Sunday, December 05, 2010

Eat cake, not people

He can't be eighty. Not eighty.

When Stephen Sondheim, the last of his kind, the ultimate (in every sense) American musical theatre composer/lyricist -- apres lui la deluge -- reached that milestone last spring, he was given a tribute by the New York Philharmonic. PBS finally decided to share it with us before unleashing the dreck they save up for interminable December pledge drives. Think of it as a last glass of champagne before the diet Yoohoo.

Of course, any true Stephen maven -- it's hard to say, like "Bobby boobie" -- immediately thought of ways to improve on the event. So rich is the Sondheim canon that I would have omitted music by other composers, especially if it is less than top-drawer (Do I Hear a Waltz?) or over-familiar (West Side Story). I would have traded "America" for "Someone In a Tree," which Sondheim has called his personal favorite. There wasn't a bar of Pacific Overtures, as against three excerpts from Sweeney Todd and no fewer than seven from Follies. But I think I see what the producers were doing. For years critics dismissed Sondheim (and probably discouraged ticket-buyers) with the dreaded three C's -- clever, cynical and cerebral. The concert set out to display his passionate, heartbreaking side, and succeeded brilliantly. (To raise the bar, it omitted "Send In the Clowns," which became such a cliche that Mel Brooks used it as the basis for a dumb joke in his version of To Be Or Not To Be.)

I also would have given Steve a better seat. The camera frequently picks him up peering around the man in front of him to see the performers. Aren't there any boxes in the current version of Avery Fisher Hall?

Well, they did very well without me. I was very happy that someone unearthed a song he contributed to a long-forgotten Judy Holliday vehicle and matched it with Victoria Clark. I don't think two Sweeneys were strictly necessary, but "A Little Priest" works perfectly well as a trio. (Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris and George Hearn must have been relevatory to those who only know the misbegotten Tim Burton film and the high-school-play voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.) And it was wonderful to see and hear performers from the original casts: John McMartin in Follies, Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien in Into the Woods, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in Sunday In the Park With George. But like Verdi -- I don't think the comparison is misplaced -- Sondheim has never excelled in purely instrumental music. If it was necessary to include an excerpt from his score for Reds, it was certainly not necessary to have it interpreted by ballet dancers. That's the New York Philharmonic back there -- bring up the lights and let them play. (It would be ironic if this particular excerpt led to a plagiarism suit from the copyright holder of "I'll Be Home For Christmas.")

But when the excellent host, David Hyde Pierce, strode on to sing "Beautiful Girls" in a mixture of English, German, Yiddish, Japanese and Italian (a running joke, and not a good one), it was time for the home run display. Patti LuPone didn't just sing "Ladies Who Lunch," she took possession of it, and with Elaine Stritch sitting six feet away. Bernadette Peters's voice has lost some of its lustre in recent years -- maybe the passage of time, maybe too many Ethel Merman roles -- but she delivered a stunning "Not a Day Goes By." Marin Mazzie was perhaps a little too emphatic in "Losing My Mind," but the song can take it. Donna Murphy found every bit of anger and pain in "Would I Leave You?" and Miss Stritch herself brought down the house with "I'm Still Here." Yes, you are.

Let's be clear: We do not deserve Audra McDonald. In a self-respecting culture, she would be the subject of municipal sculpture. In the golden age she would have divided her time between Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in one musical after another. She could break your heart if she sang the Ole Dirty Bastard songbook, though I trust she won't. After a definitive "Too Many Mornings," more than holding her own with the opera singer Nathan Gunn, she came back with the original "Ordinary Mothers" from A Little Night Music -- the one you never hear because no Frederika could sing it. With her magnificent voice and equally stunning diction, she conveyed the little girl's mixture of loneliness and pride in her mother's "glamorous life." If PBS wants my money it can forget about Riverdance and Andrea Bocelli and give us an evening of McDonald. No, a week. Every month?

If you didn't shed a tear at the finale, a stageful of actors singing the end of Sunday In the Park With George, stop reading and go have yourself aligned, lubricated, martinized, whatever.

No. No way he's eighty.