There's still time to see Sondheim On Sondheim at the Lyric Stage in Boston's Back Bay, and if you have the slightest love for great theatre, great music, and great performances, get there as fast as you can.
Stephen Sondheim is one of American musical theatre's greatest treasures. Pretty much every important musical from the 1960s to the present bears his music and/or his lyrics, created over a career that's lasted an astonishing 62 years.
West Side Story. Gypsy. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Follies. Company. A Little Night Music. Sweeney Todd. Sunday In The Park With George.
They're all his.
Along with, of course, many of the other members of the Broadway pantheon: Richard Rodgers. Leonard Bernstein. Jerome Robbins.
You're basically getting 62 years of American theatre history in one swift-moving, brilliant performed show.
Sondheim On Sondheim features a highly talented cast of eight who sing and act out songs from the composer's best shows and also his (dare we admit it) flops.
The show first appeared on Broadway in 2010 and then hopscotched around the globe, alighting in Australia, San Diego, Cleveland, and now finally Beantown.
The singers perform under the composer's own watchful eye - video of interviews with Sondheim play on large screens above the set, introducing and narrating the songs.
What's fun is that we see works in progress - the two songs that didn't work to open A Funny Thing and then "Comedy Tonight," which did.
The two attempts that led to "Being Alive," from Company - and you witness why those early versions didn't work and why the final one did.
A song from Gypsy that appeared in only one performance - the song was fun but it impeded the flow of the show, so out it went.
Aside from seeing how the master worked, we also bear witness to his deeply painful personal life. We learn that he was unwanted child whose parents when he was 10.
He then was essentially foisted off on the family of Oscar Hammerstein (Sound Of Music, King And I, Oklahoma!). The great lyricist became a father-figure to the young Sondheim, which essentially set his own career path in motion.
"If Oscar had been a geologist, I would have been a geologist," Sondheim tells us in the show.
Years later, when his mother went in for heart surgery, she sent her adult son a letter in which she admitted she never wanted him.
Sondheim's genius, and his saving grace, was to turn these bitter experiences into songs that expressed the reality of human emotion. No moon in June for him; instead, we witness the pain of love, the joy of life, and everything in between.
We also see the brazen brilliance of his poetry. Consider these lines from "Ah, But Underneath," written for the London production of Follies:
The lady may decide her obligations
Are merely to reflect his expectations.
If his idea of ecstasy's
To see what he expects to see --
Well, ignorance is bliss.
But think of what he'll miss...
She was smart, tart, dry as a martini.
Ah, but underneath...
She was all heart, something by Puccini,
Ah, but underneath...
The cast does a thoroughly rousing and delightful job of presenting Sondheim's songs, no easy task, especially with the composer looking down from those video screens.
All eight are excellent, but special attention must be paid to Sam Simahk's star turn in "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," Davron S. Monroe in "Is This What You Call Love" from Passion, and Leigh Barrett, bringing down the house with "Send In The Clowns."
Sondheim said that his idea of a perfect night in the theatre is one where you laugh your head off for two hours and then you go home and you can't sleep. A little insomnia is a small price to pay for performances you won't soon forget.
Sondheim On Sondheim continues at the Lyric Stage in Boston's Back Bay through February 21.