The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened?

sondheim on sondheim rfh

Imperfect but wow. Sensational but flawed. A set of dazzling performances, but there’s a good reason nobody owns up to the (atrocious) sound design in the programme. Any revue based around Stephen Sondheim‘s body of work is going to entail a series of trade-offs, and that’s certainly true here: this concert presentation at the Royal Festival Hall, based on a revue conceived by James Lapine that played on Broadway in 2010, draws from a body of work that by now is more or less inarguably without peer, but Sondheim’s songs are almost all so tied to their original contexts that it’s difficult for them to achieve the same impact when they’re performed as part of this kind of retrospective. The evening’s great triumph is that the six singers here – Liz Callaway, Damian Humbley, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Moore, Julian Ovenden, and Rebecca Trehearn – are such thrilling performers that they manage, more often than not, to make songs we’ve heard a million times before sound absolutely fresh. The evening’s great pitfall, on the other hand – I mean, apart from the frequent glitches in the sound system – is that while it does succeed in making these songs work in a new context, they are rarely as effective as they can be when they’re performed in the shows they were written for. As I said, there’s a trade-off: the evening is simultaneously wonderful and a bit of a bumpy ride.

The gimmick, as in this revue’s Broadway incarnation, is that Sondheim’s songs are linked together using video clips of interviews with the man himself, projected on a screen above the stage. The clips, for the most part, are chosen well (the screen, in a space the size of the Royal Festival Hall, could usefully have been a little larger), and Lapine has done an intelligent enough job of sequencing the clips to take us from Sondheim’s childhood and the beginnings of his songwriting career through his gradual rise to success and into a (very, very careful) discussion of which works feel most personal, which songs are autobiographical (almost none of them), the influences that shaped his career, and so on. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, although the segues between the video clips and the live singers sometimes feel a little abrupt, but the biggest problem with Lapine’s concept is simply that the audience for this kind of event is self-selecting. If you’re the kind of person who is going to go out and possibly travel some distance on a Thursday night to hear an orchestra and six singers – fabulous singers, all of them, but not Streisand-level stars – perform this material in concert, you’re probably the kind of person who already identifies as more than a casual Sondheim fan. If you’re already the kind of fan who would attend this kind of event, you’ve probably read at least some of the material covered in the video clips. You’ve probably read at least one of the books about him (it’s likely you’ll own at least a couple), seen at least one of the TV documentaries, and that means you’ll already be familiar with a fair amount of what he has to say in the clips Lapine has chosen here. It’s undeniably moving to see Sondheim talk about Oscar Hammerstein II, or about his reverence for the teaching profession, and there are some fascinating details here and there, like the conversation he had about marriage with Mary Rodgers as he started to write the score for Company. Sometimes, though, the clips undercut the music they’re supposed to introduce. We see a clip in which Sondheim tells us Assassins, in one respect, is the show he’s proudest of, because it’s the show that ended up closest to the vision he and John Weidman, his collaborator, had when they were writing it, and that it’s the only show he’s never had the urge to go back and change. Great, fascinating, but that clip is used to introduce Something Just Broke, which was written some time after the show’s original production closed, and (crucially) after the script had been published, and introduced in the London production a couple of years later. Granted, that’s a tiny detail – but this, essentially, is a show for Sondheim geeks (I wear the badge with pride, deal with it), and that’s precisely the audience who will pick up on that kind of trivia.

In fact, although it wasn’t precisely conceived as such, the concert’s greatest strength, perhaps ironically, turns out to be the way it celebrates Sondheim’s music. After a career littered with reviews that praise his lyrics at the expense of the melodies they sit on, in a revue in which we’re shown a series of clips where he discusses the craft of lyric-writing, the nature of collaboration, the need to focus on specific details in order to tie song lyrics into the dramatic scene they’re intended to serve, it’s refreshing – no, more than refreshing, it’s downright wonderful – to attend an event that puts his music centre-stage, even if there’s a bit too much talking around the edges. Because what this evening reveals – partly thanks to Keith Lockhart’s sensitive conducting, partly thanks to the sixty-five musicians in the BBC Concert Orchestra, partly thanks to Michael Starobin‘s orchestrations, partly thanks to the six wonderful singers at the front of the stage, but largely thanks to Sondheim himself – is that this music is glorious. We’re so used to hearing these songs in their original contexts, where they usually arrive accompanied with a lot of other information that the audience has to process simultaneously, that it’s easy to underestimate Sondheim-the-composer. The entr’acte – an orchestra-only arrangement of Kiss Me from Sweeney Todd, is as exciting as anything you hear all evening, and with this company of singers that’s saying a great deal.

All six, of course, get at least a couple of moments to shine. Liz Callaway kicks things off with a haunting, pristine rendition of Take Me to the World, from an original TV musical called Evening Primrose; it’s almost twenty years since I last saw her live (in Sibling Revelry, her cabaret show with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway at the Donmar Warehouse), and her voice is possibly even lovelier now than it was then. Damian Humbley, standing in at very short notice for another performer, takes the opportunity to remind us why his Franklin Shepherd, Inc. is probably now the definitive rendition of the song. Tyrone Huntley builds a careful, thoughtful Being Alive that manages to make the song’s climax moving rather than melodramatic. Julian Ovenden’s Finishing the Hat is as good a performance as the song has ever had. Claire Moore offers a haunting, haunted In Buddy’s Eyes. Best of all, for my money, is Rebecca Trehearn’s masterful take on the (very) difficult I Read from Passion. It’s far from the easiest song/aria/whatever to make work as a concert piece, but she succeeds triumphantly; it’s one of those performances that raises goosebumps, and someone – soon, please – has to cast her as Fosca in a full production.

There are ensemble performances too, of course, although there isn’t a chorus, and the six singers work beautifully together; the concert’s song list, though, is possibly as interesting for what it doesn’t include as for what it does. Only one of the three shows for which Sondheim wrote only lyrics is represented here, so there’s nothing from Gypsy or Do I Hear a Waltz?. West Side Story is represented not by any of the famous solos or duets, but by a jazzed-up four-part arrangement of Something’s Coming. It’s pleasant enough, and flawlessly performed, but it seems to have wandered in from a different set-list. There’s nothing from Pacific Overtures, very little from Sweeney Todd, one-and-a-bt songs from Into the Woods, only two songs from Follies – but four songs from Passion, five from Merrily We Roll Along, and we even get The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened in each of the (somewhat different) versions heard in Bounce and Road Show. In terms of showing us Sondheim’s range as a composer, the decision to use so much material from his lesser-known shows pays off in spades – but again, it means the show is possibly best appreciated by geeky superfans (as I said, I wear the badge with pride). In terms of the wider public, there are plenty of songs in the catalogue that are more familiar than much of what we hear (some of them were included in this revue’s original Broadway incarnation). What you also won’t hear is God, the wittily self-deprecating Act Two opener Sondheim wrote specifically for this revue’s Broadway production, and that’s a pity: it might have served to puncture the aura of REVERENCE that comes from having each successive musical number introduced by a very, very serious interview clip from the master himself.

The concert format, too, is somewhat distancing: none of the six singers has any trouble projecting their personality right to the back of the room, with no thanks to a schizophrenic sound system whose levels were frequently all over the place, particularly in the first half, but most of these songs were written to be staged rather than sung from behind a music-stand. The rudimentary direction is by Bill Deamer, and he’s drawn a superlative set of performances from these singers, but it’s all rather static, which is probably inevitable given the incredibly rushed timeframe in which this kind of event tends to be put together. And of course the biggest downside of privileging the music over the lyrics, unfortunately, is that the concert gives less of an impression than it might of what a funny writer Sondheim can be. As I said, inevitably this kind of event is going to involve a series of trade-offs. In this case, you trade some of the wit in favour of a revelatory performance of some of the music. If that trade doesn’t appeal, you’ll need to hold your breath until Follies comes back to the National next year. If it does, and you track down the radio broadcast, you may still be sorry-grateful (although the sound problems, fingers crossed, should have been resolved); the concert’s format may not entirely work, but the performances are sensational. And did I mention that Rebecca Trehearn’s I Read was worth the ticket price, the train fare, and the hotel bill? One more time: someone please cast her as Fosca. Stat.





5 thoughts on “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened?

  1. Sondheim seems to have two versions of the genesis of Something Just Broke – 1) he was going to write it at the the time of the original production, for its transfer, that never happened, so the song wasn’t wrutten and 2) it was Sam Mendes’ idea…

    • We didn’t get either story. The clip just showed him talking about ‘Assassins’ as the one show he’d never wanted to go back and change – as an introduction to the *one thing in it* that he did go back and change.

  2. Thank you Stephen, wish I had been there.
    I’ve been thinking about simplicity & directness in music, as an under-rated quality. Rather than going off half-cocked, I’ll simply say that in a hundred years time I think we will still be listening to Sondheim, and the reason may well be linked to that paragraph of yours that begins “In fact, although it wasn’t precisely conceived as such, the concert’s greatest strength, perhaps ironically, turns out to be the way it celebrates Sondheim’s music”. He is indeed under-estimated, because he makes it look easy, and feel seamless.
    Perhaps we can discuss it further some day.

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