"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with shit and the vermin of the world inhabit it..." A Stephen Sondheim lyric from "The Barber and His Wife" from SWEENEY TODD used to comic effect in the new revue, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, playing at Studio 54.
It wasn't too long ago that I wrote in this blog about Stephen Sondheim. I had just seen the first ever Broadway revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I was floating somewhere above cloud nine as it was my first opportunity to see a production of the musical and my first experience seeing Angela Lansbury on stage.
This night was another first. I got to see Barbara Cook perform for the first time. She won the 1958 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for playing Marian the Librarian in THE MUSIC MAN. I've seen clips of her singing, but never experienced it live. She's 82 years old and her voice is amazing. There are phenomenal singers who, as they age, lose their ability to sing the way they once did. For Barbara Cook, that change is minimal. Oh sure, she doesn't move as easily across the stage as she once did. She's 82! But that voice was so lovely on most everything she was given to sing.
There have been many revues using the songs of Sondheim but what makes this one extraordinary and important is the participation of the man himself. According to a New York Times article from October 2009, James Lapine, who conceived and directed the show, described the revue as, "a kind of impressionistic view of him that’s put together with pieces of archival footage and interview footage. It’s a collage of his life, in which who he is and how he got there comes in to focus." That footage is what made seeing this show so spectacular. Sondheim was honest. Very honest. I don't know if it's because he's 80 now and doesn't worry about how much people know about him or what, but it was amazing. Some of the information was well documented and some of it was private, but hearing him say the words made is so personal. It was like hearing it all for the first time. Add to that the beautiful songs chosen to fill the more-than-two-hour piece and you've got me sitting on the edge of my seat. Alternating laughter and tears. Moments of shear exhilaration when Vanessa Williams sang "Losing My Mind" from FOLLIES then Barbara Cook sang "Not A Day Goes By" from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and then the two combined for a medley I've never heard or even thought of as possible. I've heard several medley's of his songs before, but this one blew me away, and the audience. It was the most cheered moment in the show. At least the most cheered at that moment. I know there are readers of this blog that will probably see this show and I don't want to give too much away. It's best to be surprised and enjoy it as it unfolds.
Stephen Sondheim has written the scores to and songs from the musicals that I listen to the most in my life. There is no other composer that gets as much attention from me. I learn something new from a song or just a lyric all the time. The pictures that he paints with the words blow my mind. I want to be able to paint pictures like that. I listen to a song by him and wonder, even knowing what the situation is that he has to musicalize, how did he come up with those words to tell the story. The perfect words to get across the feeling of the scene or moment. The man is a genius.
My friend Tynan attended the performance with me. My friend Mead got me a great deal on tickets and threw in a pass to the patron VIP lounge. It was downstairs at Studio 54. It was very modern in it's decor, but not cold. It was plush and inviting. When Tynan and I entered the lounge at intermission, I gasped and reached for her hand at the same time as she gasped. We were stopped in our tracks. It was a split second that seemed to last for five minutes. I let go of her hand so as to be inconspicuous, but there in the middle of the room was Stephen Sondheim. There were only about 10 or 11 of us in that room and one of them was Stephen Sondheim and he was talking to Mandy Patinkin who starred as George in Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I could barely contain myself. It was an amazing moment. It wasn't over yet either. We still had Act 2 to look forward to. I overheard Sondheim saying to Mandy that the second act was better. He wasn't lying. That's were it got very personal. Tears personal. Well, tears for me.
I think you can tell that I had a very good time. The truth is that when I send a "Thank You" email to Mead for arranging the tickets, I will be asking if I can purchase another at the same price. I need the experience again. My favorite composer just turned 80. He may never write another new musical. I need to experience his words about his life and music coupled with his songs at least one more time. Then hopefully, it will be preserved as a recording that will allow me to access, easily, those memories.
"...And it goes by the name of London." That's the hole. London.