Author: Roth, Steven
Date published: October 1, 2010
Editor's Note: On March 16-17, 2010, the New York Philharmonic presented two performances of a concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall to celebrate Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday; Paul Gemignani conducted. The evenings were staged by Lonny Price and hosted by David Hyde Pierce. Steven Roth attended the second evening and provided the following observations on the program.
The evening's first set featured songs with music by others and lyrics by Sondheim. Alexander Gemignani did a knockout version of "Something's Coming"; the energy and sense of excited anticipation in his delivery of the song provided a great start to the evening. Victoria Clark, resplendent in a light blue gown, sang "Don't Laugh," which Sondheim wrote with Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin for Judy Holliday to perform in the 1963 musical Hot Spot.
The second set in Act I, introduced by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, focused on Sondheim's musicals from the '70s. The highlight was a duet with Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald performing "Too Many Mornings." Gunn's rich and operatic baritone was lovely. McDonald captured all of Sally's angst, love, despair and desire.
The third set featured actors performing roles they had originated. John McMartin sang "The Road You Didn't Take." His voice was a bit softer after 35 years, but he still inhabited the character of Ben. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason sang "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods. It was so clear how much they enjoyed reprising this song. Twinkles and smiles all the way through. The first big goose-bump moment of the evening happened when Mandy Patinkin nailed "Finishing the Hat." Then after we were all in a puddle, Bernadette Peters entered and they sang "Move On." Both sounded like they did more than 25 years ago.
That seemed like the moment when an intermission could be inserted, but instead we had a stage full of Sweeneys as George Hearn and Michael Cerveris bounded on stage and looked at each other with confusion and contempt. Patti LuPone rushed between them - gave them each a double take, shrugged and dashed off. After some banter, Cerveris pulled out a razor and Hearn sat on a stool downstage center. Cerveris moved behind him with razor and they sang a wonderful version of "Pretty Women." LuPone came back and the three of them performed "A Little Priest" as a trio, Mrs. Lovett soaring with her two Sweeneys.
The second act featured six divas in red, opening with David Hyde Pierce singing "Beautiful Girls," to welcome Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. Each one was decked out in an elegant, unique outfit in slightly different shades of red designed by Diane Von Furstenberg. They sat downstage on chairs in a semi-circle.
LuPone began with "The Ladies Who Lunch" - with Ms. Lady Who Lunches, Elaine Stritch, sitting right there wearing a pants suit and a cap, the only one not in a full-length gown. When LuPone got to "Does anyone still wear a hat?" she stopped and panned towards Stritch, who simply smiled. That brought the house down. LuPone made the song her own. Applause was deafening, led by Stritch, who gave LuPone a big hug.
Mazzie did a bang-up "Losing My Mind," then McDonald provided another goose-bump moment with "The Glamorous Life." It's an incredible song, and what was more amazing was how within 45 minutes McDonald transformed herself from a middle-aged Sally (in the first act, as noted above) to a teen-aged girl. Donna Murphy delivered a wonderfully toxic, stinging rendition of "Could I Leave You?" with almost snake-like sibilant S's.
Bernadette Peters offered a deeply emotive rendition of "Not A Day Goes By," and then it was down to Stritch, who offered "I'm Still Here." The 85-year-old star got all the words - she spoke, sang and wiggled her way through it, bringing the full audience to their feet for the first time. The other five women watched her with glowing smiles of admiration.
The house lights came up for the finale as some 200 actors and actresses from current Broadway shows, all dressed in black, entered the Hall from the back and sides of the house. They filled the stage, the orchestra aisles and the mezzanine aisles to sing the finale to Sunday in the Park. The only word I can use to describe this is "spiritual."
We all stood and sang "Happy Birthday" to Sondheim who came onstage. In a short, emotional thank-you, he said all he wanted to do was write songs - and look where he is now. He quoted Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "First you're young, then you're middle aged, then you're wonderful." And it was wonderful.
STEVEN ROTH is an independent marketing and pricing consultant in Boston - and a longtime Sondheim fan.