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Dispatch from New York: A gala for composer Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 80th birthday

March 16, 2010 | 12:15 pm

Sondheim 

Monday night on Broadway, 80 was the new 30 as more than 2,700 New Yorkers paid good money (top ticket: $250) to honor the tunes and talents of Stephen Sondheim.

The composer and lyricist doesn’t turn 80 until next week (March 22 is his birthday) but Monday night’s New York Philharmonic gala concert at Avery Fisher Hall kicked off what appears to be a whole season of Sondheim celebrations. Next week, the Roundabout Theatre Co. has a “Sondheim 80” bash and next month, City Center, the venerable Manhattan venue, will host its own birthday tribute. Later in the year there will be similar events at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at London’s Donmar Warehouse. 

Angelenos wishing to celebrate Sondheim can watch the New York Philharmonic gala on PBS’ “Great Performances” later this year or head over to UCLA for Reprise Theatre Co.’s revival of the first Broadway musical that Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The overture to “Forum” kicked off the New York gala -- after M.C. David Hyde Pierce nixed the opening bars from “Sweeney Todd.” Pierce quipped: “We’re not starting with “Sweeney Todd.” It’s a birthday party. It’s a celebration.” 

For lovers of Sondheim’s music, it was indeed. There were performances of numbers from rarely performed shows like “Do I Hear A Waltz?” (Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley combined on a punchy rendition of “We’re Gonna Be All Right,” a bitter gem of a song that is the best thing about that 1965 show.) There were reunions of original cast members, like Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters singing “We Do Not Belong Together” from “Sunday in the Park with George” as well as Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien teaming up for “It Takes Two” from “Into The Woods.” 

Plus plenty of moments that hardcore Sondheim fans could geek out over, as when George Hearn, who was a replacement Sweeney Todd in the original production, and Broadway’s most recent barber, Michael Cerveris, teamed up for a duet of “Pretty Women.” (When it was time to sing, Cerveris motioned to a chair and said, “You first…” to which Hearn deadpanned: “Yes, I was.”)

The only ovation that matched Sondheim’s was the one given to Elaine Stritch, who sang “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the original Broadway “Company” back in 1970. She let Patti LuPone take that number this time -- and after turning 84 herself last month, she sang (and danced!) the showbiz torch song, “I’m Still Here.” It should also be noted that she did it in heels.

The mix of celebrity and nostalgia (like Audra McDonald and John McMartin on stage, and Alec Baldwin and Charles Kimbrough in the audience) was potent, but what really made the evening feel special was the music. In recent years, the trend has been to scale down Sondheim’s scores. The “Sweeney Todd” that starred LuPone and Cerveris (and eventually came to the Ahmanson Theatre) had the actors playing the instruments, and the current “A Little Night Music” on Broadway features only eight musicians in the pit -- whereas the original production boasted 25.

Hearing Sondheim’s scores played by a full orchestra -- the New York Philharmonic, no less --was a reminder of the richness of his music -- not just his celebrated wordplay. Conductor and longtime collaborator, Paul Gemignani, led the New York Phil through Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations. The ability to listen to a full string section -- instead of a synthesizer -- in the numbers from “Follies,” “Night Music,” and especially “Sunday in the Park with George,” was no doubt for Sondheim (and the audience) the birthday treat that made it worth slogging through the gala shtick. This and the finale, when scores of actors from current Broadway shows (Monday nights, most productions are dark) flooded the aisles of Avery Fisher Hall to accompany the orchestra by singing the choral finale from “Sunday.” 

As he enters his ninth decade, Sondheim has won every major award an American artist can earn: the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony, the Oscar, and the Grammy, not to mention a Kennedy Center Honor. Yet when the celebrated and famously cantankerous composer took the stage for a bow, he was in tears. It may have been the strains of “Happy Birthday,” sung by everyone in the house, but more likely it was lingering reverberations from hearing first-rate musicians perform his own music. For any composer, there is no better gift.

-- James C. Taylor

Above: Stephen Sondheim, center, steps forward to acknowledge applause during a celebration hosted by the New York Philharmonic in honor of his 80th birthday at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Credit: Richard Termine / New York Philharmonic

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