Sondheim summed up. "The most important thing with everything is that it's clear... that [the audience] knows what's going on. You want it to be as simple to follow as possible." Luckily for most of his fans both rabid and casual, his musicals also happen to contain some of the best written songs ever written for the theater.
And the admiration, natch, were mutual across the stage. Asked to describe Sondheim's music, Ebersole turned to the audience with an evil grin and drawled "His music is like... the 50 shades of gray!" The audience howled. "He's Mozart, folks!" Mitchell, for his part, described the composer's music as "little works of art." I couldn't have said it better.
Overall a refreshing program to the Center's Cabaret series, this conversation-slash-concert offering is, hopefully, a continued practice for the foreseeable future. Much like running commentary tracks on DVDs, these types of shows are such a huge wealth of inside info—especially when the genuises themselves are allowed to speak on their own behalf. Bringing Sondheim to talk about his music and then seeing him watch impeccable performances of his creations is about as memorable an event as it can get.
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The Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret Series continues with Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli (October 5, 2012), Michael Feinstein in The Sinatra Project (October 27, 2012), Lea Salonga (January 19, 2013), Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley (February 14 - 16, 2013), Barbara Cook with her 85th Birthday Concert (April 13, 2013), and Betty Buckley (May 16 - 18, 2013).
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.SCFTA.org.