Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday tribute

Last night, my family had hoped to watch a livestream of a special birthday celebration for composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 90th birthday. The performers were all in their own homes and there were pretty massive technical difficulties which delayed the start for two hours. It was too late for us to watch live, but T and I were able to watch it on youtube today:

I loved it!

There are performances from generations of Broadway stars, some jaw-droppingly amazing given the unusual circumstances, all heartfelt. Most of the songs were well-known, but several were less so. It was a tribute to Sondheim’s incredible range as a composer. While a few were more light-hearted selections, most were poignant, which is a quality I notice often in his songs.

The first Sondheim musical I saw was a community performance of Company when I was in high school, which seemed very adult and sophisticated to my small-town teenage self. I most associate Sondheim, though, with my daughters.

We had a video recording of Into the Woods, which was a favorite of E’s when she was young. She especially liked singing Little Red’s “I Know Things Now.” When T was old enough to watch with her, we would only let her watch the first act. (If you know the show, the first act ends with what could be construed as “happily ever after”; the second act gets dark pretty quickly.) This worked for a little while, until E told T the rest of the story and we relented and let her watch the whole thing, which she did not find upsetting. I guess that the non-bowdlerized Grimm version of fairy tales, which involve quite a lot of mayhem, endure for a reason that I had not hitherto fully appreciated.

T’s favorite Sondheim musical became Sunday in the Park with George. She and E would often break into Sondheim songs around the house, just for the joy of singing. And they sang them very well, which is an accomplishment, because Sondheim is very difficult to sing accurately. T and I especially liked a video clip in the tribute of a young Iain Armitage singing “Finishing the Hat.”

E and T often did summer workshops at our local playhouse, some of which involved singing. Sometimes, Sondheim worked his way into those performances. I especially remember that in summer of 2001, E sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. A few weeks later, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I found the memory of her singing that song oddly comforting. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around.” Not that I thought her singing would protect us from terrorists, but that sense of caring and sheltering resonated in those circumstances.

“Not While I’m Around” was part of last night’s concert, too. It and several other selections that have that same poignancy of love, protection, and care brought tears to my eyes.

The power of music.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim, and thank you.

Review: Into the Woods

When our daughters were children, one of their favorite videos to watch was the the Great Performance’s recording of the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods. For a while when T was very young, we only let her watch the first act, deeming the second act, which goes into the aftermath of “happily ever after,” too dark for her – until her four-year-older-and-wiser sister filled her in on the rest of the play and we let her watch the whole performance.  All of which gives you insights into the kind of family we are…

At any rate, long before the current spate of fractured fairy tale mash-ups, there was the brilliance of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods.  Besides uncounted viewings of the original Broadway cast, my daughters got to see the 2002 Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams, for which we also owned the CDs, for singing along on long car rides. We have also seen local productions, most recently at the CIder Mill.  So, I had high hopes and a few misgivings about the new movie version of our family favorite.

Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie very much. While there had to be some cuts to shorten the length from the original theatrical production, they were made very judiciously, with only a few song/dialogue cuts that we missed. We had to admit that, while we enjoy the reprise of the Princes’ “Agony,” it was better for the flow of the movie to have cut it, especially when the first act version of it is so charmingly (over)played as it is in the film.

There are a number of songs performed by an ensemble of characters and I thought that the filming of these, moving among the characters in their different settings was very effective, especially the opening version of “Into the Woods.”  I also thought it was a great choice to use the sung finale music over the first part of the credits.

My favorite performers were the three main female characters. Meryl Streep made a very convincing witch, aided by cinematic effects that let her appear and disappear in a swirl. Working for a camera instead of a large theater, she was able to show more subtlety than she would have been able to in a theater. Anna Kendrick made a wonderful CInderella. We especially liked that “On the Steps of the Palace” took place on the steps of the palace, rather than in the woods, giving her the chance to sing about her decision as it was happening, rather than reflecting on it later, as she does in the stage version.  Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife carries a lot of the heart and lesson-learning of the film. One hopes that this role, which won a Tony for Joanna Gleason in the original Broadway cast, will win some awards for Ms. Blunt.

The real star of the movie for me is Stephen Sondheim, whose clever and sophisticated lyrics and music make the whole production lively and touching, ably assisted by James Lapine, who wrote the book/screenplay. Because I know the show well, the clever lines were familiar to me. I was sitting next to someone in the theater who did not know the musical at all. It was fun listening to him react to the wordplay.

I’m hoping to be able to see the movie again while it is in the theaters and will definitely want to add it to my DVD collection when it becomes available. I hope other people will enjoy it as much as I did.

Into the Woods

Last night, we went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at our local professional theater.  “We” equals me, my spouse, and my parents.  My mother-in-law was to have joined us, but she is having difficulties with her back and couldn’t sit for such a long performance.

Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals.  I find the interwoven fairy tale adaptation fascinating and love Sondheim’s ability to pack both wit and depth of feeling into the lyrics, which move the plot along even more than the spoken dialogue.  I also have a longstanding relationship with the musical because it was a favorite of my daughters when they were young.  We watched it many times through a recording of the original (1988) Broadway cast.  For quite a while, I only let our younger daughter see the first act, which ends with the somewhat expected “happy ever after” vibe, shielding her from the much darker second act, until her four-years-older sister told her what happened and my shielding tactic became moot.

I enjoyed last night’s performance because the brilliance of Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book, shines through.  I especially enjoyed the performances of CInderella, the Baker’s Wife, and Little Red Ridinghood and the singing voices of the two Princes.  Some of the other performers were occasionally flummoxed by Sondheim’s complex melodies, although those in the audience who have not heard the music over and over might not have realized it.

My major disappointments were with the technical aspects.  The lighting was often too dark – and, yes, I get the whole being-in-the-woods thing, but it would have been better to use dappled lighting to give the illusion of moonlight through trees, rather than just not having enough light to see the actors.  There was also a gaping hole in the back wall of the set, which was only used in one scene in the second act.  It was very distracting to look at it for two and half hours when it was so little used.  The stage could also have used some pitch, as quite a few songs took place sitting on the stage; alternatively, the actors could have been placed more upstage to make them more visible to those in the back rows.  (The seating is cabaret style, so there aren’t many rows, but each row is deep.)

I was also disappointed with the costuming.  Many of the costumes were too drab.  A number of them were ill-fitting, especially too tight.

The theater company is in the midst of a change in leadership.  I wonder if some of the technical problems are the loss of a long-time team experienced with this theater, which was once a storehouse for apples.  It is a tricky space in which to work and the new team may be groping a bit as they adjust to its idiosyncracies.

One of the surprises last night was of a more personal nature.  I found that the second act’s deaths of a number of mothers of varying ages hit me hard.  As I have said, I know the play well, so I knew what was coming, but I found myself tearing up as the losses mounted.  Sitting beside my mother, who had a heart attack on July 31st, missing my mother-in-law who is suffering from osteoporosis, having spoken earlier this week with a friend who recently lost her mother, and anticipating the upcoming birthday of a friend who died much too young nine years ago, my heart was aching more than usual in reacting to the losses in the play.

The loss of a mother – at whatever age – represents its own brand of pain and even fictional losses on stage can echo or foreshadow that pain in our own lives.