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The Sounds of Sondheim

Sondheim on Sondheim is a retrospective about one of the musical theater’s foremost lyricists/composers. Originally conceived and directed on Broadway by James Lapine, this bio-play of sorts combines footage projected on a screen above the stage with six live singers/ dancers onstage accompanied by a four-piece orchestra. The eponymous Stephen Sondheim, at various stages of his long life, dominates what unfolds onscreen as he comments on his life and work and wittily sets up songs we’re about to hear. There are also clips of some of those stars such as Ethel Merman who have belted out Sondheim showstoppers in hits such as Gypsy, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George, etc.

Shaina Knox, Josh Wise, Stephanie Fredricks, Kevin McMahon, Jake Novak and Barbara Carlton Heart sing their hearts out and hoof their feet off with about 40 Sondheim songs. Many tunes will set your tootsies a-tapping with director D.J. Gray’s choreography, while some, such as Heart’s solo rendition of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (which I remember seeing on Broadway with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold), may get your tears a-dropping.

The production also cleverly includes some of Sondheim’s lesser known numbers, including some that were cut and which auds at the International City Theatre may be hearing for the first (but hopefully not the last) time. An example of the latter is “Forget War”, which director George Abbott ordered cut from Forum. This revelation may cause some Sondheim fans to cry “Hey Abbott!” but from on high onscreen, the composer/lyricist reveals how this literally set the stage for Sondheim’s writing “Comedy Tonight” to replace it.

Sondheim’s celluloid self offers many backstage show biz tidbits (such as about his frequent collaborator Hal Prince) sure to titillate fans, and more importantly insightful commentaries into his creative process, how he goes about composing and conjuring up those words to accompany the notes he has set down – usually on a pad of paper by hand. However, this artistic force – who has won 8 Tonys, 8 Grammys, a Pulitzer and Academy Award and is sometimes referred to as “God” – admits what he is unable to do: Write the entire book for a play. Sondheim also confesses that he had the mother from hell who tormented him, causing emotional pain that not only suffused his work but also harmed his ability to love until he was 60.

Sondheim also discusses his mentorship by lyricist/playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, which bestowed upon him a creative life raft that enabled him to develop his talents and chart the course of a career arguably as prodigious as that of the co-creator of hits such as South Pacific. In what Sondheim calls his most “autobiographical” number, the cast performs “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, which, among other things, deals with breaking into show biz.

Of course, the heartache and lovesick quality of Sondheim’s oeuvre, often full of loss and wistfulness, is every bit as autobiographical, expressing the pain caused by the divorce of 10-year-old Stephen’s parents and his wretched mother’s mental cruelty towards him. One could argue that Sondheim’s music is a divine sublimation of the trauma his parents’ parting and mother’s abusiveness caused him: A fine madness that is the creator’s loss but audiences’ gain. (You see, it’s my parents’ fault that I didn’t turn out to be a genius: They were too loving and too good to me. Curse them!)

Another song I was unfamiliar with but quite enjoyed hearing was the droll “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, which was performed with panache by heart and McMahon. “God”, rendered by the company, is another amusing piece wherein Sondheim pokes fun at the notion that some deify him. BTW, this self deprecating number is the only original song the then-80-year-old wrote for Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010. (But of course the notion that Sondheim is god is absolutely preposterous – everybody knows Eric Clapton is.)

Assassins is almost certainly Sondheim’s most political play and it deals with those who conspired to assassinate U.S. presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to the heroic anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who made McKinley pay for annexing Hawaii and turning the American Republic into an empire, to Lee Harvey Patsy to Squeaky Fromme, etc. This remarkable musical was part of a spate of works that came out during the George W. Bush presidency and were probably unconscious emanations of rage against the unelected pretender-to-the-throne who not only usurped the presidency but set this country on the disastrous course it’s still on, with no end in sight for the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, et al. (Fun fact of the review: Samuel Byck, who attempted to hijack an airliner and fly it into Nixon’s White House, made tape recordings he sent to Sondheim collaborator Leonard Bernstein. And for the record, Mario Cantone’s comic take on Byck in 2004’s Assassins was far superior to Sean Penn’s dramatic turn as the would-be Tricky Dick whacker in 2004’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon.)

However, the show at the beautiful International City Theatre did hold some disappointments, although not with the quality of the performances and production, which generally shone. Rather, and this is probably in Lapine’s original script and not due to I.C.T., there is only a single solitary song from what is arguably the greatest musical Sondheim contributed to, West Side Story. As the star crossed lovers the cast’s rendition of “Something’s Coming” was perfect, but I wanted to hear more from this legendary score. Perhaps the reason why no other immortal West Side Story songs were sung is due to the issue of rights (and payments for them). And/or perhaps because while a very young Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story another musician – Lenny something-or-other – composed the music. In any case, I guess “when you’re a Jet you’re NOT a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day…” Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio!

Another disappointment is that the plays the various songs were performed in aren’t identified. And boo-hoo, my favorite song from Sunday in the Park with George – “Art Isn’t Easy” – was also omitted from this bio-play. But these are mere quibbles: With about 40 numbers, you can’t have them all. If you are a lover of musical thee-a-tuh, music, the inner workings of the creative process, show biz gossip, and/or Stephen Sondheim, get thee way down yonder to Long Beach for, to paraphrase the titular songwriter:

“Something aesthetic,
Something frenetic,
Something for everyone:
A musical tonight!”

Sondheim on Sondheim is being performed Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Nov. 8 at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802. For more info: (562)436-4610; www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.

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Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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