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Judging by all the press attention, this is a big year for Stephen Sondheim, a dominant Broadway force for the last fifty years, minimum. It's the year of his eightieth birthday, for which he's apparently made himself more available to the press and for special events. Sondheim! The Birthday Concert is a Blu-ray of a concert given on March 22, 2010 at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center Plaza. The orchestra is The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Paul Gemignani.
Now, Sondheim is not lacking for accolades and recognition; concert round-ups and celebrations of his work have been occurring for decades and one or two of them are already on disc. This production is a slick article in all respects; the concert was clearly planned from the beginning to be video-friendly and is thus more of a glossy candy-apple tribute than anything intimate. But as the impressive roster of star celebrants includes top-talent singers known for powerful egos and barely-suppressed feuds, one cannot but wonder at the spectacle of seeing them all arrayed on stage in honor of the creator of some of their bigger successes.
This Broadway insider show for Sondheim is really for public consumption -- seamless, scripted and slick as a whistle. When these glamorous folk in their dazzling finery sing (and sometimes dance), we're knocked out by what they can do. A non-pro like myself cannot detect any lessening of talent or facility, twenty and thirty years down the performing road.
The show is held together with interstitial material that ranges from fresh to weak, like an Oscar Ceremony. Co-writer David Hyde Pierce performs emcee duty, doing his best to interject humor into the proceedings. This mostly consists of running-gag jokes. Since Arthur Laurents experimented with re-writing some of Sondheim's lyrics for West Side Story in Spanish, Pierce launches a joke about singing all of the songs in foreign languages. It's cute once but it keeps coming back. Conductor Paul Gemingnani also has a deep history with Sondheim. The writers give him a running gag out of a Looney Tunes cartoon -- he likes the overture to Sweeney Todd so much that he keeps trying to sneak it in. Fortunately, this clowning doesn't take up too much time.
The powerful New York Philharmonic compensates for the lack of full Broadway stagings, although a couple of songs fill the stage with costumed dancer-singers, starting with the opening number "America". The song selections alternate between romantic ballads and some of the more amusing numbers, like "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd. Speaking of Sweeney, the song "Pretty Women" allows recent Sweeney Michael Cerveris to murder an original Sweeney, George Hearn, who sings/plays Judge Turpin.
Classic reunion duets provide the emotional punch. Sunday in the Park with George's "Move On" brings Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters together again. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason sing "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods. We of course note which artists show their age and which haven't seemed to change at all, which is more the case than one would think. These people, one concludes, really take care of themselves.
The singing is of course excellent. On the other hand, a ballet performed to Sondheim's soundtrack music from the movie Reds doesn't impress much. As the clock runs down in the second half, the show pulls off a major coup. Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Elaine Stritch come onstage together, seat themselves in a wide row, and take turns on a series of solo songs. After all the careful staging this stratagem creates a sense of immediacy, and even tension: some of these women are, ah, shall we say, temperamental. None of the singers' talents have diminished. 85 year-old Elaine Stritch's rendition of "I'm Still" Here alters the tone of the song to reflect her advanced age. Stritch can't quite keep up with the orchestra but her performance is met with thunderous applause.
As is the custom, birthday boy Stephen Sondheim comes out at the finale to acknowledge the cheers and adulation, limiting his response to just a few words and a tearful bow. No other extraneous speeches intrude into the show, which will have lasting value as a fine showcase for a couple of dozen powerful Sondheim songs. The only dissonant criticism I've read is over the choice of material. The selection includes several tunes from Follies but the Sondheim shows Assassins, Pacific Overtures, Passion, Gypsy and a couple of others are not represented.
Overture (bits of "Sweeney Todd," "Comedy Tonight," "Rich and Happy," "Old Friends," "Company," "Side by Side")
"Goodbye for Now" (from the film "Reds") - performed by dancers Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto
Image / WNET's Blu-ray of Sondheim! The Birthday Concert is an audio-visual treat. The picture is encoded at 1080i but doesn't suffer, and the audio is full-bodied and as clear as a bell. This was a live presentation but I did not notice any technical glitches, not a dead mike in sight. Lonny Price's direction mostly avoids the temptation to do fast cutting or camera movement -- on a large HD monitor the show is at its best when he's just recording the action in wide masters and two-shots.
The show will be on PBS stations (those still functioning in the present mood of funding hostility) later in November. It will later surely be turned into one of those pledge break specials that triples the running length with donation pitches. The only extra on the disc is a set of brief insert notes by director Lonny Price, that discusses the making of the show but also stresses his personal relationship to the theatah... right down to starting with his childhood memory of being taken to a Steven Sondheim tribute in 1973. But Mr. Price has put together a very smart production.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sondheim! The Birthday Concert Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.