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Sondheim: Wordplay

Captions:  Ted Chapin, Co-host of Sondheim: Wordplay            Photo Credit:  Richard Termine


Sondheim:  Wordplay


A Review by Deirdre Donovan


Teaser:  The 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series takes a closer look at Sondheim’s preternatural gift for wordplay.


Sondheim, anyone?  The latest offering of the 92nd Street Y’s “Lyrics & Lyricists” series was entitled Sondheim: Wordplay, presented at Kaufmann Concert Hall in late March.  Co-written and co-hosted by Ted Chapin and Jack Feldman, and directed by Christopher Gattelli, it invited the audience to dive into Sondheim’s songbook and take a closer look at his preternatural gift for spinning words into unforgettable rhythm and rhymes. 


Chapin and Feldman were accompanied on stage by five virtuoso performers—Lewis Cleale, Melissa Errico, Christopher Fitzgerald, Telly Leung, and Lesli Margherita—who breathed life into selected Sondheim works.  The program not only illuminated Sondheim’s Hydra-headed oeuvre, it served as a lens for examining just why the master is widely viewed as one of our greatest songwriters.



First up was the song “Love is in the Air,” which was cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but would go on to have a life outside the musical.  In fact, we learned it would become Sondheim’s first “stand alone” song and gradually insinuated itself into the repertoire of notable cabaret singers (think Elaine Stritch) and the 1996 film The Birdcage.  The audience was treated to a fresh rendering of this witty melody, sung by Leung, warning us of the extremely contagious quality of love.    


The second offering “Free,” unlike the aforementioned, took firm root in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Fitzgerald and Leung (again) sang the duet good and loud, giving us a taste of how Sondheim can tease out a monosyllabic word, give it weight, and then weave it thematically into the story.


There were 13 songs in all in Act 1.  Although not all were of equal musical caliber, each spotlighted a different aspect of Sondheim’s talent.   To enrich the music, Chapin and Feldman alternately interspersed biographical facts and anecdotes into the program.  Besides learning that Sondheim is a native New Yorker, we discovered his quirks as an artist.  To wit:  He has a penchant for using the word “little” to terrific effect. One of the best-known examples of this is in the song “Marry Me a Little” from Company.  And, as freshly crooned by Cleale here, it captured the jittery attitude of a groom-to-be who’s just a “little” worried about taking the leap and making a full commitment to marriage.


The theme of romantic love resurfaced with more whimsy in “On the Steps of the Palace,” (sung by Worsham), a nod to Sondheim’s modernized fairy tale musical Into the Woods.  And fun as that was, it couldn’t outdo “The Arthur Laurents 80th Birthday Song” (music by Jule Styne), which the artist penned for the legendary playwright-director-screen writer as Laurents embarked on his eighth decade.  Although this number might never top any popular music chart, it added a warm and friendly note to the proceedings and greatly humanized Sondheim.


The real show-stopper, however, was “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music), which closed out Act 1.  The audience was completely spellbound by this classic, listening to its magic again as Errico delivered it with her own signature.


The second half opened with “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.”  This duet employed the talents of Cleale and Worsham, who aptly performed the melody that points out the utter necessity of perseverance in an artist. 


Sondheim’s Follies was represented with “Uptown/Downtown” and “Losing My Mind, sung by Worsham and Margherita, respectively.  The former is a portrait of the fictive Harriet, the schizophrenic-like dame who “climbed to the top of the heap” by dizzily straddling the uptown and downtown society circles.  The latter is about that showgirl named Sally Durant Plummer, a song which gained more pizzazz when Liza Minnelli sang it in 1989 and turned it into a popular hit.  By the bye, Sondheim’s model for “Losing My Mind” was Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Indeed, Sondheim knows the value of building on the past, and this song is a prime example.


The titular song from “Anyone Can Whistle” (sung by Margherita) served more as a curiosity in the show than anything else.  The critic John Lahr referred to this 1964 musical as a “legendary mess,” even though its nominal song has continued to garner huzzahs now and then in the cabaret circuit and elsewhere.  Go figure.


The program was further spiced up by “I Never Do Anything Twice” (sung by Fitzgerald), which is nicknamed "The Madam's Song."  Written for the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which juxtaposed Sherlock Holmes and Freud, the song is part naughty, part nice, and altogether Sondheim.


Kudos belong to Dan Scully for his projection design, which lent atmosphere and mood to the program.  There was a particularly fine photograph of the young Sondheim sitting at the piano poised to tear up the keys.  It captured the artist in his innocence before fame stepped in and made him a living legend.


A shout out to Andy Einhorn on the piano, and Paul Pizzuti on the drums and percussion. They collaborated well on stage but never upstaged the company.


The show wrapped up with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, crooned by the company.   The trajectory of the program had hardly progressed as the crow flies.  But it certainly had brought the audience on a nostalgic trip through Sondheim-land.



At the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, Manhattan.

For more information on the 92nd. Street Y Lyrics & Lyricists series, phone 212.415.5500 or visit

Running time:  2 hours with one intermission.