I ended up finally watching 'Sondheim's 80th Birthday Party' on PBS last night. I missed it the first time it was on a few nights back but I TiVo'd it and watched it last night. I have to say, I liked it so much I actually went back and watched parts of it again. It is literally a 'Who's Who' of the people working at the very top of their game in the musical theatre world.
Patti Lupone has been belting it out since the mid 70s. She sings 'Ladies Who Lunch' in the celebration and I was thinking there just aren't too many people that can sing that song right in front of Elaine Stritch and still make it all their own. Lupone can. And she does. I have always wondered how Ethel Merman became such a huge presence in the theatre...yes, she could certainly belt. But she couldn't act much and she couldn't dance and she wasn't good looking. I answered my own question last night as I watched Lupone. Although there is really no comparison when it comes to talent, I realized as I watched her last night how powerful it is when a personality like that is melded with a talent like that. She is our latter day Merman. I couldn't take my eyes from her. Sheer force of nature. Merman must have been something like that in her heyday.
And of course, Patinkin sang from 'Sunday in the Park with George.' I saw he and Bernadette Peters do it in NYC way, WAY back in 1985. It was the second musical on Broadway I ever saw (the first being 'Dreamgirls). Along with the Steppenwolf production of 'Orphans' at West Side Arts (I was later to play on that very same stage), 'Sunday in the Park' is the most influential piece of theatre I've ever seen. Mandy Patinkin is one of those performers you either love or hate. I love him. I love his intensity, I love his 'over the top' mannerisms, I love his narcissistic presence, I love his crazy-good voice. Mr. Patinkin has a questionable reputation in the theatre world. Any one in this business has no doubt heard stories of how 'difficult' he can be to work with. But I have a close friend who has done two shows with Mandy. He tells me that he never saw that side of him. He told me that yes, Patinkin is rather stand-offish to his co-workers, but he says it's not because he has any sort of chip on his shoulder but rather that he finally realized that Patinkin is simply acutely shy. I understand and identify with that completely. I, too, have now and again gotten bad report cards from fellow performers. And I, too, have trouble opening up to actors I'm working with on stage sometimes. Again, I adore Mandy Patinkin and his talent. A rather over used phrase in this business is 'he has a gift.' In Mr. Patinkin's case it is overwhelmingly true. He has a gift. His work always astounds me.
And, of course, Bernadette Peters. There is a moment in the show where six or seven top leading ladies in the theatre today all sit on stage and one by one rise and sing an amazing Sondheim song. Each seems to top the last. Elaine Stritch ends the segment by singing/talking/belting 'I'm Still Here,' a song that has become her signature tune. But before her, Ms. Peters sings, simply and powerfully, 'Day After Day After Day.' She is mesmerizing.
The special ended with what appears to be every current singer on Broadway filing to the stage and singing, en masse, 'Sunday' from 'Sunday in the Park.' The stage is filled with performers. It's an awesome sight. And beautiful. Sunday in the Park with George is my favorite musical of all time, even more so than 'Sweeny Todd,' which many today consider his masterpiece. I disagree. As fond as I am of 'Sweeny,' it is 'Sunday' that still raises my arm hairs today. I did the show myself many years ago in Virginia. It is one of my fondest memories in the theatre.
It is very fitting that I should see this special at this time because I'm smack dab in the middle of rehearsals for 'The Adding Machine,' by Josh Schmidt and Jason Leuwith. I have described it recently to friends as 'Sondheim Squared.' Interestingly, I was chatting with another friend the other day and he said, much to my surprise, that 'Sondheim had ruined musical theatre. He destroyed the beautiful melodies of Broadway. Well, after watching this piece of genius last night I agree with him even less than I did before. I used to say to people that Stephen Sondheim was our Mozart and Andrew Webber our Salieri. I believe it more than ever now.
So...Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim. There is Sondheim and then there is everyone else. When he dies, every other composer in the world moves up a notch.
See you tomorrow.