If I had to choose the one thing about Boston’s theater scene that I am most grateful for, it would, without hesitation, be the regular presence of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals on the boards. From the Huntington Theatre Company’s divine production of A Little Night Music earlier this season to the Lyric Stage’s 2014 productions of Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, it is with terrific regularity that local Sondheim disciples have had a place—and a cause—to worship.
In fact, the most exciting arts-related news last year was that both the Huntington and the Lyric announced separate Sondheim initiatives: The Huntington will be producing all 15 or so of Sondheim’s works over just as many years, and the Lyric’s commitment is five years, which will reportedly consist of Company, Sunday in the Park with George, and Merrily We Roll Along. The rarely seen, ambitious Passion and Pacific Overtures are also under consideration. I suppose you could say that Spiro Veloudos, producing artistic director of the Lyric, has not been shy about his love of Sondheim. “I’m not shy about a lot of things,” he told me, “and that’s one of them!”
Presently, through Feb 21, Veloudos and the Lyric are blessing Boston with Sondheim on Sondheim, a fascinating and riveting revue consisting of material from 19 shows over more than 62 years. “It’s a celebration of his work, but it’s also a celebration of the Lyric’s work with Sondheim over the last 20 years,” said Veloudos, who is also directing the production.
Sondheim on Sondheim boasts a knockout cast of eight of Boston’s best interpreters of Sondheim, all of whom have shared their gifts on the Lyric’s stage before: Leigh Barrett, Mala Bhattacharya, Maritza Bostic, Christopher Chew, Aimee Doherty, Davron S. Monroe, Sam Simahk, and Patrick Varner.
Sondheim on Sondheim is not just another revue, though: It’s not a concert of his greatest hits, and his songs haven’t been shoehorned into a far-fetched plot. Rather, through the use of multimedia and video, Sondheim himself takes the audience through his life, his work, and into his personal life. In his review of the 2010 Broadway production, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote: “God has spoken on the subject of His existence.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is that I’m not a big fan of musical revues, but this has that very interesting, first-hand recounting of certain things,” Veloudos said. “There are songs that I had never heard before.”
Sure, there are some Sondheim staples in the show, like “Send in the Clowns” and “Being Alive,” but they are presented in fascinating new ways that are given surprising and resounding new context because of Sondheim’s anecdotes; there’s also a wrenching and unforgettable mash-up of “Losing My Mind” from Follies and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along that is thrilling. Most of the show’s 30-plus songs are songs that are rarely heard: early ideas, alternate songs cut out of town, and even a new song, “God,” a tongue-in-cheek reaction to a 1994 New York Magazine article called “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”
For Veloudos, it’s not only the rarely heard songs or the new context that they’re given, but rather the greater questions that relate to the artist himself that he finds so exciting: “How did the artist become the artist that he is? What influenced him? How did his family life influence him? How did his friendship and mentorship with Oscar Hammerstein affect his work? All that is in this piece,” Veloudos said.
“As you go into the twilight of your career, as it were, you like to think about what influences you have had on the community that you work in,” Veloudos said. “I think that the influence of the Lyric on musical theater in general in the Boston area, Sondheim in particular, has been a hallmark of what we do. I’m really very happy with that.”
As are we, Spiro. As are we.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. RUNS THROUGH 2.21 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.