Sondheim The Birthday Concert Blu-Ray Review

So I turned 40 in 2011! I was not alone in this, among the luminaries that joined me were Ewan McGregor, Mark Wahlberg, Winona Ryder, Mariah Carey and Sacha Baron Cohen, not that I have given many great comfort in the coming of middle age! ! Still, when Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim’s lavish 80th birthday bash revealed that he began a decade of his best work when he turned 40, beginning with the groundbreaking musical concept Company in 1970, he wowed audiences seeking escapism by showing them a mirror in a series of cartoons about Bobby, a single New Yorker unable to commit to a stable relationship.

Company was followed by Follies in 1971 over a fading Broadway theater scheduled for demolition, allowing the resident company to look back on their lives. Then came A Little Night Music in 1973, the show, which features Sondheim’s most recognized song Send in the Clowns, is partially based on Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and explores the lives romantic relationships of several couples throughout the course. of a weekend. The distant and esoteric Pacific Overtures opened in 1976, focusing on the gradual westernization of Japan, seemed like a dark subject for a Broadway show, presented in Kabuki style, and closed in fewer than 200 performances.

Sondheim ended the 1970s on a high note with what many consider to be his masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a macabre musical thriller in the Grand Guignol tradition, the initial Broadway production ran for nearly 600 performances and featured with Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd. and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. The show has had numerous revivals and benefited from the authentic Tim Burton film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The productions of this challenging but inspiring decade were directed by Harold Prince and his work with Sondheim usually produced a marmite response, audiences divided between those who loved the blatant deconstructionism of cozy Broadway and those who resisted preferring a less haunting night in. theater.

I was exposed to the world of musical theater and classical composition one Christmas in my teens when the BBC screened Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard Lectures; Bernstein, a natural communicator and infectious teacher, covered the history of Western music theory at lightning speed and I was instantly hooked. I wanted to hear anything that had his name on it and this led me to West Side Story and consequently Stephen Sondheim, who stood out as a lyricist on that show in 1957. I read about Sondheim and tried to get into Sweeney Todd but my ears were missing. ready, for me at that time it seemed too dissonant, which I find amazing now since melodies like My Friends, Johanna and Pretty Women sound totally irresistible to me and I wonder how the teenager did not manage to be wooed by them. ; Is this a symptom of turning 40?

To celebrate her 80th birthday at New York’s Lincoln Center, a host of Broadway stars gathered, including Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, and Joanna Gleason. The evening was recorded for the Public Broadcasting Service network and released on free Blu-ray for the region by Image Entertainment. As far as I know this has yet to be shown on UK television so this home release is very welcome. The evening’s emcee is Frasier’s Niles, David Hyde Pierce, and not only does he provide witty answers and details on Sondheim’s illustrious career, but he also manages to sing Beautiful Girls from Follies in a dozen different languages! All Hal Prince shows are well represented here; including Sweeney Todd, which features two of Broadway’s Sweeneys who fight each other wonderfully.

An unforgettable highlight of the show is a song cycle featuring Sondheim’s various protagonists in stunning red dresses, plus Elaine Stritch, sporting red pants and a peaked cap, this allows for a bit of spiked jokes from Patti LuPone. when singing Ladies Who Lunch the song that Stritch originated in Company, LuPone emphasizes the line “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and it gives Stritch a sly look, but the 85-year-old soldier is unfazed and delivers a wonderful rendition of I’m Still Here, a Follies song he’s made his own since his Tony Award-winning solo show At Liberty. The show ends with the entire cast singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sondheim and he takes the stage, unfortunately not giving a speech but clearly overwhelmed by the occasion.

The Blu-ray release is pretty basic, there are no extras to speak of, but the picture quality is flawless at 1080p and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by longtime Sondheim contributor Paul Gemignani really shines in. the crystal clear DTS-HD soundtrack. . I recommend this release for any fan of musical theater, even those unfamiliar with the shows will be surprised by the accessibility of the songs selected here; all are eclectic gems outstandingly performed by artists at the top of their game who clearly owe Stephen Sondheim a debt of gratitude.