'Sondheim! The Birthday Concert' celebrates a Broadway titan

There's plenty of "comedy tonight" to be sure, but "Sondheim! The Birthday Concert" -- a star-packed two-hour gala premiering Wednesday, Nov. 24, on PBS' "Great Performances" (check local listings) -- is devoted mainly to honoring the dazzling music and lyrics of Grammy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Sondheim.

Taped last March 15 and 16 -- just a few days shy of Sondheim's 80th birthday -- the program spotlights Broadway's brightest stars as they pay tribute to the man who indisputably is the greatest living composer and lyricist in the American musical theater.

Hosted by David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier"), who also co-wrote the special with its director, Lonny Price, the evening features one Broadway luminary after another -- Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy among them -- as they perform songs from such shows as "Sweeney Todd," "A Little Night Music," "Into the Woods," "Follies," "Sunday in the Park With George" and others.

"I recently saw the program for the first time," says Pierce, who won a Tony for the Broadway musical "Curtains" and currently is starring in the hit comedy "La Bete." "Of course, obviously I was there and I knew how amazing the live concert was, but what I was most impressed with was how Lonny Price captured it. That's not an easy thing to do, to give a television audience the experience that the people in the theater have."

Price -- who starred in Sondheim's 1981 flop "Merrily We Roll Along," then went on to a successful directing career -- also managed the daunting twin tasks of coming up with the overall format of the concert, which includes both stars re-creating the songs they originated in Sondheim premieres and a stunning array of scarlet-clad Sondheim leading ladies performing a selection of his hits, and coordinating the mind-bending logistics of getting all these busy stars in the same place at the same time.

"Lonny is the person who knew everyone in terms of the talent, the guy who could call in the favors and negotiate the wide range of some of the most important performers on Broadway," Pierce says. "A lot of them have strong personalities to coordinate, and what is most amazing about Lonny is that he didn't take the easy route. At the ending of the concert, there's those women, all Broadway royalty, all together on the same stage at the same time, one after another, all bringing down the house. That was a very bold step for a director to make, and it paid off beautifully, both on TV and for those of us who were there live. It's just so moving, both the power of the music and the power of those women."

As for the man of the hour himself, Sondheim -- who isn't overly fond of the spotlight -- admits to having mixed emotions about being the focal point of such a mega-event.

"I've been the 'target' of a number of benefits," says Sondheim, whose book "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-81) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes" was published last month by Knopf. "Wait, maybe you should say 'centerpiece.' I guess I think I'm the bull's-eye, so that's what made me think of 'target.'

"Hearing my stuff sung really well and even occasionally played by a symphony orchestra is something I have done before, but this was a superlative example. The talent on the stage was just so extraordinary, particularly when you get to those six divas coming out in those red dresses. That's pretty special. And the finale, with those 300 singers singing 'Sunday,' was uniquely thrilling. On some level, though, it's embarrassing. If I had wanted to be in public, I would have been an actor. My idea is to sit and listen in the dark, in the back of the theater, or go to the nearest bar when things are going wrong. So it was a combination of thrilling and flattering and embarrassing."

Among the evening's highlights are Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien re-creating their roles as the Baker and his Wife from "Into the Woods," Patinkin and Peters reprising a duet from "Sunday in the Park With George," and LuPone reuniting with two of her past onstage Sweeneys, Michael Cerveris and George Hearn, in a spirited performance of "A Little Priest."

For sheer nostalgia, however, longtime Sondheim fans probably will be most deeply moved by 81-year-old John McMartin, the only surviving principal from "Follies," giving a heart-wrenching performance of his song "The Road You Didn't Take" from that show.As for what current economics mean for the Broadway of tomorrow, Sondheim says he is most concerned for young authors trying to establish themselves in the theater.

"Young authors are not getting a chance to be heard, and producers are relying entirely on predigested material, which is what they call the 'jukebox shows,' where the audience is humming the tunes as they go into the theater, not coming out, and they know exactly what to expect, so there are no surprises," says Sondheim, who makes it a firm policy never to comment on the work of other living composers. "It's all a rehash, and it's all because producers can't, or don't want to, take a chance when a musical costs $15-25 million.

"The only way young authors can get heard, and therefore the only way that musical theater can grow, is if they write for off-Broadway and it gets enough attention that some producer feels, 'Well, maybe I'll bring that into the commercial theater.' That allows those young authors to make a living so they can write another one, which is the most important thing."

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