BWW Review: THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM COLLECTION is a Treasure Trove for All Theatre Fans; Available 4/14
Tomorrow is a day for celebration, musical theatre fans, as Image Entertainment releases THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM COLLECTION. This collection includes some of the most glorious productions of the musical theatre icon's works. Ranging from original Broadway casts to starry-concerts, THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM COLLECTION includes DVDs of five of Sondheim's most influential shows, and a sixth disc of the master's 80th Birthday Concert.
The star-power in this collection is second-to-none; including Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Neil Patrick Harris, Audra McDonald, David Hyde Pierce, Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, and many more.
In addition to SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT, the collection includes the PBS productions of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and INTO THE WOODS, the San Francisco Symphony concert of SWEENEY TODD, and the New York Philharmonic concert productions of FOLLIES and COMPANY.
For many reasons, this is a collection that musical theatre fans of all ages, and familiarity with Sondheim, must have. While I would have loved to have seen any sort of production of PASSION, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, ASSASSINS, or some of his other lesser-produced shows included, this set provides viewers with the most accessible entrance to Sondheim's works as could be imagined. From the fairytale world of INTO THE WOODS, to his analysis of an artist's mind in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, to a celebration of his best music and lyrics in his birthday concert, this assortment of DVDs has something for every musical theatre fan.
FOLLIES IN CONCERT (1985)
Before this DVD, I had never seen a staged production of FOLLIES; and while listening to the original cast recording while following along to the CD liners notes (as I did when I first checked the CD out of the library in the mid-90s) was helpful, this piece of "monumental theatre" has so many different characters and their younger selves, that unless you are able to visualize it, it can be a challenge to follow. So, for those that have fallen in love with the show's powerful tunes; including "Losing My Mind," "I'm Still Here," "In Buddy's Eyes," and more; seeing them performed by such a remarkable cast is revelatory.
Carol Burnett, Liz Callaway, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, Howard McGillin, the legendary Elaine Stritch, and many other phenomenal performers bring this story of a follies' girls reunion to life, with the help of the New York Philharmonic. While the pain and regret that these characters feel is obvious from all of the cast recordings, seeing it play out on stage is truly heartbreaking. Though there is very little staging in this production, the sweeping melodies and haunting productions takes you deep into the world of vaudeville era showgirls.
While a Rob Marshall film adaptation is currently swirling around Hollywood, this filmed concert production is a great way to be introduced to the ladies of the Weismann's Follies.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1986)
For many individuals, there is no better representation of what it means to be an artists than this revolutionary tale of breaking creative boundaries and following your artistic vision. In SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, we are first introduced to a fictionalized version of famed French painter Georges Seurat and his lover Dot. As Georges dedicates himself to the creation of his ground-breaking masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in the 1880s, he is in danger of losing not only his relationship, but his humanity.
In the second act, now in the 1980s, we are introduced to George, who may be Seurat's great-grandson, as he wrestles with how to balance both the creative and financial demands of being a commercial artist.
For me, this is the defining work of Sondheim's career. He and book writer James Lapine delicately weave a compelling story of imperfect, but admirable people, while also shedding light on the sacrifices necessary to create meaningful art. The original Broadway cast, led by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, will undoubtedly leave you in tears more than once. The final chords of "Sunday" that end Act I just might be the most breathtaking notes ever written for the musical theatre. When you get your hands on this collection, I would recommend pulling out this disk first!
In addition to this glorious production, there is also an "Audio Commentary Feature" that includes some fascinating insights from Sondheim, Lapine, Patinkin, and Peters.
INTO THE WOODS (1990)
On the heels of SUNDAY, Peters leads this production featuring Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason, and the rest of the original Broadway cast. If you loved the recent big screen adaptation of this fairytale classic, you can't miss this thoroughly delightful stage production. The original cast, especially Peters' Witch, brings more humor to Lapine's book than in the film, and the cast of regular Sondheim interpreters bring even more life and reality to the songs than you could imagine.
There are a number of notable differences in this production as compared to the Disney film. The roles of The Narrator and The Baker's Father have been restored, and Little Red (and Jack) are older than on screen, which adds a whole other dimension to the tension between Red and The Wolf. While I might recommend covering the little ones' eyes when the Wolf's mid-section is visible, on the whole, this is a fantastic way to introduce young theatre lovers to the mastery and majesty of Sondheim's works.
SWEENEY TODD IN CONCERT (2001)
Before she starred opposite Michael Cerveris in the role on Broadway, LuPone played Mrs. Lovett to Hearn's titular Sweeney Todd; first in a New York Phil concert, and then in a remounting with the San Francisco Symphony. While the former was preserved on CD, the latter was fortunately recorded for DVD and video.
Easily Sondheim's most gruesome work, this gothic musical tells the surprisingly humorous tale of a barber hell bent on getting revenge on the evil men who ripped apart his family more than 15 years ago. The barber, with help from the pie-shop owner below, mounts a treacherous plan than will most likely turn your stomach.
What I enjoy most about this disk is that the production is truly barebones, which really helps you focus on the genius wordplay of Sondheim's lyrics. Instead of looking at a spinning, two-story set, or a chair that reclines into a deadly slide, you are able to appreciate the truly sinister joy that Sondheim and this marvelous cast takes in creating these nefarious characters. This is especially helpful if you are only familiar with the show from the disappointing Johnny Depp feature film.
In addition to LuPone and Hearn, Broadway favorites Harris and Davis Gaines turn in winning performances as well.
This disk also includes a "Making of Featurette" that takes you behind the scenes of the production.
SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT (2010)
This one needs little explanation; in 2010, Broadway's biggest stars assembled to sing Sondheim their best wishes in celebration of his 80th birthday. The star-wattage at Avery Fisher Hall that night was utterly stunning; Laura Benanti, Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Gleason, Hearn, LuPone, McDonald, Donna Murphy, Karen Olivo, Laura Osnes, Patinkin, Peters, Stritch, Zien, and many, many more sing songs from some of Sondheim's most beloved musicals.
There are many wonderful things about this DVD; the first is that the songs selected are not just ones that feature both Sondheim's music and lyrics (as the other disks in this collection are). It is nice to hear songs from WEST SIDE STORY, DO I HEAR A WALTZ?, SATURDAY NIGHT, and others mixed in with those from FOLLIES, MERRILY, SUNDAY, etc.
The most moving thing about this concert is the sheer love and respect that all of the singers have for Mr. Sondheim. These performers are the greatest singing actors and actresses in the world, and each and every one of them goes out of their way to thank "Steve" for the enormous contributions that he has made to the artform, and, more specifically, to their lives.
For people who know the history of the musical theatre's last 60 years, there is no one who looms larger than Sondheim, and to see our greatest luminaries giving thanks for his work, is truly moving.
COMPANY IN CONCERT (2011)
I am especially partial to the final DVD in the collection, because I saw this production in person at Avery Fisher Hall in 2011. I even think that if you look closely during one of the audience shots, you might be able to see the back of my head! In terms of musical theatre history, COMPANY is ground-breaking in that it tells its story not with a chronological narrative, but with a series of vignettes centering on confirmed bachelor Bobby, who is preparing to "celebrate" his 35th birthday. The musical deftly examines the highs and lows to being married (or single) while living in New York City. Sondheim and book writer George Furth find the subtle, natural humor and heartache that goes along with being in a committed relationship.
With some of Sondheim's most moving songs, "Sorry-Grateful," "Marry Me a Little," "The Ladies Who Lunch," and "Being Alive," this incredible cast of stage, TV, and film stars never ceases to amaze. Led by NPH, the cast also features LuPone, Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Anika Noni Rose, Katie Finneran, Plimpton, Jon Cryer, Craig Bierko, and more.
For me, the three stand-out moments in the show are LuPone's rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch," Plimpton demonstrating what she's learned at her karate lessons on Colbert, and two-time Tony-winner Finneran nailing "(I'm Not) Getting Married Today."
You can pick up this incredible DVD set on Amazon or other places where you can culturally significant DVDs! Which disk from THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM COLLECTION are you most excited for? Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Also, make sure to follow @BWWMoviesWorld for all of the biggest news from the world of movies.