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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert (Blu-ray Review)

To celebrate renowned composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, this star-studded tribute concert was assembled by Lonny Price and held at the Avery Fisher Hall last March 2010.  For those of you that aren’t aware of who Sondheim is, he has won an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammys, and a Pulitzer Prize.  His best know works (as composer/lyricist) are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumCompanyFolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney ToddSunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods, and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.






Film  (3 out of 5 stars)


Stephen Sondheim has earned his place in musical history.  He’s written songs and scores for movies such as the theme song from Reds, and some songs for Dick Tracy from which one of them “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” won him an Oscar.  Sondheim was also mentored by one half of the the legendary songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as growing up he was friends with Oscar Hammerstein’s son.  Hammerstein would grow to become a surrogate father of sorts to young Sondheim and so began one of the most famous apprenticeships in musical theater history.  Sondheim went on to great acclaim of his own and gathered some very close collaborators such as Hal Prince, James Lapine, and his long-time orchestrator Paul Gemignani (who also conducts in this concert).
Speaking of this concert, the performers of the show were selected by Lonny Price because they had been associated with Sondheim’s work in the past and others because he wanted to include the next generation of great performers.  On top of all that, Price also orchestrated the reunion of several past Broadway pairings such as Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters together again to sing “Move On” fromSunday in the Park with George, Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason sing “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods,  and two former Sweeney Todds – George Hearn (the original one) and Michael Cerveris (in the current revival) perform a few duets, including a an enjoyable re-imagining of “A Little Priest” with Patti LuPone which worked exceedingly well as a trio.
I recognized about half of the music in this concert and that was generally the half of the concert I enjoyed.  There were a few reinterpretations of songs that were arranged differently that I was familiar with but overall I believe they were true to the original versions.  The highlight for me was seeing the Sweeney Todd trio but also the diva lineup of Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, and Elaine Stritch sing some of his most memorable songs.  Patti Lupone was especially memorable with her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”  It was also moving at the very end of the concert when 287 current Broadway performers came down every aisle to sing “Sunday” to Mr. Sondheim.
The Songs:
  • “America” (from “West Side Story”) – Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls
  • “We’re Gonna Be Alright” (from “Do I Hear a Waltz”) – Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley
  • “Don’t Laugh” (from “Hot Spot”) – Victoria Clark
  • “Johanna” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Nathan Gunn
  • “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” (from “Follies”) – Bobby Steggert, Laura Osnes, Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella
  • “Too Many Mornings” (from “Follies”) – Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald
  • “The Road You Didn’t Take” (from “Follies”) – John McMartin
  • “It Takes Two” (from “Into the Woods”) – Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason
  • “Finishing the Hat” (from “Sunday in the Park With George”) – Mandy Patinkin
  • “Move On” (from “Sunday) – Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
  • “Pretty Women” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Michael Cerveris and George Hearn
  • “A Little Priest” (from “Sweeney Todd”) – Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn
  • “Goodbye for Now” (from the film “Reds”) – performed by dancers Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto
  • “So Many People in the World” (from “Saturday Night”) – Laura Benanti
  • “Beautiful Girls” (from “Follies”) – David Hyde Pierce
  • “The Ladies Who Lunch” (from “Company”) – Patti LuPone
  • “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) – Marin Mazzie
  • “The Glamorous Life” (from film version of “A Little Night Music”) – Audra McDonald
  • “Could I Leave You?” (from “Follies”) – Donna Murphy
  • “Not a Day Goes By” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) – Bernadette Peters
  • “I’m Still Here” (from “Follies”) – Elaine Stritch
  • “Sunday” (from “Sunday in the Park With George”) – A huge chorus of 287 current Broadway performers

Video  (4 out of 5 stars)

This is presented in 1080i high definition and has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.  The video quality is a mixed bag as when the cameras are on the stage, it has a nice detailed picture with good contrast and consistent flesh-tones.  The various colors are well-defined and the black levels are suitable inky as well.  Where things fall apart are the multitude of shots in the audience when the camera focused on Sondheim’s reactions where the poor lighting results in a picture filled with terrible noise and distortion.  You would think they would put him up front and have him be well lit, but alas that did not happen and the darkened theater and his inexplicable seating choice contribute to the equivalent of VHS quality for the shots on him.  The juxtaposition of nice clear shots with the ones of him in the audience is jarring but since most of the concert looks good I’ll let my score focus on that.

Audio  (3 out of 5 stars)

Although this is presented with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround track, I expected a lot more from it than I got.  While the vocals are clear and have a nice dynamic range, the satellite speakers are almost solely used by the sound of  the audience clapping.  The sub-woofer isn’t used all that much as well and the whole mix is very front channel heavy.  I was really hoping to hear the New York Philharmonic in all of their glory with an evenly distributed mix but unfortunately that’s not what happened.  The quality is acceptable but it could have been a lot better than that.

Special Features (0 out of 5 stars)

There are absolutely no extra features on the disc.  The only thing that could possibly be even considered an extra is the liner notes from Lonny Price that are included in the case.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

All in all, it was a good concert but I would have picked a different song selection if it had been up to me.  There’s still a lot of good ones included here but there’s also some ones that would have been better off left forgotten.  In any case, this was a lovely birthday tribute and I’m glad it was captured for posterity.

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