Sondheim The Birthday Concert 2010

Posted: September 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

For nearly half a century, Stephen Sondheim has extended the expressive possibilities of the musical theater with music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication. He made his Broadway debut as a lyricist, writing words for Leonard Bernstein’s music in West Side Story, and enjoyed his first success as a composer with the songs for A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.

Sondheim dominated Broadway in the early 1970s, winning Tony Awards for Best Score in three consecutive years for CompanyFollies and A Little Night Music. In these works, he deployed an exhaustive array of musical styles, while breaking with the musical’s traditional sentimentality to explore the disillusionment of maturity. His songs, including “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, have entered the repertoire of singers around the world.

While the Broadway musical becomes increasingly cautious, Sondheim has only become more daring. Pacific Overtures recounted the history of U.S.- Japanese relations; Sweeney Todd told a ghoulishly humorous story in a continuously sung score of operatic intensity. He shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with playwright James Lapine for their musical Sunday in the Park With George. Sondheim continues to break new ground for the theater in more recent works, includingInto the WoodsAssassinsPassion and his latest, Bounce


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In the five years in between the 75th and 80th birthday concerts, Broadway has received revivals of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” Sunday in the Park with George” and “A Little Night Music” with extremely pared down orchestras. I happened to like all these revivals, but I do really miss hearing Sondheim’s scores with a full orchestra. And perhaps that’s why these opportunities to hear songs like “A Little Priest,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Move On” with a full orchestra have become even more rare and important

After Paul Gemignani took the stage, the orchestra jumped into the “Swing your razor” motif from “Sweeney Todd,” only to have David Hyde Pierce leap onstage to beg Gemignani to start with something more festive. As the overture continued, the cast arrived onstage one by one, acting as if they were arriving for a birthday party. (The stage was marked by a giant red birthday present ribbon.) The title of the overture, which combined pieces of many different songs, was apparently titled “Happy Birthday Steve, now I don’t need to give you a present.”


Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls from the “West Side Story” revival performed “America” in costume, with a slightly reconfigured version of the choreography to suit the Philharmonic stage. rare Sondheim songs were performed from “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and “Hot Spot.

Jonathan Tunick then announced that the next few songs would highlight Sondheim’s 1970s shows. He claimed their quality is “unsurpassed.” Nathan Gunn gave an operatic rendition of “Johanna,” to be followed by him joining Audra McDonald in “Too Many Mornings. Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Collela, Bobby Steggert and Laura Osnes came together for “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.” John McMartin reprised his “Follies” performance with “The Road You Didn’t Take.”

The theme of original cast members returning continued with Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason reprising their roles as Baker and Baker’s Wife with the delightful duet “It Takes Two.” Mandy Patinkin, clad entirely in black, performed “Finishing the Hat” with more vibrato and louder projection than he did in the original Broadway production. In a glorious moment, Bernadette Peters joined him in “Move On.”

In one of the evening’s most amusing moments, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone all arrived onstage at once with the opening of “The Worst Pies in London” playing in the background. LuPone, seeing both, left them to duke it out. Hearn took a seat, learning Cerveris to shave him in “Pretty Women,” with Cerveris as Sweeney and Hearn as Judge Turpin. LuPone, returning, performed “A Little Priest” with both men

six of Sondheim’s women enter, all in red: Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald and Bernadette Peters. They all sit down and then take turns singing a solo.

LuPone begins with a conversational rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which ended with Stritch giving her a tight hug. Precious, heartwarming stuff. Mazzie then gave one of the fiercest performances of “Losing My Mind” I’ve ever seen. She’s certainly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen perform it, giving the song a real 1940s femme fatale feel. (Is she doing anything in May 2011? Will she be in Washington, DC? I hope so…) Audra followed with the solo version of “The Glamorous Life” from the film version of “A Little Night Music,” nailing this hard soprano song that was meant for a little girl. Donna Murphy reprised her lauded Encores! performance in “Follies” with “Could I Leave you?.”

Finally, a giant chorus made up of actors littered not just the stage but the entire theater (on every level) with “Sunday.” Sondheim, who was sitting on the aisle at the front of the orchestra, finally took the stage to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” Noticeably crying, he offered not a speech but a single quote: “First you are young, then you are middle-aged, then you are wonderful.”

Here is the full song list:


Overture (bits of “Sweeney Todd,” “Comedy Tonight,” “Rich and Happy,” “Old Friends,” “Company,” “Side by Side”)
“America” – Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls
“We’re Gonna Be Alright (from “Do I Hear a Waltz”) – Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley
“Don’t Laugh” (from “Hot Spot”) – Victoria Clark
“Johanna” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Nathan Gunn
“You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” (from “Follies”) – Bobby Steggert, Laura Osnes, Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella
“Too Many Mornings” (from “Follies”) – Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald
“The Road You Didn’t Take” (from “Follies”) – John McMartin
“It Takes Two” (from “Into the Woods”) – Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason
“Finishing the Hat” (from “Sunday”) – Mandy Patinkin
“Move On” (from “Sunday) – Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
“Pretty Women” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Michael Cerveris and George Hearn
“A Little Priest” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn


“Goodbye for Now” (from the film “Reds”) – performed by dancers Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto
“So Many People in the World” (from “Saturday Night”) – Laura Benanti
“Beautiful Girls” (from “Follies”) – David Hyde Pierce
“The Ladies Who Lunch” (from “Company”) – Patti LuPone
“Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) – Marin Mazzie
“The Glamorous Life” (from film version of “A Little Night Music”) – Audra McDonald
“Could I Leave You?” (from “Follies”) – Donna Murphy
“Not a Day Goes By” (from “Merrily”) – Bernadette Peters
“I’m Still Here” (from “Follies”) – Elaine Stritch
“Sunday” (from “Sunday”) – huge chorus

Stephen Sondheim  


Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City. His father, Herbert Sondheim, was a successful dress manufacturer, his mother, Janet Fox, a fashion designer. Young Stephen was given piano lessons from an early age, and showed a distinct aptitude for music, puzzles and mathematics. His parents divorced when he was only ten, and Stephen, an only child, was taken by his mother to live on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The area had attracted a number of well-known personalities from the New York theater world; a close neighbor was the playwright, lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, who had a son Stephen’s age. Stephen Sondheim and Jimmy Hammerstein soon became friends, and Stephen came to see the older Hammerstein as a role model. At the time, Hammerstein was inaugurating his historic collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers. When Sondheim was in his teens, Rodgers and Hammerstein were enjoying unprecedented success with the showsOklahoma! and South Pacific. Sondheim resolved that, like Hammerstein, he too would write for the theater.

Sondheim studied piano seriously through his prep school years, while Hammerstein tutored him in writing for the theater. With Hammerstein’s guidance, he wrote scripts and scores for four shows, a project that occupied Sondheim through his student years at Williams College. On graduation, he was awarded a two-year scholarship to study composition. He studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbit, writing a piano concerto and a violin sonata while trying to break into the theater. Sondheim’s first efforts at securing a Broadway assignment fell through, but he found work writing for television, and made the acquaintance of two playwrights who were to play a significant role in his career: Arthur Laurents and Burt Shevelove.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo

Although Sondheim aspired to write both words and music, his first Broadway assignments called on him to write either one or the other. At age 25 he was hired to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the landmark musical West Side Story. Before West Side Story opened, he made his Broadway debut as a composer, with incidental music to N. Richard Nash’s play, The Girls of Summer. After the success of West Side Story in 1957, he won a second lyric-writing assignment for the Broadway musical Gypsy. Both shows had scripts by Arthur Laurents and were directed by Jerome Robbins.

The credit, “Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim” finally appeared on Broadway for the first time in 1962. The show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was an unqualified success, and introduced the first of Sondheim’s tunes to become a show business standard, “Comedy Tonight.” The script for Forumwas co-written by Sondheim’s friend, Burt Shevelove. Sondheim collaborated with Arthur Laurents again on Anyone Can Whistle (1964). The show closed almost immediately, but has since become a cult favorite; its title song remains a favorite of Sondheim’s admirers.

Sondheim returned to the role of lyricist-for-hire one more time to collaborate with Hammerstein’s old partner Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? in 1965. From then on, he would insist on writing both music and lyrics, although nearly five years would elapse before a new Sondheim musical opened on Broadway. Royalties from West Side StoryGypsy and Forum, all of which were made into motion pictures, freed him to develop projects of his choosing. In the meantime, he published a remarkable series of word puzzles in New York Magazine. Many critics have related his love of puzzles and word games to the dazzling word play of his lyrics, with their intricate rhyme schemes, internal rhymes, puns and wide-ranging allusions.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo

Sondheim made a historic breakthrough as both composer and lyricist with Company (1971), a caustic look at love and marriage in contemporary New York City. The show marked a sharp break with Broadway’s past, and established Sondheim as the most inventive and daring composer working in the musical theater. Company was Sondheim’s first collaboration with director Harold Prince, who had produced both West Side Story andForum. Sondheim’s second collaboration with Prince as director, Follies, paid masterful tribute to the song styles of Broadway’s past, while deploying them to ironic effect in a poignant commentary on the disappointment of middle age and the corrosive effects of nostalgia and self-delusion. While Sondheim’s admirers stood in awe of his accomplishments, his detractors claimed that his work was too bitter to win wide popularity, and his music too sophisticated for popular success. His next production, A Little Night Music, put these doubts to rest. Its elegant, waltz-based score and warm humor charmed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, while its signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” became an unexpected pop standard.

Sondheim received Tony Awards for the music and lyrics of all three of these shows. The following year, the winning composer thanked Sondheim, “for not writing a show this year.” Sondheim did find time in 1974 to write a show for a performance in the Yale University swimming pool, an adaptation of the classical Greek comedy The Frogs, with a script by his old friend Burt Shevelove. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the fiendishly intricate murder mystery, The Last of Sheila(1973). From 1973 to 1981, Sondheim served as President of the Dramatists Guild, the professional association of playwrights, theatrical composers and lyricists.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo

Never content to continue along comfortable or familiar lines, Sondheim and Harold Prince explored further new territory with Pacific Overtures (1976), an imaginative account of relations between Japan and the United States, from the 1850s to the present. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), adapted an early Victorian melodrama in a combination of grand guignol, bitter satire and Sondheim’s most complex score yet. Sweeney Todd enjoyed a healthy run and brought Sondheim another Tony Award. While a number of Sondheim’s shows have enjoyed successful revivals in the commercial theater, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music have found a second home in the opera houses of the world, where classical standards of musicianship can do justice to their soaring scores.

Sweeney Todd marked the climax of Sondheim’s long collaboration with Harold PrinceMerrily We Roll Along(1981), adapted from a bittersweet Kaufman and Hart drama of the 1930s, was the last of their shows together. Although Sondheim and Prince remained close friends, they sought renewed inspiration in collaboration with others. Sondheim embarked on a partnership with playwright and director James Lapine.

The first fruit of their collaboration was Sunday in the Park With George (1984), a work inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting, “Sunday Afternoon On the Isle of the Grande Jatte.” The play intertwines the story of Seurat and his mistress with that of a contemporary painter and his lover.Sunday in the Park With George was a solid success, and brought Sondheim and Lapine the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare instance of the Pulitzer committee honoring a musical play. Into the Woods (1987), another collaboration with Lapine, sought the meaning inside some of the most familiar childhood fairly tales, and has been produced successfully all over the United States.

Between Broadway assignments, Sondheim has written scores for the films Stavisky (1974) andReds (1981), and contributed songs to the films The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990). “Sooner or Later,” written for Dick Tracy, won him an Oscar for Best Song. In 1990, Sondheim spent a term as the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. In his own country, he was honored with the National Medal of Arts.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo

One of Sondheim’s most disturbing productions was Assassins (1990), an examination of the motives and delusions of the men who murdered American presidents.Passion (1994), another collaboration with James Lapine, took a dark, intimate story of unrequited love and set it to music of heartrending poignancy. As the Broadway theater has turned to more predictable fare, Sondheim and his collaborators have sought out new venues for his increasingly daring work. Bounce, recounting the follies of the 1920s Florida land boom, opened in Chicago and Washington in 2003. Its script, like that of Pacific Overtures and Assassins, was written by the playwright John Weidman.

Stephen Sondheim’s 75th birthday was celebrated with all-star tribute concerts in New York, London and Los Angeles. In 2008, the American Theatre Wing presented him with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. At the time, two of his shows, Gypsy and Sunday in the Park With George, were enjoying successful revivals on Broadway. Sondheim has gathered the first 27 years of his writing for the stage in his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The book provides invaluable insight into the art and craft of songwriting, as practiced by an artist of monumental accomplishment.

Over the last 50 years, Sondheim has set an unsurpassed standard of brilliance and artistic integrity in the musical theater. His music, steeped in the history of the American stage, is also deeply informed by the classical tradition and the advances of modern concert music. His words, unequalled in their wit and virtuosity, have recorded a lifetime of profound, unblinking insight into the joys and sorrows of life and love.


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