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«Only when coming to the back row of the theatre I can see whether I like my production or not». Taking a seat in the last row of the famous «Studio 54» I decided to trust Stephen Sondheim’s opinion. «Sondheim on Sondheim» is a performance staged as an unpredictable genre of multimedia combined with a documentary musical. It is led by the image on the screen - the 80 year-old composer and poet, exposing, as if from the back row, the surprising nature of Broadway.

«Sondheim on Sondheim». Photo credits © 2010 Joan Marcus
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Sondheim tells us about his longing for his family, his strained relationship with his mother, his fear of revealing his emotions and about his meeting with Oscar Hammerstein – the producer and the author of libretti for famous musicals, and Sondheim’s former teacher. Those episodes are playing on a big screen, which is suddenly drawn apart and transforms into a staged staircase connected to an enormous image of Sondheim. The next moment the scale changes again and the camera shows us Sondheim’s home: Sondheim sits down at the piano and we can hear his complex harmonies, which are interrupted by familiar songs performed by live actors.

The joint work of scenographer, Beowulf Borrit, and video designer, Peter Flaherty, allowed the composer - in a virtual space - and the actors – in reality – move around freely and effortlessly as if there were no stage boundaries.

The director of the performance and the composer’s friend, James Lapine, use the screen to analyze different pieces of a multifaceted image of Sondheim. His portrayal is shaped by the fragments from the composer’s musicals. What is not being discussed there: the crisis of the institution of marriage in the «Company», the injustice and revenge in «Sweeney Todd», and in «The Assassins» the characters are the murderers that made an attempt on Lincoln and Kennedy’s lives.

The picture on the screen changes again and splits into a dozen little images with someone singing Sondheim’s hit «Send in the Clowns» in each piece. In one of the cuts of the clips, Barbara Streisand is singing with an unknown girl. The performance takes a new turn and produces a surprising effect when all the horsing around is finished and the same song is being performed by Barbara Cook on the stage - this actress, as well as Sondheim himself, worked on Broadway for over 50 years. She performs the song so movingly and profoundly that it sets a new tone to the performance. Her trusting confession now touches not only the composer, but also the performers who, like the legendary Barbara Cook, cannot imagine their stage life without «Broadway Baby». Sondheim starts a virtual dialogue with the actors – three different versions of the musical’s introduction are starting to play «A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum». Revealing different sides of the composer’s work, Lapine created a performance about a constantly changing artistic person who keeps on challenging his own popularity.

Though Sondheim wrote his first musical when he was 24 years old, he became popular only after writing the lyrics for «West Side Story». In 1956, young Sondheim was introduced to scenographer Arthur Laurents, who recommended him to composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins. A few years later, Sondheim wrote lyrics for the musical «Gypsy» by Jule Styne and in 1962, he was already the author of both the music and the lyrics for the performance «A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum» inspired by Plautus’s farces. It was showed 964 times and received a Tony Award in 1963, as the best musical. It was the first out of eight Tony Awards for the composer.The conceptual performance «Company» (1970) signifies the start of the triumphant collaboration of the composer with director Harold Prince (70 productions on Broadway, eight of them are Sondheim’s). This performance was also played over 700 times and was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, winning in six categories – Best: Music, Texts, Script, Production, Setting and Musical of the year.

In March of 1979, the masterpiece «Sweeney Todd» («Sweeney Todd», 1979) premiered on the stage of the Broadway Theatre. This heartfelt and malicious fairy tale about the revenge of a demonic barber from Fleet Street, presented as a strikingly beautiful and at the same time horrifying psychological thriller, was made into a film in 2007 (starring Johny Depp and directed by Tim Burton).

Sondheim’s first opening night with director James Lapine is «Sunday in the Park with George». This musical inspired by Georges Seurat’s paintings is the composer’s experiment of transforming a melody into a musical dotted line – pointillism (Pulitzer Prize, 1985).

Stephen Sondheim is teaching how to perform his song «Send in the Clowns» from the musical «Little Night Serenade» inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s movie «Smiles of a Summer Night».

Having devoted himself to the commercial musical genre, Sondheim kept on experimenting. In «Follies» (1971) he elegantly exploits the nostalgia of old popular songs attaching new tunes and sentimental ballads to them. The action takes place in a dilapidated theater where guests are arriving at. Amongst them there are some actresses, who once were the stars of this theatre - their shadows are still haunting its gloomy corridors. «I am still here» is one of the hits of the musical. In it we can recognize a constantly changing image of Sondheim who, certainly, did not queue for a free lunch and had far more good times than bad times, but the main thing is that he is still here and he is flying further at high speeds over his 80th anniversary.

The performance «Sondheim on Sondheim» by The Roundabout Company is being played in «Studio 54» which is located at the crossroads of 54th Street and Broadway. This theater was opened in 1927 with the opera «Bohemia». In 1944 the theater was transformed into a TV broadcasting studio and before it was restored back into a theater again it was the most popular New York night club in the ‘70s and a significant symbol of the disco era. Among the celebrities who visited the club were Mike and Bianca Jagger (on her 32d birthday she rode out to the auditorium on a white horse), Andy Warhol (his birthday present was a waste basket full of dollar bank notes), Liza Minelli (in «Studio 54» she had her first senior moment), Margaux Hemingway, Michael Baryshnikov, Salvador Dali, Brooke Shields, Martha Graham, Michael Jackson, Gloria Swanson, Rudolf Nureyev, John Travolta, Vladimir Horowitz, Olivia Newton-John, Fred Astaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Onassis, Donald and Ivana Trump and many others. Celebrities like Grace Jones presented in «Studio 54» their new albums. In 1998, Mark Christopher made a film about «Studio 54».
«Sondheim on Sondheim». Photo credits © 2010 Joan Marcus
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