In Praise of Sondheim

We here at the studios see many things. It is one of the perks of working in theater that we often find ourselves sitting in a theater seat watching talented people perform a wonderful show. And yet, sometimes there is something that is so special, so remarkable, that it is hard to put into words what it feels like to be sitting in the audience watching it (And yet, will that stop us from attempting to put it into words? Nope). The Sondheim birthday concert of last Monday was one such event.
There are occasionally people who come along in an art form that have such an effect on their art that it is impossible it without them. Stephen Sondheim is just such a person; writing musicals since 1957, the style, intellectual depth, raw emotion and incredible wit of shows such as Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and A Little Night Music (among many others) have changed the face of musical theater and set a model that influences almost every musical theater composer after him. And last Monday, there was a concert at Avery Fisher Hall to celebrate his achievements.
With the charming David Hyde Pierce as host, the evening started with a display of the prowess of the New York Philharmonic, while a cast that could make any theater nerd cry walked in as though headed to a birthday party (which indeed it was). Starting with the new guard of Sondheim interpreters (among them Bobby Steggert, a studio fave), followed by the more established players (like Michael Cerveris), and then the originators; actors like Mandy Patinkin and George Hearn, whose careers are forever intertwined with the name Sondheim. And then, once the orchestra finished, the fun really began, and moments of indelible beauty were forever solidified.
Among them were John McMartin, the original Ben in Follies, giving a searingly raw performance of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, Victoria Clark proving that even Sondheim’s unkown songs are fantastic with ‘Don’t Laugh’, a hilarious and delightful Sweeney interlude with Patti Lupone and the dueling Sweeneys of George Hearn and Michael Cerveris. But the most poignant moment of the first act, I think, was Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters singing their most famous songs from ‘Sunday in the Park With George’, and revealing why they both are consummate performers of Sondheim’s work; when they sing, there is no divider between their emotions and their song, and it is breathtaking. And it was breathtaking, as you could tell by the numerous sniffles in the audience (also, more than one person must have been wondering if Bernadette Peters has a portrait in her attic that ages for her; she is still as stunningly beautiful as she has always been, and her porcelain skin may do more for the sunscreen industry than a million dermatologists’ chiding.)
The second act had more joys in store; Patti Lupone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, and Elaine Stritch, all in red, came out, and each sang a song from the Sondheim rep that the audience had only thought they know. Patti did Elaine Stritch’s signature ‘Ladies who Lunch’ proud, and got a hug from Stritch herself, Marin Mazzie was elegant and heartbreaking singing ‘Losing My Mind,’ Audra McDonald made everyone in the audience ‘The Glamorous Life’ from A Little Night Music (written for the film, it doesn’t appear in the stage version) reconsider that it might be a lesser song, Donna Murphy tore into ‘Leave You’ from Follies with no fear, and Bernadette Peters proved that she could bring an entire audience to tears by standing entirely still and singing ‘Not a Day Goes By’ simply. And then Elaine Stritch, as only she can, tore into ‘I’m Still Here’, proving that she is indeed still here.
After all this, what could be a suitable finale? Really, only over 300 actors from shows in New York filling the theater to serenade Sondheim with ‘Sunday’. And that’s exactly what they did. And there are moments in life, rare moments, when the only word that can be used to describe what is happening is magic – I don’t think there was a dry eye.
It is an amazing thing to sit in the audience of a show that has been written by Stephen Sondheim; to listen to its album the nine hundredth time and still find something new; to wonder, again, how he managed to describe perfectly something you didn’t know anyone else felt. But it was a more amazing thing to sit in the audience of a concert performed by the best of the best, to know that everyone there, whether on stage or in the audience, had been moved and affected by his work in the same way that you were. And to feel the rush of the thousands of people, of everyone in the hall, who were there to honor Stephen Sondheim. PBS has recorded the event, so that many more thousands can enjoy it, and I know that we’ll be watching when it airs, just to relive again what was a truly amazing night. Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim, and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for your work.

About lizcaplanblog

LIZ CAPLAN, has been teaching and coaching voice since 1978 in New York City and guest lectures throughout the United States and Europe. Her students are currently featured in principle roles on Broadway, National tours, Off Broadway, regionally, and as artists in the recording industry. Some have also been nominated for the prestigious Tony and Grammy awards and have been Emmy award winners. Besides working vocally with recording artists, Liz does consulting work for all the major record labels. Liz Caplan Vocal Studios is located in New York City, and is one of the premiere vocal studios in the country. Now staffed by Liz and a group of highly trained and talented Voice Teachers, it is able to bring Liz's mission of 'balancing the state of the artist' to many.
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