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18 March, 2010

Sondheim turns 80 - Big Birthday at Lincoln Center

New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Sondheim: The Birthday Concert.

7.30pm Monday 15th March 2010

We were privileged to obtain premium mid-orchestra seats for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert tonight at Avery Fisher Hall. The great man himself was sitting a few rows in front of us and he even took a bow and said a (very) few words at the end (“Roosevelt said that first you are young, then you are middle aged, then you are ‘wonderful’ - thank you all very, very much!”).

The entire stage was ‘wrapped’ in a metre of red satin ‘ribbon’ including a huge bow/rose. Each number had original lighting projections below the red giving a festive feel to the venue. The concert was professionally and tastefully arranged with split second timing.

It was one of the most moving concerts I have attended with many of the greats of Broadway performing on the platform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra hosted by David Hyde Pierce who also sang. Despite over a dozen sterling performances from Broadway stars, the night was probably stolen by old-timer Elaine Strich along with Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearne, Bernadette Peters and about a dozen others.

Before Sondheim made his name musically, he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein and so we first heard “I want to be in America” from West Side Story sung by six Musical first-ladies. Then we heard an ‘ordinary mother’ from Little Night Music followed by a number of solos and duets, some from performers who created the roles.

The second half started with a ‘sweet parting’ pas-de-deux based on the movie ‘Reds’ for which Sondheim wrote the music. It was beautifully danced by Blaine Hoven and partner Maria Riccetto. The finale consisted of six Broadway divas dressed in red seated in a semi-circle singing in turn. Finally to an enraptured house Ms Strich sang “I’m still here”. LuPone had sung “The ladies who lunch” as well as a complex and clever duet/trio from Sweeney Todd “Have a little … priest!” with Michael Cerveris and George Hearne (who had each played the demon barber of Fleet Street with LuPone). Nobody sang ‘Bring in the clowns’ (probably everyone would have like to have done it).

Perhaps the most moving part of the night was towards the end of the night when the host announced that ‘a few friends’ from Broadway had agreed to come up-town to join the birthday celebration - being Monday much of Broadway was closed. At that point about 300 black clad singers/actors filed into the Avery Fisher auditorium from each and every entrance. About a hundred of them filed onto the stage with the rest singing a Sondheim excerpt (‘Sunday’) from the aisles and entrances to the hall as the orchestra played on. Hence everyone in the theatre could hear both singers close up as well as the glorious ensemble.

Sweeney Todd is the only Sondheim work I am really familiar with but other pieces rang bells of course. It was indeed a gala night and a broadcast and DVD can be expected with eager anticipation.

Comments by Broadway novice, Andrew Byrne (visiting from Sydney, Australia).