Sondheim! The Birthday Concert
For anyone with an interest in musical theater, it’s been hard not to notice that legendary composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim turned 80 this year. First, there was a storied Broadway revival of one of his most successful shows, A Little Night Music, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. (It was such a hit that, when the two stars left, they were replaced by names just as big and, in one case, arguably bigger: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.) Then there was the retrospective tribute show, Sondheim on Sondheim, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company and anchored by another living legend, singer Barbara Cook. And in September, the newly renovated Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street was rechristened the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in a gala ceremony attended by a bevy of theater luminaries.
But for the birthday itself, Broadway assembled a remarkable collection of talent to give a concert like no other. The event was held at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where it was recorded for broadcast on PBS and is now being released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Studio: Image Entertainment
Film Length: 116 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080i
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; PCM 2.0
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Original Performance Date: Mar. 15-16, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 16, 2010
Like most birthday celebrations, this concert is for people who already know the guest of honor. The program ranges broadly over Sondheim’s work as both lyricist (to composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers), songwriter and composer for film. Certain works are heavily favored (notably, Follies and Sweeney Todd), while others are omitted altogether (don’t hold your breath for Gypsy, Passion or Pacific Overtures). Some of the expected standards crop up, while others are absent (there is no sign of “Send in the Clowns”).
Producer/director Lonny Price seems to have been guided primarily by a desire to match the right material to the right performer, and he was particularly keen on having actors recreate their original performances. Thus, we get John McMartin, the very first Benjamin Stone in Folllies, in a simple and heartfelt rendition of “The Road You Didn’t Take” made all the more powerful by intervening years. Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien, who originated the Baker and the Baker’s Wife for Into the Woods, perform "It Takes Two", and it doesn’t sound like a day has passed since 1987. In the case of Sweeney Todd, we have not one, but two notable Sweeneys: George Hearn and Michael Cerveris. They unite in a duet of “Pretty Women” and are then joined by Patti LuPone, who has played Mrs. Lovett opposite both of them, to perform “A Little Priest” as a trio, with Mrs. Lovett between dueling Sweeneys. This isn’t the abbreviated version of the song heard in the Tim Burton movie, but the full number, which is one of the greatest Act 1 closers in the history of musical theater – and these three do it with gusto. (Watch Cerveris’ face when Hearn is singing; he’s as much a fan as a performer.)
But perhaps the most stirring moment of the evening is when Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin reunite for “Move On”, the closing number of Sunday in the Park with George. In the sheer directness with which they sing to each other, these two seem to have pulled the entire emotional weight of the play’s powerful close onto the stage at Avery Fisher Hall – no mean feat when one considers the many relationships that echo through the song: artist and muse, departed and survivor, lovers bidding farewell across time and distance. The cliche about Sondheim used to be that his work lacked emotion. It was always nonsense, and when Peters and Patinkin embrace at the end of their song, you wonder how anyone could ever have missed the deep feelings in Sondheim’s work.
Peters and LuPone join four other “beautiful girls” for a terrific medley that brings the evening to a close. LuPone offers her own rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company (drawing plaudits from the song’s originator, Elaine Stritch). Peters does full justice to “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along. Marin Mazzie provides a sweetly sad rendering of “Losing My Mind”, while Donna Murphy kills with “Could I Leave You” (both from Follies). Audra MacDonald lends her incomparable soprano to “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music, and Stritch concludes with a rousing rendition of the great Follies anthem, “I’m Still Here”.
And at that point the stage and aisles of Avery Fisher Hall fill with literally hundreds of performers from shows currently running on Broadway to join in a chorus of “Sunday”. Even if you don’t know anything about the nightmarish logistics of moving large groups of people in and out of a theater, it’s an awe-inspiring sight.
The New York Philharmonic was conducted by Paul Gemignani, who has conducted the initial incarnation of all Sondheim’s Broadway shows. (His son, Alexander, a talented actor and singer, performs “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story.) Jonathan Tunick did the orchestrations, as he has for Sondheim’s music for decades. The dryly funny and appropriately self-effacing master of ceremonies was David Hyde Pierce, who, since leaving TV, has become a regular fixture on the Broadway scene and seems to be having a great time.
Image continues to offer Blu-rays mastered at 1080i, but I didn’t notice any diminution of video quality as a result. This is a clear, stable and noise-free hi-def video image with excellent detail and color rendition. The quality of the black levels is evident in the reproduction of the performers’ tuxedos.
One of the many advantages of having an experienced theater director like Lonny Price running the show is that he knows where to place cameras to capture live performances to best advantage. Having sat in a lot of front row seats at live theater, I know something about how things should look when you’re “up close and personal”, and this Blu-ray captures that look better than most concert documentaries, right down to the beads of sweat and the tiny microphones. It also helps that Price (or someone) instructed the camera operators to avoid tight close-ups. More often the performers are shown from the waist up, and we get a chance to see body language and attitude, which are essential elements of live performance. The editing has been carefully considered, so that it follows the musical rhythms, which prevents it from becoming a distraction.
The DTS lossless track has excellent fidelity, and the sound has been carefully mixed to separate the singers from the orchestra so that the lyrics remain intelligible. Surround presence is limited to audience reaction and applause, as it should be. For two-channel purists, there is a PCM 2.0 track.
There are no special features other than an entertaining set of liner notes by Price.
Any Sondheim fan should enjoy The Birthday Concert. There are new and interesting versions of old favorites, and there are some rare gems. Of particular interest is Victoria Clark’s rendition of “Don’t Laugh” from Hot Spot (which was written for Judy Holliday) and a sweetly romantic song sung by Laura Benanti called “So Many People” from Sondheim’s first musical as a composer, Saturday Night. It took 45 years to get a New York production.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub