Review: All-Star Cast Shines in A BROADWAY BIRTHDAY Celebrating Sondheim and Lloyd Webber

The sublime one-night-only concert brings stars Betty Buckley, Aaron Lazar, and more to honor Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.

By: Apr. 10, 2024
Review: All-Star Cast Shines in A BROADWAY BIRTHDAY Celebrating Sondheim and Lloyd Webber
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Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa has, for decades, served as the main performing arts and live theatrical hub for Orange County, California, hosting a plethora of acts from world-class ballet troupes and internationally-renowned artists to OC's own Pacific Symphony as well as many nationally-touring companies of Broadway plays and musicals. 

Every so often, this gorgeous arts campus—now, additionally, the home of the ultra-modern Orange County Museum of Art—also plays host to several unique special events that bring Broadway's top talents to their stages… not to act out any specific characters that suddenly burst into song, but to actually perform as just themselves, singing tunes of every conceivable genre… though, more likely than not, the genre that is something more akin to their respective wheelhouses. 

So, of course, it was only natural that a concert entitled "A BROADWAY BIRTHDAY: SONDHEIM, LLOYD WEBBER, AND FRIENDS"—a one-night-only concert that played the fully-packed Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on March 28, 2024—would bring many of these incredible talents from the Broadway stage, past and present, to Orange County, here specifically to honor two very important, highly-influential giants in the world of musical theater. 

Review: All-Star Cast Shines in A BROADWAY BIRTHDAY Celebrating Sondheim and Lloyd Webber

This beautifully-executed concert—brought to Segerstrom Center via affable producer/director/on-stage theater historian and occasional vocalist Scott Coulter—aimed to celebrate the coincidentally-shared March 22nd birthdays of both the prolific British theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the late unmatched "genius" of the American theater, Stephen Sondheim. Along the way, a tiny sprinkling of other theater composers were also mentioned for having a direct (or indirect) influence on Sondheim and Lloyd Webber's expansive body of work.

The concert's impressive roster of stars—who all shared connections with shows by either or both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber—was as amazing to see listed on paper as it was to finally experience them one at a time on stage. 

Leading the assemblage is the legendary stage-and-screen star Betty Buckley, who, aside from her work on TV and films, is most notable in our theater sphere as the winner of the Tony Award for Lloyd Webber's 1982 hit Cats, as well as for playing the lead role of Norma Desmond in both the West End and Broadway productions of Lloyd Webber's acclaimed stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. Here in the OC, Ms. Buckley was last seen on stage at Segerstrom Center in 2019 as the lovable title character in the national tour production of the 2017 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! (though, sadly, she was ill during the time I reviewed the show for its Costa Mesa opening night).

Buckley was also joined on this concert stage by a parade of excellent talents that included Tony and Grammy nominee Liz Callaway (who made her Broadway debut in the original production of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along); Kerry O'Malley (who starred in the stage adaptation of White Christmas, but also appeared as the Baker's Wife in the 2002 revival of Sondheim's Into the Woods); relative newcomer Alex Joseph Grayson (most recently seen in the 2023 revival of Parade and was also in the cast of the 2022 revival of Into the Woods); Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe-nominated Matthew Morrison (best known for TV's Glee and Broadway's Hairspray, The Light in the Piazza, and Finding Neverland); and Broadway vet Aaron Lazar (who starred opposite Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2009 Broadway revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and, locally, in the superb 2016 production of Merrily We Roll Along that I enjoyed immensely at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre).

These ultra talented multi-hyphenates were accompanied on stage by a terrific orchestra of violinists, percussionists, and brass instrumentalists headed up by arranger/principal pianist John Boswell, who began the concert with an opening overture from Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera

Thereafter, one by one, each of the featured performers came out to sing either a Sondheim or Lloyd Webber selection, with a stray, non-Sondheim/Lloyd Webber tune here and there to fulfill the "and friends" portion of the concert's title that still managed to fit within the overall theme of the evening—which, strictly by the numbers, seemed to have heavily favored selections from Sondheim much more than from Lloyd Webber (which got no complaints from me, to be honest).

Up first was the effervescent O' Malley, dressed in an appropriately gorgeous, vintage-looking rose-patterned dress (her first of many lovely costume changes throughout the evening), to sing a rousing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy, the 1959 musical that featured music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim. 

She was followed next by Callaway with the song "Broadway Baby," the adorable ditty from Sondheim's 1971 musical Follies (my favorite of his musicals). Mixed in between verses of the song, she shared her amusing story of her Broadway debut in the initial, very short-lived original production of Merrily We Roll Along, which began her long history with Sondheim that have since included many tribute concerts, the European premiere production of Sondheim on Sondheim, and her own 2022 studio album To Steve with Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim. She continued her on-stage Sondheim tribute with an emotive mashup of two exquisite songs from that very album—"I Remember," and "Take Me To The World"—from Sondheim's less familiar 1966 made-for-TV short-form musical Evening Primrose

Next, after a delicate, melancholic piano solo interlude of "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific by Boswell, the evening's emcee, producer Coulter—who was also the fun, encyclopedic host of Segerstrom Center's recent concert tribute to Olivia Newton-John—explained how the classic work of musical theater dream team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was a significant influence in the work of both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. An even more interesting tidbit was the fact that Hammerstein was actually an important mentor for Sondheim growing up, and who later even urged the young Sondheim to reverse his rash decision to turn down writing lyrics for a then brand new musical that would later be known as West Side Story (we should all thank Hammerstein for that meddling).

This anecdote appropriately led into a medley of beloved songs from West Side Story performed by amped song-and-dance man Morrison (with the same vibe we got from him many times on the show Glee) that included “The Jet Song," "Something's Coming," "Cool," "America," "Gee, Officer Krupke," and "Maria." Fun fact: in his youth, Morrison attended OC's performing arts high school!

Next up was, perhaps, the night's most impressive discovery: the Segerstrom Center debut of Grayson, whose first number of the evening was a powerful, fiercely-belted rendition of "Heaven On Their Minds" from Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, followed afterwards by Coulter's dramatic take on "I Don't Know How To Love Him" from the same musical, with lyrical pronouns intact. 

This was followed by a stirring, extremely heartfelt solo number from Lazar, who gave a beautifully poignant, powerfully-performed rendition of "Being Alive" from Sondheim's Company as his first song of the evening. For myself, this was the first time I’ve seen Lazar perform on stage since before the pandemic, and this was, for many people, also their first time seeing him on-stage since sharing some unfortunate personal news.

Lazar—who recently revealed that he has been battling ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) for the past two years—earned a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience as he bravely walked off-stage after his song aided only by a cane. 

He noted before his performance that "Being Alive" has, understandably, taken on a much more meaningful personal context as it related to his recent struggles. Personally speaking, Lazar has always been a favorite musical theater actor of mine, from witnessing his many appearances at Segerstrom's cabarets and his various roles in SoCal-area productions, right up to his excellent turn as Larry Murphy in the first national tour of Dear Evan Hansen that played right here in the OC in January of 2019. 

Next, O'Malley came back, tasked with following up such a touching moment with an exhilarating take on the Sondheim fave "Ladies Who Lunch" (also from Company), enhanced with her growling sass and an unsteady martini glass (from my orchestra seat, I wasn't sure if the glass had actual liquid in it or not), followed by the return of Grayson with his endearingly spirited rendition of "Giants in the Sky" from Sondheim's Into the Woods. Dang, more Grayson, please!

Immediately after Grayson took his bows, Coulter came back out and praised the young man for his wonderful performance, and revealed that Grayson had already hopped into an Uber as soon as he exited the stage in order to make a red-eye flight from LAX back to NYC, to ensure that he'd be back on-stage at his next performance on the East Coast (this explained why he would later be missing from the finalé and closing bows).

Coulter then introduced the show's marquee name, Ms. Buckley, who performed a dedicated segment of several consecutive songs accompanied by her own marvelous backing jazz combo that included musical director/pianist Christian Jacob, Trey Henry on upright bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. Much like her solo concerts at Segerstrom Center in years past, Ms. Buckley regaled the audience with her storied theatrical history, particularly in her acclaimed signature lead roles in two very distinctive Lloyd Webber musicals.

Her set began with a very lovely, rather emotional revisit to Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard via her lead character's signature ballad "As If We Never Said Goodbye" that garnered loud applause even with just the first line, followed by a stirring "Not A Day Goes By" from Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, that she handled with great care and gravitas.

She then recalled the time when she originated the role of the Witch in the very, very early out-of-town workshops for Sondheim's Into the Woods (something I just learned at this concert), which led to a new, jazz-ified "No One Is Alone" arranged by her French musical director Jacob. Ms. Buckley had the audience in stitches when she prefaced the song by explaining that this brand new, rather complex arrangement was sprung onto her by Jacob with great insistence that she would do it well, even though it required her to literally count the rhythms out loud to get it exactly right (which she did, which was adorable). The results were, as Jacob apparently predicted in his French accent, "beautiful."

Ms. Buckley then closed out her enchanting set with a pair of emotionally touching ballads that had everyone beaming. First, she caressed through a moving "Send In The Clowns" (from Sondheim's A Little Night Music) followed by the song, she admitted, she thought she would never perform live on stage ever again. 

Luckily for this one-night-only audience, she blessed us with a rare encore performance of, arguably, the song she is most associated with—"Memory" from Lloyd Webber's Cats— a song that, as a 35-year-old, won her a Tony Award. 

In one of the most memorable moments of the evening, Ms. Buckley winningly revived the musical theater staple and, of course, received a well-earned standing ovation. In a very funny footnote relating to the song, she recalled being instructed by the show's director that the role needed to "radiate death and dying" during its performance. After her first try, she said the director had just one note for her: to make it sound even "more suicidal" which had the audience chuckling.

After Ms. Buckley's set, Coulter came back out and asked the audience to shout out any Sondheim songs that they felt had not yet been covered that night, perhaps because it's just impossible to do Sondheim's entire voluminous body of work in one show. Various song titles were shouted out, and I myself personally screamed "Old Friends" (from Merrily…). As a neat surprise, Coulter had pianist Boswell play a remarkable, impromptu medley out of all the Sondheim song titles that were yelled out on the spot! Along with "Old Friends," Boswell worked in songs like "Sunday (Finale)" from Sunday In The Park With George, "Opening Doors" from Merrily…, and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods to everyone's awe.

Next, a spirited Lazar ditched his cane and instead quickly wheeled himself out in his wheelchair—which he admitted felt much better—and spoke a bit more candidly about his ongoing health battle and how his two teen sons (who were in the audience that night) inspired him daily.

In, arguably, the most inspiring moment of the entire concert, Lazar then sung a beautifully triumphant, belt-tastic rendition of "Impossible Dream" (from the musical Man of La Mancha) which, in his hands (and powerful, resonant voice), became a deeply personal anthem of strength and perseverance that had many in the audience in tears. The performance also earned him an even longer standing ovation and the loudest cheers of the night. Sounding just as self-assured and commanding as ever before, Lazar's appearance on the show was such a highlight for many, including me.

Callaway had the tough task of following Lazar, but did so with effortless grace in her lovely take on Lloyd Webber's "Tell Me On A Sunday," which was then followed by O'Malley (in another gorgeous costume change) to sing an appropriately epic "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" from Lloyd Webber's Evita (coincidentally, is my personal fave Lloyd Webber musical). The Lloyd Webber tribute segment concluded with Morrison doing, of course, "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera, which he conquered with great dramatic flair and range.

To cap off the evening, the entire cast (minus Grayson who was probably already boarding his flight at this point) came back out to all sing a divinely uplifting "Somewhere" from West Side Story, though part of me wished they concluded with "Sunday" for extra heart-tugging oomph to finish things off in much more grandiose fashion. 

But, regardless, this beautiful, soul-stirring concert was a sublime evening of songs, stories, and tidbits, and being there to experience it in person—featuring some incredible singing voices of Broadway’s best—felt like a warm, comforting hug that also amplified why both Lloyd Webber and Sondheim have contributed so much to the art of musical theater.

Here's hoping for more of these tribute concerts for the OC! I can only imagine what awesomeness Coulter and company can come up with doing an all-Rodgers-and-Hammerstein evening or, perhaps, an all-Kander-and-Ebb night in the future!

Top photo by Robb Neale. Photos courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Tickets to upcoming performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.


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