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"God, That's Good!": PBS Presents Brilliant Sondheim Birthday Celebration
November 23, 2010  | By David Bianculli

Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), the PBS Great Performances series presents a two-hour concert that lives up to that series' title from start to finish. Taped March 15-16 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, Sondheim! The Birthday Concert celebrates Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, and it's an absolute, start-to-finish delight...

People attending those concerts knew some of the people scheduled to perform, but were given no program, and no clue, about what songs, and in which combinations, they might be singing. Once you know the singers include (just to name a few) Elaine Stritch, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy, what else do you need?

But I can't resist -- or won't -- pointing out three numbers, just in case you need further persuading to tune in for what is, by far, the finest TV concert of the year.


One comes when George Hearn, who played the title role in the original production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street after Len Cariou left, found himself on stage with Michael Cerveris, who starred as Sweeney in the recent Broadway revival. Stools are placed for the two men, and Cerveris says to Hearn, politely, "You first." Hearn replies, "Yes, I was," and the audience howls.

"After you," Cerveris says. "Yes, you were," Hearn says, to another huge laugh.

They've got the crowd in their pocket -- and they haven't even sung yet.

That cleverness runs throughout, evidenced by the witty running commentary by host David Hyde Pierce. But there's also a lot of emotional resonance, making this concert just as special.


For example, John McMartin, who originated the role of Benjamin Stone in Follies nearly 40 years ago, takes center stage to sing "The Road You Didn't Take," adding another four decades of age and wisdom to Sondheim's incomparably haunting lyrics: "The Ben I'll never be -- who remembers him?"

And at the end, when six Broadway divas share the stage to take individual turns singing Sondheim songs, you'd think nothing can top it. Except something does. Producer-director Lonny Price came up with a birthday capper, inviting performers from current Broadway shows to flood Avery Fisher Hall -- filling the sides as well as the stage -- to sing "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George.


The second Sondheim realizes what is happening, the camera captures him covering his face, utterly overwhelmed by the moment. It's an emotional moment, a connection of Broadway past, present and future, that makes this concert a fabulous gift. Not just for Sondheim, but for us as well. And listening to the orchestrations as played by the full New York Philharmonic, conducted by long-time Sondheim pit fixture Paul Gemignani, is just as huge a thrill. At the end of the concert, with all the principals on stage, Sondheim hugged one person -- and it was Gemignani.

Personally, I'll add this. The first day I ever visited New York, at the start of the 1970s, I saw a performance of the original run of Sondheim's Company. The next year, when I returned, I saw Follies -- and have never forgotten how John McMartin's onstage breakdown as Benjamin Stone seemed real to me, rather than staged. Sweeney, Sunday, so many more...

I've gotten plenty of gifts from Sondheim over the years, just being privileged to attend and experience his shows. It's nice to know that, on this occasion, perhaps Sondheim got some sense of what he's provided to so many millions of others over the decades.

A piece of cake... and much, much more.

Watch Sondheim! The Birthday Concert free on PBS Wednesday. And if you want a DVD copy for your home library -- and you should, because you can sequence instantly from song to song -- you can order it HERE. Or order the Blu-Ray version HERE.

Either way, enjoy. I certainly did.




Stewart said:

It's funny that this blog entry ran the same day as Carol Burnett's appearance on "Glee". For those of us who were growing up in the middle of the country in the 70's, she introduced us to many Sondheim songs on her CBS show. I still distinctly remember the performances her performances of "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Another Hundred People".

Comment posted on November 23, 2010 8:53 PM

Rich said:

Sondhiem is a master lyricist. Everyone talks about "Phantom" & "Les Miz" in the late 80's but in the early 90's it was all about "Into The Woods". Probably the single most original idea I've seen for a Modern Musical.

Comment posted on November 23, 2010 9:45 PM

Mac said:

Thanks for the tip to watch.First I grabbed a VHS tape Tuesday,then re-read the Wed.intro. Then I missed 15 min. on Wed. because of all the holiday activity.
The divas outshone the finale,but it was amazing to watch it all.Patti LuPone was just the first,with Elaine Stritch ever present in the camera's eye,waiting her turn to steal it all. The rest knew it and bowed to the Queen. Imagine,one would pay $100+ to see any one of these ladies in a Sondheim musical tomorrow,and here they were,together in a row,sitting on chairs waiting their turn. Sondheim's quote from Alice Roosevelt:"First you are young,then middle aged,then you are wonderful."

Comment posted on November 25, 2010 10:40 AM

Warren Bloom said:

That was Len Cariou with Cerveris and LuPone; the "host" during the commercial break got it wrong. (If it was Hearn, the "You first" joke wouldn't have made sense.)

[No, actually, both the host and I got it right. It WAS Hearn, not Cariou, and the joke still works. Cariou created the role on Broadway, but Hearn was his immediate replacement during the show's original run. Both of them predated Cerveris' revival performance by decades. -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 30, 2010 3:20 PM
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