Despite being one of the most recognizable names in musical theater, Stephen Sondheim has kept his personal life mostly under raps until now. Longtime collaborator James Levine's charmingly conceived show Sondheim on Sondheim brings the man behind the songs center stage.
Throughout the 2 1/2 hour show, Sondheim discusses the origins of songs and takes us through two or three previously unheard versions of famous numbers such as the climactic show stopper from Company, "Being Alive." While it's easy to see why these drafts were scrapped, watching the process unfold is one of the highlights of the evening.
It is a bit surprising then, perhaps, when Sondheim's video narration eclipses the live performance. More often than not a clip ends leaving us wanting more -- about his fractured family and mother who never wanted him, his surrogate family the Hammersteins, his struggle with his sexuality and learning to be open to love. This last one informs a lot of the themes in the show and gives "Anyone Can Whistle" extra gravitas as Sondheim plays and sings the title number from one of his biggest flops. Despite being a taped performance, it resonates deeply and stays with you long after the evening is over.
The talented cast led by Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat handle the rest of the music with aplomb and seem truly comfortable constantly switching roles from the introspective "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George to the eerie "The Gun Song" from Assassins to the buoyant "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music . Still, there's an unavoidable hollowness to the songs that plagues many reviews. Absent of context, many of these gems fall flat despite winning smiles and impressive vocal ranges. A YouTube montage of "Send in the Clowns," though, is a clever bit that conveys the tune's impact throughout popular culture while providing some comic relief.
Four numbers from Passion on the other hand deliver the opposite effect and really weigh the show down. It's puzzling why Lapine chose to spotlight this particular collaboration with Sondheim to the detriment of his other much better shows including Into the Woods. Lapine is a superbly talented writer and director and manages to craft a loving portrait of his friend, but the many interesting parts never quite come together in a completely satisfying way.
However, in the end these are small quibbles for Sondheim fans. I thoroughly enjoyed his stories recounting his work with Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and many others. I can only hope there's a feature documentary in the works to allow us to spend more time in his company. To say it in his own words from Sunday in the Park With George: so many possibilities!