To many musical theater aficionados, Stephen Sondheim is a god. Few composer/lyricists can match his level of success, rival his versatility, or compete on his artistic plane, and over the course of the past half century he's penned a series of beguiling, deceptively complex scores that challenge our minds, touch our hearts, and stir our souls. 'A Little Night Music' (currently in revival on Broadway), 'Company,' 'Follies,' 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,' 'Sunday in the Park with George,' and 'Into the Woods' are only some of his immortal creations. Lest we forget, he also wrote the lyrics to such iconic and enduring shows as 'West Side Story' (also currently enjoying an immensely popular Broadway revival) and 'Gypsy.' Passion, sardonic wit, introspection, but most importantly, truth – bold, harsh, unabashed truth – infuse and distinguish his work.
So if any composer deserved to be feted on a grand stage by some of Broadway's finest performers in honor of his 80th birthday, it was Stephen Sondheim. And feted he was back in March of 2010 at a gala Lincoln Center concert in New York City, where such theatrical legends as Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, and Audra McDonald, along with Great White Way stalwarts George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, Joanna Gleason, Marin Mazzie, and others, paid tribute by singing an eclectic program of Sondheim gems. Both classic melodies and more obscure (but no less captivating) tunes comprised the musical lineup, which was presented in a classy manner befitting the guest of honor. Actor David Hyde Pierce presided as master of ceremonies and the preeminent New York Philharmonic accompanied the performers. PBS-TV originally broadcast the event last summer, and now Image Entertainment has released 'Sondheim! The Birthday Concert' on Blu-ray, so we can all share the magic of that memorable evening.
The exclamation point in the title is not without purpose, for it emphasizes the composer's tremendous impact on both musical theater at large and individual audience members in particular who have patronized his shows over the years. I became a faithful Sondheim devotee back in 1979, when, as a 16-year-old, I first saw 'Sweeney Todd' on Broadway. I instantly became obsessed with the deliciously macabre "musical thriller," and went back three more times during its initial run to savor the exquisite score, riveting story, and masterful performances. The depth of feeling that pervaded that show, the clever lyrics, the haunting melodies…all of it came together in such a unique and fluid manner it eclipsed anything I'd previously seen. And I can honestly say nothing in my experience has topped it since. Not all of Sondheim's works have been as enthusiastically received or critically lauded, but they share in common that elusive artistry and commitment to craftsmanship that make even his failures more interesting and impactful than some of Broadway's greatest successes.
'Sweeney Todd' is well represented here with the inspired pairing of a past Sweeney – in the form of Hearn, who did not originate the role, but played it for several months during the initial Broadway run and on tour – and the most recent Sweeney, Cerveris, who took the part to new and more frightening heights in the 2006 revival. The two sing a spirited duet of 'Pretty Women' (with Cerveris as Sweeney and Hearn as the lascivious Judge Turpin), then join LuPone, who portrayed Mrs. Lovett alongside Cerveris, for one of Sondheim's most droll and ghoulish compositions, 'A Little Priest.' Equally exciting is the reunion of Patinkin and Peters, who co-starred in 'Sunday in the Park with George.' Patinkin opens the two-song segment with 'Finishing the Hat,' then he and Peters soar with an electrifying rendition of the thoughtful, emotional 'Move On,' one of the evening's most memorable moments.
Memorable, however, doesn't even begin to describe what is, without a doubt, the highlight of this concert of highlights – a six-song cycle showcasing the incomparable gifts of six theatrical divas: LuPone, Peters, Stritch, McDonald, Mazzie, and Donna Murphy. All march on stage glamorously attired in bright red gowns (with the exception of Stritch, who dons jacket, slacks, and a cap) to the strains of 'Beautiful Girls,' then sit in a semi-circle on simple wooden chairs and one-by-one approach the microphone to perform some of Sondheim's most affecting works. It's a master class of talent, poise, vocal technique, stage presence, and interpretation, and it's impossible not to be slayed by each singer's varied and individual gifts. LuPone kicks off the sequence with an arch, deadpan, and thoroughly brash reading of 'Ladies Who Lunch' from 'Company.' Commanding the stage as only she can (and in the presence of Stritch, who originated the song), LuPone, with both formidable force and jaded humor, tears into this scathing musical diatribe against idle women of privilege. In short, it's magnificent. The elegant Mazzie then turns the mood to romance and melancholy with an impassioned rendition of 'Losing My Mind' from 'Follies,' and McDonald beautifully employs her lilting soprano as she explores her conflicted feelings for her absentee mother in 'The Glamorous Life' from 'A Little Night Music.'
Murphy next launches into a dazzlingly witty harangue about her elderly husband as she ponders that loaded question, 'Could I Leave You?' from 'Follies.' Delectably savoring every derisive line, Murphy weaves a deft comic spell with some of Sondheim's most playful and pointed lyrics. Peters then tugs the heart strings with a lovely rendition of one of my all-time favorite Sondheim melodies, the little-known and under-appreciated 'Not a Day Goes By' from the flop 'Merrily We Roll Along.' And then, at last, Stritch, that 85-year-old force of nature, strides to center stage and knocks all the other ladies (and us, too!) on their ass with a knock-'em-dead performance of the always show-stopping 'I'm Still Here' from 'Follies.' To see this down-to-earth grande dame shimmy, shake, and bulldoze her way through this classic ode to just hanging on and hanging in is truly a special treat, and anyone who watches it without a broad smile plastered across their face for the entire duration cannot call themselves a human being. Stritch brought tears of joy to my eyes, so great was my admiration for her energy, pizzazz, and the palpable electricity this octagenarian is still able to generate.
Sondheim's genius lies in his ability to make high art accessible and relatable, and this exciting, superb concert hammers home that point over and over again. It inspires us not only to revisit the composer's shows or listen to his scores, but also to go out and live life, grab the reins of our existence and experience all we can. We're all searching, pining, grasping, and Sondheim realizes this, and his insightful compositions in some small way help guide us down our own twisted, rocky paths. And that's just one reason why so many of us worship this living theatrical deity.
Many happy returns (and revivals), Steve!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sondheim! The Birthday Concert' is housed on a BD-25 single-layer disc that comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case with a four-page insert of liner notes. No previews precede the full-motion menu with instrumental accompaniment.
Shot on HD video, 'Sondheim! The Birthday Concert' looks spectacular on Blu-ray. The image bursts with perfectly modulated contrast, bold color, and marvelous clarity. The spotless source material exudes a lovely sheen and flaunts a dimensional quality that makes us feel as if we're a part of this live performance. Though the camera rarely zooms in far enough for a traditional close-up, we're still able to appreciate fine facial features and discern beads of perspiration that dot the singers' foreheads. The deep black tuxedos of the men appear appropriately rich and inky, while the red dresses of the divas make a vibrant statement, but never bleed. Fleshtones are all stable and natural, and details like glistening diamonds and the fabrics of various gowns are always crisp and distinct.
Audience shots, especially the reactions of Sondheim himself, are soft and grainy, but that's to be expected, considering they were shot in very low light. That's the only blemish on this glorious 1080i/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that gives the cliché "front row seat" new meaning.
A strong picture is all well and good, but without top-notch audio this disc would quickly find itself up for sale on eBay or languishing in the trash bin. Thankfully, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track rivals the image quality, and thus considerably ramps up the replay value of this stirring concert. Dynamic, clean, nuanced, and full-bodied are only a few of the adjectives that could be used to describe this superior audio rendering that helps transform our living rooms into a Lincoln Center recital hall. Voices run the gamut from the operatic soprano of Audra McDonald and George Hearn's deep basso to Mandy Patinkin's light tenor and Elaine Stritch's gravelly alto, and the track reproduces all of their varied tones with gorgeous clarity and precision. Despite innumerable grand climaxes, distortion is never an issue, and quiet moments never get lost. Balance is perfect; the orchestra never drowns out the singers, yet the instruments don't play second fiddle, so we can admire the arrangements as well as the vocals. Narration and lyrics are always easy to understand.
The surrounds kick in most noticeably during the applause, providing the illusion of a live concert, but they're always delicately in play, adding depth and breadth to the sound field. Though not overly active, LFE elements are woven into the orchestrations and contribute to the fullness of tone that makes this track such an aural treat. I can't imagine Sondheim's music sounding any better than this, and his fans will surely appreciate this superior effort.
Printed liner notes, which are tucked neatly inside the Blu-ray case and chronicle the concert's genesis and development, comprise the only disc supplement.
'Sondheim! The Birthday Concert' celebrates the enormous talent of one of the theater's most accomplished and prolific composers. Top-flight performances from Broadway's finest make us appreciate each and every selection, and pine for a lengthier program. Excellent video and audio quality enhances the electricity and immediacy of the event, and heightens the replay value of the disc. The absence of supplements is disappointing, but won't dampen my sky-high enthusiasm for this thrilling presentation. This is a must-have disc for music lovers, and a tribute that will enthrall anyone with even a passing interest in musical theater. Highly recommended.