By Jessica Neu
Before Jonathan wrote Tick, Tick…Boom and Rent, and before Lin-Manuel Miranda gave us In the Heights and Hamilton, there was Stephen Sondheim. Hailing from the era of the big Broadway musical alongside the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein, and Hal Prince, Sondheim penned the music and lyrics to some of the most famous musicals of all time. These classic scores to such musicals as West Side Story, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sweeny Todd, and several others are beautifully compiled into the musical Sondheim on Sondheim.
Conceived and directed on Broadway by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator, James Lapine, Stage 62 in Carnegie brings this tribute to Sondheim at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall to life. Directed by Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre, the stage features a large screen framed by several tiers of risers. This staging allows the characters to move whimsically throughout each number but also allows them to pause and watch the film footage of Sondheim. The cast sits quietly so as not to distract from the footage before delving into each musical number. As we watch cleverly edited footage from throughout his life, Sondheim posthumously becomes a featured character in his own show. The films are comprised chiefly of interview footage via which we are granted an inside glimpse into Sondheim’s wit, creativity, and sense of humor.
At the show’s beginning, we learn that Sondheim began playing piano at an early age when his father, who had learned to play by ear, placed Sondheim’s hands on top of his as he played in their home. This tradition led to several years of piano lessons for Sondheim. After his parent’s divorce, he moved with his mother and, low and behold, became neighbors with Oscar Hammerstein’s family. Sondheim befriended Hammerstein’s son, and the two continued a friendship into adulthood.
It was these moments and encounters that led to Sondheim becoming a composer. The first song he ever wrote, “Meet You at the Donut,” was about the campus center at the University, but after one bar is played on live, Sondheim quickly tells us through the footage that “no one wants to hear that.” We learn that he had to re-write the opening number …Forum, three times until he wrote a song that told the audience it was a dark comedy, leading the cast to perform what eventually became the opening number, “Comedy Tonight.”
The cast of nine then took turns performing their way through a Sondheim mixtape. The footage of Sondheim is seamlessly woven between songs, providing audiences with a brief history of a given musical and a natural introduction to each song.
A subtitle for this production of Sondheim on Sondheim could easily be “talent on talent.” Sondheim’s music, known for its unique syncopation and complex melodies, is not easy to sing. You have a millisecond to breathe and need enough air to switch between an upper and lower register instantly.
The ensemble, including Maria Bechtell, Christa Brook, Anna Chensny, Tony Hanes, David Holderbaum, Ian C. Olson, Kristin Pacelli, Aidan Quinn, and Matthew Sartore, tackle the music in this show like true professionals, demonstrating the most vocal talent I have seen in a community theater show in recent memory. Following the opening sequence of numbers from Forum, Chensny’s angelic “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose sets the tone for what the audience can expect for the rest of the evening. From Holderbaum’s perfectly quirky performance of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from Merrily We Roll Along to Olson’s spine-tingling portrayal of Sweeny Todd, each cast member takes a turn as our tour guide down musical theater memory lane. Pacelli’s and Sartore’s stage presence and acting choices make comedic numbers from Follies and Passion exceptionally dynamic, and the execution of numbers from Company would surely make Donna McKechnie and Elaine Stritch proud.
Whether you are a diehard Sondheim fan or know a few songs from West Side Story and Into the Woods, this show will not disappoint you. Act one closes with a picture of a magazine with Sondheim on the cover with the caption, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” He may not be God, but when the ensemble comes together for group numbers from Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George, and A Little Night Music, we get the feeling that his work has gifted us with angels.
Stage 62’s production of Sondheim on Sondheim runs through May. 28, 2023 |
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 PM | Sundays at 2:00 PM | at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie | Ticket and more info at: https://www.stage62.org/sondheim.html