Review: A MUSICAL CONVERSATION ABOUT STEPHEN SONDHEIM Sheds New Light on the Composer's Genius

Hershey Felder's fascinating & entertaining look at Sondheim's music is currently available for streaming

Review: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Hershey Felder takes us to the Venice of Stephen Sondheim & Richard Rodgers'
Do I Hear a Waltz?

In the 16 months since Stephen Sondheim passed away, there have been countless tributes to and analyses of his singular genius. As well-intended and researched as so many of them have been, they've largely left me feeling vaguely disappointed because they didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. Surely the man's creative output was so complex and rich that there must still be underexplored facets of his work that would be news even to a lifelong Sondheim enthusiast such as me. Which is exactly why I found pianist and actor Hershey Felder's A Musical Conversation About Stephen Sondheim so thrilling.

By choosing to give primacy to Sondheim's music over his lyrics, rather than the more typical other way around, Felder illuminates the work in ways I've never experienced before. While I don't need anyone to explain to me why lyrics like "while her withers wither with her" are drop-dead brilliant, I'm not musician enough to necessarily grasp why, say, the opening vamp to "Sunday" always makes me cry (turns out it's the Bach-flavored harmonies). In a swift 90 minutes, I learned so many things about songs I thought I already knew like the back of my hand that it made my head spin. Felder's approach also truly honors the man as Sondheim considered himself to be a composer first, and a lyricist second.

After a brief introduction, Felder gets things off to a fascinating start by examining the piano score for the ubiquitous "Send in the Clowns." I've always loved the introductory measures and credited that to the sensitive playing of whoever the pianist was on whatever recording I happened to be listening to. Imagine my surprise to learn that they were merely following the repeated poco ritardando and a tempo markings in the score. In other words, they were playing it exactly as Sondheim intended. Felder points out how this slowing and quickening of tempo prepares the listener for the emotional content of a song that is, after all, about a relationship that can't seem to find its footing. From there, he explores how the shifting harmonies support the lyrics. It's a thrilling five minutes or so that allowed me listen to the song with entirely new ears. And it certainly doesn't hurt that it is so gorgeously played by Felder.

Review: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Felder delves into "The Ladies Who Lunch" in A Musical Conversation About Stephen Sondheim

But that's just one of many such "aha moments" as Felder goes on to discuss and play songs from most of Sondheim's shows. For example, what a revelation it is to hear something like "The Ladies Who Lunch" stripped of its lyrics, and thus divorced from the mesmerizing performances of outsized divas like Elaine Stritch or Patti LuPone. I felt like I really heard the song for the very first time and was astonished by how beautiful the melody is and how lush the harmonic progressions are. Similarly, when he points out how the opening verse to "Not While I'm Around" (the "not to worry, not to worry" section) sounds just like the bells of London, it made this little snippet of music come alive for me in a whole new way. I could go on, but will stop here so as not to spoil any more surprises.

Felder intersperses his piano playing and analyses with basic biographical detail on Sondheim and is joined for a couple of tunes by young musical theater graduates to illustrate the points he has been making. Lest any of this sound dry or academc, I can assure you it is not. Felder is a natural teacher who is able to make complex concepts easily understandable even to non-musicians, not to mention a boatload of fun. In that way, he's sort of a latter-day Leonard Bernstein. He also makes sure to sprinkle the educational content with delightfully humorous anecdotes such as his happening upon opera star Renata Scotto's misguided attempt at "Send in the Clowns" on the Merv Griffin Show back in 1979, and his lone almost-meeting with Sondheim in 2016. The video is further leavened by historical photos and some stunning footage of Venice, Italy where Felder lives. The latter is conveniently appropriate to the topic at hand since Sondheim's 1965 show Do I Hear a Waltz? was set there.

Review: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Felder with Leo, his beloved black standard poodle

But what ultimately makes the show resonate so deeply is Felder's sharing his own emotional connections to Sondheim and his work. We get affecting personal stories such as how he will always relate Into the Woods to his mother's tragically premature death when he was just an adolescent, and how he vibes with Sondheim as a fellow dog lover. I do have a few quibbles, such as the implication that Do I Hear a Waltz was written prior to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or the omission of the ground-breaking Pacific Overtures, but those are decidedly minor lapses compared to the wealth of riches on offer.

I could easily see this program appealing to Sondheim nerds and neophytes alike. Word is that Felder intends to expand this into a multi-part series with future episodes focusing on a wide array of composers from the great classicists up through Broadway's Golden Age and even into the rock era. I'm totally down with that.


A Musical Conversation About Stephen Sondheim is available for streaming at

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