In a year chock full of star-studded 80th birthday tributes to legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the March 15–16 gala evenings with the New York Philharmonic at New York’s Lincoln Center stood tall.
The two-hour concert, Sondheim! The Birthday Concert will air on PBS’s Great Performances Wednesday, November 24 at 9 p.m. (check local listings). Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers.
Hosted by David Hyde Pierce, who provides sardonic narration throughout the evening, the cast, a veritable Who’s Who of Broadway’s finest performers, includes (in alphabetical order): Laura Benanti, Matt Cavanaugh, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Jenn Colella, Jason Danieley, Joanna Gleason, Nathan Gunn, George Hearn, Blaine Hoven, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, John McMartin, Donna Murphy, Laura Osnes, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Maria Riccetto, Bobby Steggert, Elaine Stritch, Jim Walton, Chip Zien, and from the current production of “West Side Story,” Karen Olivo, who gets the evening off to a spirited start leading the dancers in “America.”
Conducted by longtime Sondheim stalwart Paul Gemignani, the evening (as well as the broadcast) was directed and co-written (with Pierce) by actor-director Lonny Price, who appeared in the original cast of Sondheim’s ?Merrily We Roll Along. Price also directed the Great Performances presentations of Candide with the New York Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic’s concert versions of Sweeney Todd and Camelot.
Stephen Holden in The New York Times raved, “While such celebrations tend to be messy affairs, ‘Sondheim: The Birthday Concert’ … was a model of organization, with a suave host … and witty leitmotifs woven into its structure. Performances by an all-star guest list …proceeded at a brisk pace; there was no speechifying.”
The concert includes songs and orchestral pieces from Sondheim musical theater favorites such as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George.
Many of Sondheim’s most famous numbers are on display, of course, as well as such interesting items as “Don’t Laugh,” which he wrote for his friend Mary Rodgers’ Hot Spot, and “Growing Up,” written for a later production of Merrily We Roll Along but sung here by original cast member Walton.
In an especially memorable sequence, some notable creators of Sondheim roles reprise their greatest moments, including McMartin (Follies), Gleason and Zien (Into the Woods), Peters and Patinkin (Sunday in the Park with George), the segment concluding with a couple of rival Broadway Sweeney Todds, Hearn and Cerveris, amusingly flanking LuPone, who played Mrs. Lovett opposite both of them.
Sondheim’s lesser known career as an occasional film score composer is acknowledged by a pas de deux danced to the theme written for Warren Beatty’s Reds by Riccetto and Hoven, and choreographed by Josh Rhodes.
Other highlights in an evening filled with them include “We’re Gonna Be Alright” (Mazzie and Danieley); “Johanna” (Gunn); and “Too Many Mornings” (Gunn and McDonald), and the parade of legendary leading ladies who cap the evening with a non-stop succession of showstoppers guaranteed to quicken the pulse of all bona fide show fans: “The Ladies Who Lunch” (LuPone); “Losing My Mind” (Mazzie); “The Glamorous Life” (McDonald); “Could I Leave You?” (Murphy); “Not a Day Goes By” (Peters); and “I’m Still Here” (Stritch).
In addition to the PBS telecast, the concert will be released on DVD in November by Image Entertainment.
A production of Ellen M. Krass Productions and THIRTEEN for WNET.ORG, the telecast was directed for television by Lonny Price and produced by Ellen M. Krass and Mort Swinsky, with Stewart F. Lane, Bonnie Comely and Cathy Fitzpatrick as executive producers. Bill O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.
Great Performances is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, LuEsther T. Mertz, the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public television viewers and PBS.