March 16, 2010

March 15 – In 1985, Stephen Holden and I sat in the tenth row center to see Follies In Concert” at Avery Fisher Hall, which turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of musical theater I’ve ever experienced. If you’ve heard the excellent recording, you can imagine what I mean. Happily, Stephen invited me to be his guest for “Sondheim: The Birthday Concert,” the spring gala for the New York Philharmonic – same venue and some of the same cast. The occasion was Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and the show was a tasteful and surprisingly low-key affair, directed by Lonny Price – pleasurable, never boring but never actually thrilling either. For one thing, hardly any surprises. The one Sondheim rarity showed up early in the program, when Victoria Clark came out to sing “Don’t Laugh,” a number that Sondheim wrote for Judy Holliday as a favor to Mary Rodgers when the short-lived 1963 musical (Holliday’s last) Hot Spot was in trouble out of town.

The biggest musical discovery for me was Nathan Gunn, whom operagoers have been drooling over for a few years (both for his gorgeous baritone and his gorgeous bod, stripped to the waist in Billy Budd — see above). He sang “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd and “Too Many Mornings” from Follies with Audra McDonald, which was the highlight of the evening for me – what  a great song! Laura Benanti sang a lovely version of “So Many People” from Saturday Night. It was great to see some original cast recreations: Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason from Into the Woods, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters from Sunday in the Park with George. And the show culminated in a Diva Showdown where Bernadette, Audra, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, and Elaine Stritch (all in beautiful red Diane von Furstenberg gowns) sang songs they’re not associated with. Stritch was forgivably shaky, and the others were fine, but there were no revelations. David Hyde Pierce made for a droll host, nattering on about wanting to hear Sondheim songs in other languages and perpetually chiding conductor Paul Gemignani (who did a spectacular job, by the way) to stay away from Sweeney Todd (“We’re eating cake tonight, not people!”). The choruses from a bunch of Broadway shows filled the stage and the aisles and the balconies to end the show with a blast of “Sunday.” And Sondheim himself took a curtain call, sweet and humble, as you might expect, and moved to tears, which I don’t think any of us would have expected.

We had fun chatting at intermission with Tony Kushner and Mark Harris (Tony said he’s freakishly adept at memorizing lyrics and had astonished Sondheim at dinner once by reeling some off) and afterwards with Tony Tommasini and his friend Scott Wheeler.

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