Lyric's "Sondheim on Sondheim": God on God

The Cast of "Sondheim on Sondheim" with Sondheim
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In musical theater today, no one is more revered than composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Creating a musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, back in 2010, was a labor of love for James Lapine, a frequent collaborator with Sondheim over the years of their extraordinary careers. Utilizing some four dozen songs (including one original number written for the revue), with his lyrics and music from over six decades, with nineteen shows represented, Lapine conceived and created a wonderful collage of Sondheim's professional life. It featured familiar, lesser-known and even a half dozen cut numbers (especially from Company, notoriously revised in rehearsals and try-outs). This revue ran for a limited run of two months on Broadway, mounted by the Roundabout Theatre, and has now arrived in Boston as the current production by Lyric Stage Company.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of Sondheim's finest songs, not unlike looking through a family scrapbook and sharing one's recollections of unforgettable musical moments. One such special moment is a new song by Himself written directly for the Broadway version, “God”, in which the composer/lyricist makes tongue-in-cheek reference to his exalted position in the musical theater pantheon. To whit, his wit:

God! I mean the man's a God!
Wrote the score to “Sweeney Todd”.....
With a nod, to de Sade.....
Smart! The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart!....
Still you have to have something to believe in
Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate
Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname
There are many memorable turns from the eight member cast that consists of Leigh Barrett, Mala Bhattacharya, Maritza Bostic, Christopher Chew, Aimee Doherty, Davron S. Monroe, Sam Simahk and Patrick Varner. While all are blessedly unmiked, some project better than others. Even a cursory listing of high points would have to include “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” (composed for a straight couple in the short-lived musical Bounce, then rewritten for a gay couple in the same show when it was revised as Road Show), “Franklin Shepard Inc” from Merrily We Roll Along, sung here by the charming Simahk, and of course the lovely and haunting “Send In the Clowns” performed by Barrett. (Simahks' expressive face with those cheek bones and dimples to die for should be insured, while either Barrett or Doherty could wow you just singing from the telephone book). The excerpt from Sweeney Todd makes one long for Chew's fondly-remembered rendering of the entire show.

As Directed here by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company, it's a treat, with excellent Choreography and Musical Staging by Ilyse Robbins, fine Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, great Scenic Design by David Towlun, suitable Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, and dramatic Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs. Thanks in part to Projection Designer Seaghan McKay, Sondheim is the star of this show in more ways than one, and there's also a very clever enhancement of Veloudos' usual introductory speech. Where Broadway used over sixty plasma screens, McKay does wonders with just a handful.

Yet Sondheim wrote, “even Cream of Wheat has lumps”. As is the case with most book-less revues, many songs lose significant impact when performed out of context (for example, “Send in the Clowns” is decidedly not as moving as it is when it is sung in the context of the whole libretto of A Little Night Music). There's also the matter of arbitrary choices; Lapine opines and that's that. Nonetheless, even though as at most buffets one might feel one's plate overfilled and overstuffed, this is a feast for Sondheim fans.

Toward the end of the show, Sondheim, when asked if he missed ever having children of his own, admits he has such regret, but notes that art is the alternative way to have a legacy. He also quotes his teacher Oscar Hammerstein who described him as his friend and mentor, echoing the lines from Anna in The King and I: “By your students you'll be taught”. On the question of whether Sondheim is truly God, most of us would probably self-describe as agnostics; but the man's lyrics and music are certainly divine. When all is sung and done, this is a must-see for anyone who is a devotee of Sondheim. And who isn't?

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