Ted Chapin, Co-host of Sondheim: Wordplay
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Review by Deirdre Donovan
The 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series takes a closer
look at Sondheim’s preternatural gift for wordplay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street,
more information on the 92nd. Street Y Lyrics & Lyricists
series, phone 212.415.5500 or visit www.92y.org.
time: 2 hours with one intermission.