Hollywood Bowl, CA- I desperately wanted to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sondheim on Sondheim” at the Hollywood Bowl. My intense love of musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim dates back to high school, and this was an opportunity to see his work at a level I hadn’t experienced live before. Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and featuring a cast of Broadway veterans, the performance also included Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and raised funds for the LA Phil’s music education and community programs.
In an era when Bravo broadcast non-Housewives shows (i.e. the 90s), I eagerly watched Sondheim’s musicals on their “Broadway on Bravo” series. It was a window into great moments on the New York stage: Bernadette Peters in “Into the Woods,” Mandy Patinkin in “Sunday in the Park with George,” Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd,” and more. I’ve also worked on a number of productions of his work (including childhood performances of “Into the Woods” with my music editor @methodman13) – fun to be a part of, but nothing like the magic that unfolded at the Bowl.
“Sondheim on Sondheim” walks the audience through his career, alternating live performances with video clips of interviews with Sondheim throughout the years. For Sondheim fans, the entire performance was catnip. Sure, it included segments of his big-name shows: “Westside Story,” “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “A Little Night Music.” But it also included pieces from notoriously difficult but loved-by-theater-geeks productions: “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Assassins.” Better yet, it highlighted lesser-known songs from “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Passion.”
Overall, the performance was radiant. The size and talent of a virtuoso orchestra gave the music a depth and nuance that a typical theater’s much-smaller ensemble simply cannot provide. Dudamel conducted with his trademark energy, even joining in with the cast on one number. Though he has been the Phil’s Music Director for close to a decade at this point, I’ve somehow managed to miss him every time I’ve attended their performances since he began his tenure. While I regret not seeing him in his wild-haired earlier days, it seems fitting that my introduction to him would be at a performance with YOLO – a Dudamel passion project inspired by his work with Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program for at-risk youth. A group of the students joined the Phil at the end of the production, a living reminder of the purpose of the evening.
Staged simply with the rehearsal cubes ubiquitous in theaters everywhere, the evening focused on the music. The singers perched on the cubes as they awaited their numbers. In a style more typical of a rock concert than an LA Phil show, the singers also walked along the wall around the Pool Circle seating. The cast included familiar faces such as Vanessa Williams and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Morphing from character to character, the members of the ensemble breathed life into familiar stories I’ve played on repeat as well as into shows I’d never heard before.
Unquestionably, the star of the evening was Phillip Boykin. With little context given for the songs and at times not enough information to understand the characters’ motivations or emotions, the audience was periodically left to enjoy the beauty of the music without actually knowing what was going on in the songs. Boykin sliced through this limitation with charisma and a voice to die for. His Sweeney Todd flashed from despair to madness. Even more compelling was his heart-stopping Leon Czolgosz in “The Gun Song” from “Assassins” – his performance resonating with the song’s desperate feelings of injustice. The musical tells the story of presidential assassins and wannabes, presenting the challenge of making these villains compelling characters and juxtaposing beautiful music with ugly stories. The Bowl production included the male trio portion of the song, bringing the audience to moments of pin-drop breathless silence as the singers pointed finger guns into the crowd.
Another highlight of the evening came in the form of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Jesse Tyler Ferguson sang the role of Charley Kringas, vividly reflecting the combination of nerves and righteous anger the character feels as his long-term music writing partnership collapses. This production chose to incorporate the sound of a manual typewriter, which always feels like a more effective way to represent the lyricist’s half of the team than an electric guitar. The song’s various cracks about Hollywood played well with the Los Angeles crowd, but the inclusion of multiple songs from “Merrily” seemed somewhat questionable. The narrative arc of the musical on one hand provides a logical frame for this type of retrospective – telling the story of struggling young aspiring songwriters who eventually achieve great financial and popular success. On the other hand, the real story of the musical is that it was a pyrrhic victory, costing Franklin his relationships and his artistry. Consequently, it seemed like an odd decision to celebrate a musical legend with more songs from a show about selling out than from other, less judgmental shows.
As always, it was a beautiful evening under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl. While the performances from both singers and orchestra were excellent, the staging itself would benefit from a bit of additional information about some of the less-obvious songs. Sections about “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” for example, clearly explained Sondheim’s creative process. At other times, people without prior knowledge of the songs would certainly be lost. Overall, however, the LA Phil’s “Sondheim on Sondheim” presented a gorgeous, loving tribute to a living legend.
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