Complaint: 90 minutes wasn’t enough. Caveat: Two days wouldn’t be, either.
Such was the no-win burden carried by Stephen Sondheim: A Life in the Theater, a nonetheless fascinating evening of insights and anecdotes from the iconic, 82-year-old Broadway composer whose canon includes Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George.
Relaxed, loquacious and impishly funny, Sondheim was seated across from interviewer Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In front of an enamored crowd that came to hear Sondheim drop pearls of theater wisdom, Kerker led an abbreviated tour of his work. Punctuating the program were performances by Tony winners Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell, accompanied by pianist Tedd Firth.
Working with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story? “He made me less square as a composer,” Sondheim said. “I did two-bar phrases, four-bar phrases, six-bar phrases, and he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with three.’” Oh, and Bernstein taught him to drink Scotch. “I never drank it from a tumbler,” Sondheim joked.
On his not-so-successful collaboration with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz, he recalled how he submitted a lyric that Rodgers said was good, then later declared terrible. What happened? “He showed it to Mrs. Rodgers.”
After Sondheim explained that “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd is a seduction by the murderous barber to relax the judge who wronged him as Todd prepares to slit his throat, Mitchell gave the ballad the gorgeous interpretation it deserves.
Who knew he wrote much of A Little Night Music—set in Sweden in 1900—sitting in a steak house, Sinatra music coming over the sound system? (Sinatra would later record that show’s signature song, “Send in the Clowns.”) Or that for all his landmark tunes, it was the relatively obscure “Pretty Little Picture” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that he labored over, off and on, for a year and a half? Or that he largely eschews a computer, preferring to write with a soft-lead pencil on a yellow legal pad while laying down so he can nod off?
Giving the audience collective goose bumps, Ebersole found the exquisite heartbreak of “Losing My Mind” from A Little Night Music, and teamed with Mitchell on “We’re Gonna Be Alright” from Do I Hear a Waltz. Said Mitchell as the show closed: “It’s an honor to be singing your songs—with you sitting here.”
Ditto for us listening in the seats.
Still we could have used more, more, more. Few careers deserve a retrospective that demands the audience pack an overnight bag. This one does. ★★★★☆