Hymn to Himself: Something Hummable
God has spoken on the subject of His existence. And you will be pleased to know that He seems resigned to and amused by the obeisance and sacrifices that are made in His name. Listen, O children of Broadway, to His own words, chanted by a chosen tribe of His disciples at the theater at Studio 54 (once a pagan temple to the gods of disco) as His sardonic image smiles down upon them.
“You have to have something to believe in,” they sing, “Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate. Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname: God!”
Thus does the composer of those lyrics address the question of his divinity in a little number called “God” at the top of the second act of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a genial, multimedia commemorative scrapbook on the life, times and career of you-know-who. The song was inspired by the title of an article featured inside a 1994 New York magazine: “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” And the answer, for those of us for whom musicals are truly a religion, is — now as then — yes. Or to use the language of the common folk, “Well, duh.”
Mr. Sondheim turned 80 last month, and the occasion has already been honored by more tributes than are normally accorded the Yankees when they win the World Series, with more to come. This is not overkill. Mr. Sondheim bears a relationship to his vocation that is unlike that of any artist in any other field.
In the world of American musicals he is indisputably the best, brightest and most influential talent to emerge during the last half-century. Even when his shows have been commercial flops, they are studied, revered and eventually reincarnated to critical hosannas. No other songwriter to date has challenged his eminence, and it seems unlikely that anyone will in his lifetime. It is even possible, if sadly so, that he may be remembered as the last of the giants in a genre that flourished in the 20th century and wilted in the 21st.
But such brooding thoughts have little place in a discussion of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” which opened Thursday night. This is a chipper, haphazard anthology show that blends live performance of Sondheim songs with archival video footage and taped interviews with Himself. Conceived and directed by James Lapine, Mr. Sondheim’s frequent (and, to me, best) collaborator over the years, this somewhat jittery production never quite finds a sustained tone, a natural rhythm or even a logical sense of sequence.
It does, however, have a polished and likable eight-member cast (that includes Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams and the great Barbara Cook); a savory selection of Sondheim material that never made it to Broadway as well as canonic standards; and heaping spoonfuls of insider dope about the creation of shows like “Company” and “Follies” and the changes they underwent on the road. And then there is Mr. Sondheim, who appears in appropriately larger-than-life form on artistically arranged monitors, typically concealing as much as he reveals in quick takes of self-portraiture.
It is these interviews that provide the shape and, in many cases, the direct cues for the live action onstage. Occasionally this is achieved with a literal-mindedness that is too cute for comfort. Footage of Mr. Sondheim on the Mike Douglas show talking about why he likes to write about neurotics is followed by Ms. Cook and Tom Wopat singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from “Company” (1970).
More often, though, the performers channel their master’s voice in direct, annotative illustrations of what he’s talking about. Three different versions of the opening number in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (from 1962, Mr. Sondheim’s first full Broadway score) are spliced into his accounts of rewriting them. There are similarly illuminating insights into the labor pains of “Follies” (1971), “Passion” (1994) and “Road Show” (2009), the musical formerly known as “Bounce” (2003).
This format has the disadvantage of often giving the performers the status of audio-visual tools. Mr. Sondheim says he’s always most comfortable when he can create for a specific character instead of an abstract type or emotion. And it’s not easy for singers to reflect that specificity in a show like this one. At its least inspired “Sondheim on Sondheim” has the smiley supper-club blandness of previous Sondheim revues, like “Putting It Together” and “Side by Side by Sondheim.”
But there are also blessed if infrequent examples of singers making songs their own. Most often they involve the 82-year-old Ms. Cook, a longtime and exceptionally sensitive Sondheim interpreter. But the vulpine Ms. Williams has her moments too, slithering through the striptease of “Ah, but Underneath” (from the 1987 London production of “Follies”) and singing “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) in counterpoint to Ms. Cook’s profoundly wistful version of “Not a Day Goes By” (from the 1981 show “Merrily We Roll Along.”)
As an ensemble the cast — stylishly filled out by Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — is strongest in its haunting choral delivery of two songs from “Assassins” (Mr. Sondheim and John Weidman’s dark journey through American history), the grim contemporary relevance of which requires no epigrammatic explanation. And they are well served by a crisp physical production that includes Peter Flaherty’s witty, perfectly synchronized video and projection designs and Beowulf Boritt’s moving-building-block set.
In the autobiographical “Opening Doors” number from “Merrily We Roll Along” (nimbly performed here by Ms. Kritzer, Mr. Morton and Mr. Scott) a young songwriter is told by an old Broadway pro that “there’s not a tune you can hum” in his work. That was a standard complaint about Mr. Sondheim for decades. Yet when you hear many of the numbers in this revue, you’re struck by how they’ve penetrated and stuck in your consciousness in ways deeper than merely hummable songs allow.
Of course there are also songs that have turned out to be surprisingly hummable, like “Send In the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” (1973), which is here presented in the first act as a hilarious YouTube collage of widely (and wildly) ranging interpreters, professional and otherwise. Then in the second act Ms. Cook takes up the same song and delivers it with a simple, sweet bereftness that breaks your heart.
It’s a lovely reminder that for all his much-touted cleverness, Mr. Sondheim is great not because he’s a wizard with rhyme, rhythm and key changes. It’s because he senses and conveys the darker currents of pain and loneliness that swirl beneath even the shiniest surfaces. He sees inside us. And there is something kind of Godlike about that.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; conceived and directed by James Lapine; musical staging by Dan Knechtges; music direction/arrangements by David Loud; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; video and projection by Peter Flaherty; orchestrations by Michael Starobin; music coordinator, John Miller; executive producer, Sydney Beers; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan; (212) 719-1300. Through June 13. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
WITH: Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.