REVIEW: 92Y Lyrics & Lyricists Solves Sondheim's Wordplay
MARCH 31, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
The 92nd St. Y’s esteemed series celebrating the great American songbook, “Lyrics & Lyricists,” is in its 49th season, and now under the aegis of the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin. Stephen Sondheim, indisputably the finest lyricist alive today, and arguably the greatest lyricist in the history of the American musical theater, has naturally been a writer the series has performed on more than one occasion. The Pulitzer-winning and multi-Tony award winner first appeared on the Lyrics & Lyricists stage in 1971. (That interview, and accompanying essay by Mr. Chapin, who got his start as a gofer on the original production of Sondheim's Follies, is worth checking out.)
Directed deftly by Christopher Gatelli, this visit to Sondheim's oeuvre was called Sondheim: Wordplay. The evening was co-written and co-hosted by Mr. Chapin and the Tony-winning lyricist of Newsies, Jack Feldman. Sondheim's work has birthed many revues over the years. It's fun to look back on 1976's Side by Side by Sondheim or Marry Me a Little (1981's revue of trunk songs) and think about all the great stuff Sondheim would go on to write that they still hadn't heard yet! More recently, in 2010 Sondheim on Sondheim utilized multimedia projections, interviews with the man himself, and a biographical focus (and let's not forget Barbara Cook) to create what seemed like the last word on his career. But, an evening delving specifically into this famous cruciverbalist's extraordinary mastery of words is an ingenious idea.
I expected a deep dive into the clever, tricky kind of lyrics brilliantly memorialized by Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway in "Into the Words," perhaps, some discussion of the technique on display -- internal rhymes, and such. But, the creators of Sondheim: Wordplay, while nodding occasionally to such details, seemed diverted by two things. One, the audience at 92Y might've complained if greatest hits weren't plentiful (why didn't you play "Send in the Clowns!?"). Second, Sondheim's use of language is unique even in lyrical songs. So, while the script gave a few nods to Sondheim the wordsmith, it balanced this with an equal dose of Sondheim the balladeer. Thus another conventional Sondheim revue is born.
I could have done without several of the ballads. However, there were so many wise choices in musical direction, thrilling performances, and light-hearted humor holding it together that Sondheim: Wordplay was a terrific night. Sondheim's music was well looked after; the stellar cast was led shrewdly by Richard Carsey, respected Broadway conductor, at one piano, Andy Einhorn providing ample style and energy at a second piano, alongside veteran drummer Paul Pizzuti.
An A-list of vocal talent was assembled, and in various combinations, presented a litany of the master's songs. Recent star of Disney's Aladdin, Telly Leung, with his crystal clear diction, and comedic virtuoso Christopher Fitzgerald set the tone of the evening with the duet "Free" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Melissa Errico, who has recently released the album Sondheim Sublime, served (largely) as leading lady, and her opening number, "Everybody Says Don't" was an unsurprising choice to lift moods. Lewis Cleale, currently at The Book of Mormon, was an empathetic leading man, with a skillful delivery of a lyric. The silver-voiced Lauren Worsham and the fearless Lesli Margherita were matched brilliantly with their material.
Ms. Worsham sang "The Two of You," written on spec for a '50s TV show called Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which featured Fran Allison and two puppets. Both puppets represented, the audience was invited to notice the young Sondheim's rare offense of false rhyme:
"I have made this oath
I won't play any favorites.
I won't love either of you, save it's
Each or both."
Ms. Margherita and Mr. Fitzgerald gave a broadly riotous rendition of the surreal Anyone Can Whistle's multi-layered play on words, "Come Play Wiz Me," in which a doctor-who's-not-a-doctor flirts with a faux-Frenchwoman. Ms. Worsham sang Company's paean to the city that never sleeps, "Another Hundred People," not as a patter song, but as a matter of conviction.
Ms. Errico sang the jewel of a song "I Remember," from the 1966 TV Musical Evening Primrose (based on a short story by John Collier) exquisitely, enunciating the poetic lyrics' final consonants with delicacy. Ms. Margherita stopped the show with Sondheim's parody of a popular bossa nova, "The Boy From," for which he penned lyrics for composer Mary Rodgers:
"Though I smile I'm
'Cause I know today's the
Last I'll be spending
With the boy from Tacarembo la
Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas
Zacatecas la Junita del Sol y Cruz."
Company has received a celebrated, gender-reversed production in London recently, and tonight we got to hear some of Sondheim's newly revised lyrics for this scenario: Telly Leung exhilarated in the role of the reluctant betrothed in the tour-de-force "Getting Married Today.” From the same score, "Sorry-Grateful," an art song applicable to the evening's theme, was performed simply by Mr. Cleale, Mr. Leung, and Mr. Fitzgerald.
A song in 1971's Follies went through several incarnations, touched upon here, though I think they missed an opportunity. Ms. Warsham delivered a laid-back "Uptown/Downtown," to be handed the replacement iteration "The Story of Lucy & Jessie." But the bit didn't go on to include the number's later version, "Ah, But Underneath:"
"In the depths of her interior
Were fears she was inferior
And something even eerier,
But no one dared to query her
Mr. Fitzgerald's winking delivery of "I Never Do Anything Twice," from the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, chock-full of double entrendres, provided mischievous levity. Mr. Leung delivered “Not a Day Goes By,” a love song from Merrily We Roll Along, better than I’ve ever heard it. But here, or in “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Losing My Mind,” “Loving You,” and so on, I wondered if the notion of “wordplay” got lost in the shuffle. Why "Not a Day Goes By" rather than the intricate "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" from the same show:
"I'll get Leontyne Pryce to sing her
Medley from "Meistersinger..."
Mr. Chapin and Mr. Feldman moved the evening along with brief stories and anecdotes. Mr. Carsey and Mr. Einhorn were sensational at the duo pianos, the impromptu arrangements fastened together by Mr. Pizzuti’s tasty embellishments (I could have used more typewriter). The colorful projection design by Brooklyn-based Dan Scully enfolded images of Sondheim’s handwritten lyric sketches into the tapestry — and occasionally bits of disembodied text intruded.
This music theatre nerd yearned to go further “into the words.” But, given how quickly a production like this must be assembled, Sondheim: Wordplay was a winning, entertaining evening celebrating one of our greatest artists.
92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists continues this season: