"Sondheim on Sondheim" is, no surprise, all about Stephen Sondheim. But a new "symphonic version" given its premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl proved ever so less Sondheim-centric than the original 2010 Broadway revue.
For one thing, Sondheim is here a lesser God. That is to say "God," the one original song for a revue that covers Sondheim's career in scrapbook fashion, is out. For another, Gustavo Dudamel has entered the picture.
Indeed, losing more gods that opened the original show — "Gods of the theater / Smile upon us" from the "Invocation" in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — the performance began Sunday with a new fractured medley from several Sondheim shows. In the middle of it, Dudamel turned around, microphone in hand, and sang, from "Follies": "I'm just a Broadway baby / Walking off my tired feet / pounding 42nd Street / to be in a show."
He made it very funny but he also must have meant it. I can think of no conductor who has pounded his feet on the Hollywood Bowl stage (or anywhere else) quite like Dudamel has for the first two weeks of the L.A. Phil's Hollywood Bowl season. He led five programs that ranged from Copeland (Misty in a ballet night) to Copland (Aaron in a "Lincoln Portrait" featuring Vin Scully), from Verdi to Wagner, from "Moon River" to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, from "Giselle" to Lady Gaga (who made a surprise appearance the second night of a Tony Bennett show Dudamel graciously accompanied). And finally, Sunday's full Sondheim show.
One more thing. In a coup de théâtre that could never happen on 42nd Street or anywhere else, Dudamel included members of YOLA, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, in "Sondheim on Sondheim," making "Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods" into a touching moment.
Sondheim told The Times that what excites him most about the new version of the show, which has gone through considerable changes since Broadway and even, reportedly, since recent previews given by the Boston Pops, is having an orchestra at his disposal rather than the kind of small ensembles normally squeezed into Broadway pits and budgets.
Size can matter. The original show had a cast of eight and an orchestra of nine, conducted by the pianist. The Bowl boasted a cast of 10 (originally it was to have been 11 but one singer dropped out) and a full L.A. Phil along with what looked to be a full amphitheater (meaning close to 18,000 in the audience).
That alone changes a lot in a show that had been meant as an intimate and unusually personal portrait of Sondheim that was put together by his longtime collaborator, director James Lapine. The result is a scattershot amalgam of songs, some complete, some fragments, some intercut with others from the same show or different ones. Most of Sondheim's shows are included although not, alas, "Pacific Overtures." All of this is interposed with video of Sondheim talking to Lapine about his life and career and the songs, along with historical footage.
And so we have Sondheim the young Broadway nerd, Sondheim with 1960s beard and long hair, Sondheim the wizened God of Broadway; Sondheim as raconteur, smart aleck, realist, dreamer, sentimentalist, sage; Sondheim who can be self-effacing and even vulnerable but who has no reason to doubt that he has entered into the pantheon of America's great songwriters, which he so amusingly parodied in "God."
Perhaps the sheer grandeur of the symphonic "Sondheim on Sondheim" is why "God" had to go. Everything here is already larger than life. Having so large a cast and orchestra may have also been the occasion to do a little something about tidying the show's sprawl, which has been criticized in the past, but which I think has always been part of its stream-of-consciousness charm.
Musically the imaginative vocal arrangements by David Loud have a particular interest. Solo numbers can become duets, trios, quartets all the way up to screwy dectets. Michael Starobin's capable orchestrations are more conventional. It might have been too much to go crazy here, but it might not have been either.
Sunday's cast included Vanessa Williams from the original show, and a host of smart, convincing, brilliantly fluid Broadway singers — Sarah Uriarte Berry, Phillip Boykin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Lewis Cleale, Carmen Cusack, Claybourne Elder, Jonathan Groff and Ruthie Ann Miles. Solea Pfeiffer, who came out of nowhere to star in "West Side Story" at the Bowl last summer (and who will be in "Hamilton" when it opens in L.A. next month), is clearly on her way.
Director Sarna Lapine and choreographer Michele Lynch used as much of the Bowl stage and environs as they could, further adding to the grandeur, while the video screens went in for cinematic close-ups of singers. Each number was meant to be a scene from a show. The results were impressive, because the cast was impressive.
But this also missed some of the point of a revue that is its own thing and that is now also a concert thing that can be something that goes beyond narrative Broadway and into the meaningfully messy mind of a great artist. If you've got the L.A. Phil, take full advantage of it. Dudamel did, and though he was kept in the background visually, he was the vital secret sauce making it all come alive and work musically.
"Sondheim on Sondheim" ends with "Anyone Can Whistle." YOLA remained on stage and listened. "What's natural comes hard," Berry sang, as if to young musicians all ears.
"Maybe you could show how to let go," the imposing Boykin requested.
"Maybe if you whistle, whistle for me," the full cast joined in.
We were back to chamber music. All the artifice was peeled away in a wise, deceptively simple song. For a moment, anyway, Sondheim as God didn't seem preposterous.