Sondheim on Sondheim
Sondheim on Sondheim – Theater Review
A conceptual revue featuring Sondheim’s songs, the music is punctuated with interview footage of the composer, providing an intimate view of his personal life and artistic process. The musical features more than two dozen Sondheim tunes.
Sondheim on Sondheim is at Studio 54. For this play, this venue seems incredibly appropriate, even though Studio 54 isn’t what it used to be, except for the bathrooms. Make sure if you go, you go to the bathrooms. Once it was turned into a theater, they had little cabaret tables and very uncomfortable chairs for a long time. And now, they’ve gotten studio seating, and it’s much less atmospheric, but a lot more comfortable, especially if you’re going to watch two hours and 40 minutes of a play. Sondheim on Sondheim isn’t exactly a play. It’s kind of a revue. I’d call it a jukebox musical, except calling Sondheim jukebox music the gods of musical comedy would probably strike me dead. The three main headliners are Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams — yes, they have Vanessa Williams — and Tom Wopat, and they’re all, of course, wonderful. And then, it has three more young men and two other women who make up the octet of people who go through all of Sondheim’s music. To be clear it doesn’t really showcase all of his music, but most of his shows, with Sondheim providing, via videotape, commentary on where he was and what he was up to. To a certain extent, this is entertaining and you’ll like it and you’ll feel like you’ve learned something at the end of it. The problem is, is that Sondheim’s music, as is pointed out numerous times, isn’t really hummable. And, therefore, there only may be one or two songs that you’re going to even sort of remember — I mean, you’ll know them if you know Sondheim, like “Send in the Clowns”, which they actually do twice. But, the problem about — or the pleasure of Sondheim is context. He writes atonal, very witty, dense, nearly poetic lyrics in the context of telling a story. As he says, if someone says “write me a torch song”, he doesn’t know how to do it. But, if you say there’s this woman in a red dress having a Cosmo in a bar, then he can do that, because he can describe the bar and Cosmo and why she wore the dress. But, the problem is, when taking a song out of context, you don’t get any of that. So, while the performers are all terrific and enthusiastic, you miss the context. Listening to Sondheim talk about his own life is interesting, but by then, we don’t care so much about the music. So, a lecture by Sondheim might actually be more illuminating. However, having said that, the set is very interesting, the orchestra is, of course, wonderful, and it is fun to see. I probably would have taken out three or four songs; as I said, two hours and 45 minutes probably would have been better served at right around two hours twenty. I know I always say that things can always be shortened. But, if you like Sondheim, you’ll like this a lot. And if you don’t know Sondheim, it’s not a bad introduction, but you’ll kind of wish you knew more. You want to know either more about Sondheim, or you want to know more about the music and the play; you want to see more of West Side Story, or you want to hear more about why Officer Krupke came up, or you want to know more about how come “Send in the Clowns” was not a hit for two years. You either want to know a bit more or maybe a little less, but I’d still give it three and a half stars.