With the sad news on Friday night that Stephen Sondheim had passed away, there was really only one route to take yesterday. There’s not actually a huge amount of choice when it comes to (legitimately) accessing the onstage works of the universally acknowledged genius of American musical theatre. Digital Theatre and Broadway HD both have the Regent’s Park production of Into The Woods (strongly recommended) and the latter also has the compilation show Putting It Together. There’s an intriguing concert plus performance of Company on You Tube although the provenance there may be questionable, and Netflix have just started streaming the Imelda Staunton led Gypsy. Other than that, the options are around film versions. I guess that situation may change in the wake of the news but if you want a thorough overview of Sondheim’s career then probably Take Me To The World is your best bet.
Originally planned as a live 90th birthday tribute, it found itself forced to go online as Broadway shut down and has remained accessible since. It’s really an online concert which I’ve never felt falls within my own brief but in this instance I thought I would make an exception and it meant that I could indulge myself in a best of compilation rather than singling out one particular show. It also proved a timely reminder of how just how wide Sondheim cast his net from ancient Greece and Rome, to Victorian London, the Paris of the Impressionists, contemporary New York, Japan at the start of its westernization and into the fantasy world of fairy tales. Has one composer/lyricist ever covered quite so many bases and genres?
Not that all of his shows are represented; nothing, for instance, from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum or the infrequently performed adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Into The Woods, Sunday In The Park With George, Follies and Company take up the bulk of proceedings but as they are probably his four masterpieces who’s complaining? All the same some of the most interesting aspects were new, to me anyway, such as songs from Pacific Overtures and written for television Evening Primrose; indeed, the title of the whole show is taken from one of the latter’s numbers. As might be expected there’s a roll call of some of the composer’s greatest interpreters such as Patti Lupone and Raul Esparza and various other star names drop by to say happy birthday, among them fellow composers Stephen Schwartz and Lin-Manuel Miranda, actors Nathan Lane and Jason Alexander and film director Steven Spielberg whose reworking of West Side Story is on the cusp of being released. Though there is some degree of cloying showbiz luvviedom there are also sterling efforts to raise money for charity ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty).
It’s a show that could be approached at a leisurely pace but if you don’t have time for the whole 140 minutes there’s a full list of the elements given below the video complete with time stamps so you can find the best bits. Personally, I’d head for Maria Friedman’s rendering of “Broadway Baby” and Alexander Gemignani’s “Buddy’s Blues” (both from Follies), Elizabeth Stanley’s gorgeous “The Miller’s Song” (A Little Night Music) and Bernadette Peter’s touching and unaccompanied account of “No One Is Alone” (Into The Woods). And you definitely won’t want to miss the power trio of Meryl Streep, Christine Baranksi and Audra McDonald having a whale of a time with “Ladies Who Lunch” (Company).
Apparently the original stream had some big technical issues; whatever they were they are seldom evident here. In fact, the editing together of the various elements, by a team of five from a whole battery of personal devices in the performers’ homes into a consistent whole, should be roundly applauded. Particularly worthy of note is the opening overture where a host of Broadway musicians come together virtually for the overture of Merrily We Roll Along which gets things off to a cracking start. And, of course, the finale featuring the entire company simply has to be that anthem from Follies to the power of endurance, “I’m Still Here”.
Sadly, Sondheim no longer is but his legacy will endure. Even though no great interpreter of musical theatre, one day I’d like to have a crack at a part in one of his works if only for the challenging experience it would provide. And in my very first role on stage, I had to pretend to be a Greek Frog – just saying!