A Rousing ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

“Clip Show”

A clip show is primarily a creature inhabiting the realm of television.

Basically it denotes a particular episode, sometimes called cheaters, in which the producers of a certain series creates an entirely “new” episode by cannibalizing past ones.

Sometimes you’ll find them featured as a series’ finale as the show’s regulars reminisce via flashbacks, and sometimes they’re just a fast and dirty way of resolving budgetary issues.
A good example of this is found in the episode which closed the second season for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Working on an overall shortened shooting schedule due to the writers’ strike of that year, TNG producers found themselves with no script and only three days remaining for principal photography. The result was Shades of Gray, carved out of prior installments.

It is for reasons like this, that clip shows are viewed with some distain within the industry.

If you have never seen one then you must be some variety of intellectual Luddite who refuses to pollute their environment with a television and risk contamination by the “vast wasteland,” or else you’re somebody who read the Harry Potter series in Braille.

Sondheim on Sondheim is essentially a clip show spruced up in a theatrical form.

It is an odd little hybrid which, if it were a patchwork of clips featuring Sam and Diane arguing or Picard declaring “Make it so!”, would be easily dismissible.

But it’s not.

It’s frigging Stephen Sondheim!!!

Stephen Sondheim as in West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, among others, who utterly transformed the Broadway musical taking it to new heights while picking up along the way eight Grammys, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize and more Tony Awards than any other composer in history!

Sondheim on Sondheim-photo by Suzanne Mapes

Barbara Carlton Heart, Kevin McMahon, Josh Wise, Stephanie Fredicks, Jake Novak, Shaina Knox (photo by Suzanne Mapes)

Director DJ Gray and producer caryn desai have mounted a production that is highly polished and exceedingly classy, as are nearly all shows you’ll find staged at The International City Theatre in Long Beach.

The ICT has also set the bar very high when it comes to both the talent and the professionalism of the performers they allow on their stage, and the cast here, Stephanie Fredricks, Barbara Carlton Heart, Shaina Knox, Kevin McMahon, Jake Novak and Josh Wise, all meet that standard with ease.

Sondheim writes beautiful music, but so do many other composers. What makes Sondheim the great artist he is lies in the fact that he doesn’t write merely “catchy” tunes, but infuses every note, every lyric of every song with an intelligence that is staggering.

Shows like Follies, Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George display a creativity of such ambition as to be placed light years above “musical theatre.”

They are more like opera, only better.

Sondheim on Sondheim appeared on Broadway in 2010.

On an upstage screen a video played in which Sondheim, then age 80, spoke of his life and craft, while on stage the six performers performed a wide range of songs drawn from his career of fifty years.

These selections were more than just a collection of his “greatest hits,” some were unheard numbers dropped from one show or another and in Sondheim speaking of his life, especially his relationship with his mother, certain revelations were nothing short of shocking.

Still, when compared to his other undertakings, Sondheim on Sondheim feels a tad underwhelming.

Perhaps this is just something on my part, being a huge admirer of both the artist and his work, but the video narrative itself is undeniably deficient in the story it tells.

Some of the deficiencies lie in what isn’t told of his career. He speaks openly of his few failures, Anyone Can Whistlewhich closed after nine disappointing performances, but makes no mention of his work on the The Mad Show, a 1966 revue spun off from Mad Magazine then at the height of its popularity.

Directed by Alfred E. Neuman (actually Steven Vinaver) the show starred the very young Paul Sand, Jo Anne Worley, Alan Sues and Linda Lavin.

Lavin sang “The Boy From…” a bizarre parody of “The Girl from Ipanema.” The lyrics are intentionally vague, but a careful listening reveals the story of a young woman who is smitten by a handsome young boy, but too stupid to realize he is flamingly gay. Cloaked in the song’s “pig-Spanish” you can even catch the phrase, “…cruising Santa Monica.”

The program credits the lyrics to “Nom de Plume” … in fact Sondheim. Nor is there mention made of Sondheim’s film work.

First you need to know that Sondheim’s love of games and puzzles is legendary. So legendary in fact, that Sondheim was the inspiration for the character of Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play Sleuth, (The role played by Laurence Olivier in the 1972 film.)

He and actor Anthony Perkins were longtime friends (His and Norman Bates’ mother had a lot in common.) Together they would create parties around murder mysteries to be solved by their guests.

Director Herbert Ross was a guest at one and found the experience so enthralling he insisted Sondheim and Perkins write it out as a screenplay, which resulted in the 1973 film The Last of Sheila starring Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Raquel Welch, Richard Benjamin and James Coburn.

Ah….forgive me.

I am guilty of a sin I hate when I see it in other critics.

I am writing a review of what the show isn’t rather than what it is.

Jake Novak, Barbara Carlton Heart-Sondheim on Sondheim

Jake Novak, Barbara Carlton Heart (photo by Suzanne Mapes)

What is the show then? It is a collection of some of the finest songs ever written for the musical stage, wonderfully performed by a talented cast.

If you are a Sondheim fan you may go to this staging confident that they have served the master well.

If you are not as acquainted with Sondheim’s work here is an opportunity to partake in a musical buffet guaranteed to delight your ear’s palette.

Thirty-nine songs.

You can go expecting to hear an exquisite rendering by Heart of “In Buddy’s Eyes,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Losing My Mind” both from Follies (1971).

“The Gun Song” is sung superbly by Knox and company from Sondheim’s greatly underappreciated Assassins (1990) and from Sunday in the Park with George (1984) McMahon almost brands “Finishing the Hat” as his own personal property. Heart, who is a truly amazing talent, nearly does the same with “Send in the Clowns” Sondheim’s most commercially successful song from A Little Night Music (1973).

Amazing sitting here, typing this review, just remembering the songs and the performances at the ICT has given me goose bumps.

Trust me, seeing this show will give you goose bumps as well.

Probably ones the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.

Featured Photo: Jake Novak, Kevin McMahon, Stephanie Fredicks, Josh Wise (photo by Suzanne Mapes)

 ♦   ♦   ♦

The Los Angeles Premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim at

Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 East Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90802

Thur, Fri, Sat at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm

Playing Now thru November 8th

For Tickets and Additional Information

Phone: 562-436-4610

or click through to: www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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