A Holiday Gift for Sondheim Fans!

In case you missed the news in the New York Times, the venerable newspaper’s 2023 Holiday Gift Guide included a recommendation (by no less than Jesse Green, the Times’ chief theater critic) of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia as a great holiday gift! It’s now available as a paperback for just $55, which is part of its appeal this year. Use this link to Rowman and Littlefield on my author website where you’ll find a code from the publisher to reduce that price by 30%. (If you prefer to order a hardback copy, priced at $135, the same code will reduce it to $95.) This is certainly the year to satisfy all your musical theater friends with a gift of this comprehensive volume — 650 pages, 130+ entries about Sondheim and all of his shows, his collaborators, the actors who starred in the original productions and much more.

Rick at the Drama Book Shop, September 2023

In September, I was honored to have a book signing event for the encyclopedia’s paperback edition at the Drama Book Shop, near the Broadway Theatre District. Most of the 40 seats were filled with fans (and some family) to hear me chat for 45 minutes or so with knowledgeable Book Shop employee David Rigano. After that I spent some time signing copies and chatting one on one with those in attendance. It was a rainy Monday night in late September, but no one’s enthusiasm for Sondheim was dampened.

That trip to New York City afforded me an opportunity to see the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. Groban, of course a fabulous voice for the role, appears to have settled into a world-weary sense of Sweeney that becomes all the more fearsome when his fury is unleashed. Ashford has a wholly new take on Nellie Lovett, clingy, selfish and manipulative in ways that set her performance apart significantly from that of Angela Lansbury (and Patti LuPone, for that matter). Although these two stars are memorable, the entire ensemble — directed by Thomas Kail (who staged Hamilton) — is a coherent character, often performing with meticulous, synchronized choreography by Stephen Hoggett.

(L-R) Maria Bilbao, Ruthie Ann Miles, Rick,
Katie Rose Clark, and Reg Rogers

I was back in early November for a meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association where I emceed a panel of performers from Sweeney Todd — Ruthie Ann Miles, who plays the Beggar Woman, and Maria Bilbao, who is making her Broadway debut as Joanna — as well as the revival Merrily We Roll Along — Katie Rose Clark who plays Beth and Reg Rogers is the boys’ producer, Joe Josephson. It was especially fascinating to hear Ruthie Ann talk about her analysis of her role in Sweeney: She approached the Beggar Woman as someone with “dissociative identity disorder” (which we used to call “multiple personality disorder”). A close study of her character’s lines identified more than 10 distinct personalities, which she employed in her fragmented portrayal of Sweeney’s damaged wife.

By the way, it’s been announced that Aaron Tveit (who won a Tony for Moulin Rouge!) will replace Groban as Sweeney, and four-time Tony winner Sutton Foster will step into the role of Mrs. Lovett. They pair will debut on Feb. 9, 2024. Might be time for another trip to New York City …

On my November trip I also attended the Merrily We Roll Along revival featuring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliff and Lindsay Mendez. This trio of actors has such an excellent and joyful chemistry with one another that their portraits of Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn came to life in a remarkably convincing and entertaining way. Maria Friedman’s production is very similar to one she did at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory back in 2012 that transferred to the West End. Filmed and screened in American movie theaters on a limited basis in 2014, Friedman’s Broadway revival of the production has benefited significantly from this excellent set of performers. I’m sure it will be a Tony nominee for Best Revival and could well be the winner. Ben Brantley wrote called it “the season’s most essential show, with an unsurpassable triple act at its center.” I wholeheartedly agree.

On my November trip I also headed to the Shed’s Griffin Theatre at Hudson Yards to see the production of Here We Are, the show Sondheim was working on with playwright David Ives before his death two years ago. Based on a pair of esoteric films by Luis Buñuel, it’s a strange work about a crowd of overprivileged people trying to find a place to have brunch (Act 1) and then trapped in a posh embassy where escape seems impossible (Act 2). An exercise in absurdist existentialism, it features with a fine cast featuring Bobby Cannavale (as a robust, no-nonsense guy with a bad heart), Steven Pasquale (playing an effete ambassador), David Hyde Pierce (as a Catholic bishop dubious about his calling), Denis O’Hare (playing an amusing series of diffident servants), and eight others. The staging with minimal design (Act 1) and florid deterioration (Act 2) by David Zinn, was well suited to the Griffin’s thrust stage with the audience flanked on three sides.

Sondheim’s score has been orchestrated for a dozen musicians by his veteran collaborator Jonathan Tunick; Alexander Gemignani (son of longtime Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani) conducts. The first act of Here We Are has a half-dozen songs (not titled or listed in the program), plus underscoring and snatches of music that momentarily reminded me of chords from Sunday in the Park with George and passages from Passion. Aside from one song, the second act is mostly underscoring. As a Sondheim enthusiast, I’m grateful that Here We Are has been staged. But I’m intrigued to watch whether it has a future beyond this quirky production staged by Joe Mantello. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your reactions.

Thanks for reading my blog posts which reach more than 800 people. If you have Sondheim news or comments you’d like send my way, please drop me an email: pender.rick@gmail.com

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