Stephen Sondheim: A Birthday Concert and Evening Primrose…

Composer Stephen Sondheim–who has written some of the best scores for Broadway shows, including Follies (1985), A Little Night Music (1978), Company (2007), Passion (1995),  A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966) — turned 80 last March and is having quite a year. There was the limited run Broadway show Sondheim on Sondheim with Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams, and the legendary Barbara Cook. It even featured Sondheim himself (on film) commenting on his music, his lyrics, and his life. He also just released Finishing The Hat: Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes that is a must read for Sondheim junkies. And then there are two new releases on DVD that also will be must-haves for fans of his or musical theatre aficiandos.

The first is Evening Primrose , which was originally shown only once on ABC Stage 67 in November of 1966. It stars Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr (Liesl from The Sound Of Music) and features four classic Sondheim songs. Perkins plays Charles, a poet who escapes the world by hiding in a New York department store before closing time (Macy’s was set to let them film in their store, but reneged and they used Stern’s). After the store closes, Charles discovers a whole group of people hiding and living there. While the store is open they pose as mannequins to escape detection. He meets Ella, who has lived there since she was five. Ella is basically a maid for the mostly elderly group, especially for Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney). Ella and Charles fall for each other and decide to leave the store. Ella also has no idea of the ways of the outside world and is very curious to see it, Sondheim wrote the beautiful “Take Me to the World” to convey her longing.

The score is one of Sondheim’s best, with the songs “When?”, ‘I Remember” (which has been a staple on the cabaret circuit and was recorded by Barbra Streisand for her last Christmas album), and “If You Can Find Me I’m Here”. Perkins’ singing is passable, but Carr, besides being breathtakingly beautiful, possesses a great singing voice. There also is a twist ending I didn’t see coming. Although it was shot in color, the only kinescope found was in black and white. This was used as the source for the DVD presentation, which also comes with a 26-page booklet filled with some great trivia about the making of the show. Extras include interviews with director Paul Bogart (All In The Family) and Charmian Carr.

Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, just released on DVD and Blu-Ray, is a star-studded celebration of Sondheim’s rich catalog of song. Held at Avery Fisher Hall last March to commerate the composer’s 80th birthday, and humorously hosted by David Hyde Pierce, the show has everything a Sondheim-ite would want. Sondheim’s longtime conductor Paul Gemignani leads the New York Philharmonic in accompanying some Broadway newcomers and some Broadway legends. There’s dueling Sweeney Todds (the original production’s George Hearn and Michael Cerveris from the 2005 revival  joining Patti Lupone on a rousing “A Little Priest”, Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason ( the original Baker and his wife from Into The Woods ) doing “It Takes Two,” and a fit Mandy Patinkin and ageless Bernadette Peters reprising their roles from Sunday In The Park With George and doing an unbelievably moving “Move On” with tears in their eyes. (My favorite moment of the concert)

Near the end of the show, six leading ladies–Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, Audra MacDonald, Marin Mazzie, Patti Lupone, and the scene stealing and legendary Elaine Stritch–all decked out in red evening gowns (except for Stritch in a red pants suit and hat) have sort of a Broadway diva-off smackdown. Sitting on chairs, they each wait their turn to do a signature Sondheim song. And they mix it up. Lupone does “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which Stritch premiered in Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970 musical Company. Mazzie does a heartfelt “Losing My Mind” from Follies, MacDonald a perfect “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music, Murphy a defiant “Could I Leave You” also from Follies, Peters a tender “Not A Day Goes By”  from Merrily We Roll Along (btw Peters’ voice just gets better and better with age), and then last but not least the 85 year-old Stritch doesn’t so much as sing “I’m Still Here” but lives it. She brings down the house.

Other standouts are Laura Benanti doing So Many People from Saturday Night, Jim Walton doing a song that was cut from Merrily We Roll Along. and Broadway veteran John McMartin doing “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies. Stephen Sondheim: A CelebrationThe only classic Sondheim song not performed is perhaps the one the general public most associates with him, “Send in the Clowns.”

Producer/Director Lonny Price (who did a brilliant job) wanted to thank Sondheim for all the songs he’s created for actors to bring to the stage. As he says, Sondheim gives them “roles to play with songs one can act with dignity and intelligence”. He decided to ask all the performers from shows currently running on Broadway and Off-Broadway to join in for the finale of “Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George. When the doors of the hall are opened,  287 performers come in to cram the stage and aisles for the finale. It’s an incredible sight and the camera pans to a visibly choked-up Sondheim. He takes the stage to thunderous applause and quotes Alice Roosevelt  “First you’re young, then you’re middle-aged, and then you’re wonderful.” Indeed.