Stephen Sondheim has been my favorite Broadway composer-lyricist since I was in high school. I have tons of opinions about his work, tons of his songs remind me of moments in my own life--and I am also grateful to him for starting Young Playwrights, Inc., whose national contest I won in 2006.
As a young Sondheim-holic, I was especially thrilled to see a revue of his songs called Opening Doors, presented at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, in October 2004. It was my first semester at Vassar and my first weekend trip to New York. I traveled to the city on Saturday, saw The Frogs at Lincoln Center that night, sang "Stormy Weather" at a dessert-piano bar, stayed with my cousin in Brooklyn, and the next day, saw Opening Doors for just $10! The Frogs isn't Sondheim's best work, but that didn't matter, because Opening Doors left me feeling so happy. And like a real New York arts lover, a real sophisticate. Before that weekend, I'd barely seen any Sondheim performed live, and none since I'd become a devotee--just a high-school production of Into the Woods and a few West Side Storys.
Victoria Clark (top), Gregg Edelman and Kate Baldwin in Opening Doors. Photo from theatermania.com
I loved Opening Doors so much that I made copious notes after it was over (why I waited so long to start a blog, I don't know), and I'll spare you some of my freshman-year effusiveness, but I thought it a good basis for my first Sondheim Week post. It included many of his greatest hits (some in fresh interpretations), some more obscure pieces, as well as slide shows accompanied by recordings of Sondheim talking about his life and work.
Opening Doors featured five performers: Kate Baldwin, Victoria Clark, Jan Maxwell, Eric Jordan Young, and Patrick Wetzel (filling in for Gregg Edelman). Baldwin was the youngest, a perky ingenue with a clear mezzo/belt voice. Maxwell received the best mention in the New York Times, but I thought she was the weak link in the cast: her low alto voice did not have much range, and she overacted in her solos, waving her arms around. IMO, Clark was the standout, with her expressive voice that switches easily from chest tones to soprano, and her excellent acting. (I loved her even more in The Light in the Piazza the following spring.) Wetzel's voice was a little thin and nasal, but I had immense respect for his ability to step in as an understudy for an hour and a half of singing, dancing, and acting Sondheim. Young had a rich African-American baritone voice, and was also a talented hoofer.
I fell in love with the show during the third number, a medley of "Move On," "Everybody Says Don't," and "Take Me to the World." I wrote, "It was staged so that the other four performers sang "Move On" and "Everybody Says Don't" to Young, as if they were instructing a child on how to live in the world. Then he faced front and sang "Take Me to the World" solo. At the end, the other themes came back, and Young held the note on "for our own," and the three others held the note on "don't be afraid," and Victoria Clark's gorgeous soprano cut above the rest to sing "Stop worrying where you're going, move on," it was incredible. I got chills and almost cried!"
The show was loosely structured as a passage from innocence to experience, explaining why this medley appeared early in the show. It was followed by Baldwin singing "I Know Things Now" as though she were a neurotic young woman who had just gotten out of a relationship with a slimy guy, i.e., figuratively eaten by a wolf. Other re-interpreted songs included "A Weekend in the Country" sung in swing/jazz rhythm instead of waltz time, and "Barcelona" with the genders reversed and Patrick Wetzel singing in an over-the-top Spanish accent.
The Sondheim interview segments also helped to structure the show. For instance, after he discussed life in New York, the performers sang "Who Wants to Live in New York?" "What More Do I Need?" "Uptown, Downtown," and "Another Hundred People." Act One ended with Sondheim talking about friendship and the performers singing a medley of "Old Friends/What Would We Do Without You/Side By Side."
The first act of the show was energetic and cheerful--the performers wore business-casual outfits and the lighting featured lots of magenta and red. The second act became quieter and more introspective, with blue-purple lighting and the performers in cocktail/evening wear. It featured two love song medleys, one for the women, one for the men. When Maxwell sang "Loving You," Clark sang "Not a Day Goes By," and Baldwin sang "So Many People," it was a perfect matching of song and performer. Less exciting was Young singing "Goodbye for Now" and Wetzel singing "I Wish I Could Forget You." But at the end, the men made eye contact and you suddenly realized that they were singing about each other. I wrote at the time, "A nice way to include the fact that Sondheim is gay without clobbering you over the head with it."
More upbeat moments in Act II included an absolutely rip-roaring rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" by Victoria Clark--literally a showstopper. Clark had to hold her final pose for the longest time as we kept applauding and applauding. And Baldwin and Young did a dynamite dance routine to "That Old Piano Roll." Still, by the end, the show ended with more pretty medleys, emotionally moving harmonies, and grand statements about life: first a "No More/No One Is Alone/Being Alive" medley, then "With So Little to Be Sure Of/Our Time."
Noteworthy quotes from Sondheim (paraphrased, of course) during the interview segments included:
- On youthful crushes: "I was always the youngest, and the smartest, in my class" (something I can relate to!) "which meant that I always hung out with older kids—they took me under their wing, kind of like a mascot. I remember when I was about fourteen, hanging out with this one senior and his girlfriend…Was that a crush? I don’t know."
- On friendship: As he gets older, the few lifelong friendships he has are the ones who can "endlessly surprise" him.
- On love: Sondheim considers himself a romantic, in the sense of believing in big, grand, sweeping, passionate statements, “as I think even a cursory listen to Sweeney Todd would prove.” Still, he knows very few couples who can be happy together for an entire lifetime, and that is why he has never had such a relationship.
- On actresses: Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, and Lee Remick are his favorites for acting while singing, while Glynis Johns and Elaine Stritch are his favorite “personality singers.” Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom about Ethel Merman was that she couldn’t act, but Sondheim and Styne realized that her comedy skills came from some real anger in her soul, and wrote songs to tap into that anger.
- On posterity: Sondheim doesn't think much about it, because he'd prefer people to discover and consider his work while he is still alive.
- On writing and life: Asked what he would tell his “younger self,” Sondheim's advice on writing was to write what you feel, not what you think you should feel. He used the lyric from "Move On," "Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new" to illustrate his point. His advice on life was to go after what you want, but be sure it's really what you want (which is the theme of Cinderella's storyline in Into the Woods, of course!). He introduced the singers' rendition of "With So Little To Be Sure Of" by reciting its first lines...it must mean a lot to him.