By Ron Fassler
Sondheim: Wordplay at the Kaufmann Concert Hall on Saturday night was genuine truth in advertising. For surely there has been no Broadway lyricist who has played with words more skillfully and with more insight and wit than Stephen Sondheim. In a program co-written by Jack Feldman (a lyricist) and Theodore S. Chapin (an author and producer of the Lyrics & Lyricists Series at the 92nd Street Y), sparkling examples of this astonishing composer and lyricist were on display one after another. Presented in an informative and entertaining show featuring some of the best theater talent currently at work, anyone who loves the American musical—of which Sondheim has now been a part of for more than sixty years—is guaranteed a delightful time.
In his program notes, Chapin mentions how he and his collaborators “came up with, oh, probably eight hours of songs” for this program. It is to their credit, that in just under thirty minutes, the breadth and depth of Sondheim’s lyric writing are given their full due. Even the deceptive simplicity of “The Two of You,” a rejected song that a youthful Sondheim submitted to the early 1950s children’s program Kukla, Fran and Ollie, was well worth a listen. Sure we heard many familiar works such as “Send in the Clowns,” but always with an ear towards the words, regardless of whether or not it was accompanied by a soaring melody like that of “The Miller’s Son,” also from A Little Night Music. The fine interstitial narration provided by Feldman and Chapin were welcome throughout the evening, in spite of so much that has already been written on the art (and craft) of Sondheim’s lyric writing, a great deal of which has come from Sondheim himself in his two masterful books on the subject: 2010’s Finishing the Hat and 2011’s Look, I Made a Hat. In fact, as Chapin pointed out, Sondheim personally took part in the first year of the Lyrics & Lyricists Series inaugural season back in 1971. Describing his talk (the first one Sondheim had ever given on his own work), Chapin states accurately that it was “an extraordinary primer in theatrical lyric writing.” I’ve owned a copy of the talk for many years, and can personally attest to its brilliance, as well as the many lessons it conveys from the heart and soul of a master.
Besides cogent direction from Christopher Gattelli and excellent projections by Dan Scully, some of the performance highlights came from Lesli Margherita’s hilarious rendition of “The Boy From,” first featured in the Off-Broadway revue The Mad Show—Sondheim’s irreverent take on the 1960s “The Girl From Ipanema,”—and Christopher Fitzgerald’s gender-switch of “I Never Do Anything Twice,” written for the Herb Ross-directed film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. And in another gender-bender, Telly Leung portrayed “Jamie,” and not “Amy,” the distressed about-to-be-married individual in the song “Not Getting Married Today” (this notion concocted out of the recent London production of Company, in which Bobby is now Bobbie, which sent Sondheim back at his rhyming dictionary, creating new words to reconfigure songs he first wrote nearly fifty years ago).
Lewis Cleale and Lauren Worsham excelled in two additional songs from Company: “Marry Me a Little” and “Another Hundred People,” as well as renditions of “Finishing the Hat” and “On the Steps of the Palace.” But many of the most difficult and, some might say profound, works in Sondheim’s repertoire were left to Melissa Errico, a dazzling singer/actress. With a CD produced in 2018 titled “Sondheim Sublime,” we were treated to three cuts from it: “Send in the Clowns,” “The Miller’s Son,” and “I Remember.” Exquisitely sung and beautifully interpreted, Errico stayed true to this trio of Sondheim masterpieces, expressing bold colors of light.
Having just turned eighty-nine last week, and as it has been reported for some time, the master is at work on a new musical. Whether we ever get to see and hear it is anyone’s guess. But even if it never comes together, we will always have the richness and rewards in all Stephen Sondheim has given us, in a career that has always been superb and surprising.
Sondheim: Wordplay continues at at the Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue) for four more performances: Sunday, March 31 at 2 PM & 7 PM, and Monday, April 1 at 2 PM & 7:30 PM. www.92y.org
Photo: Ron Fassler