Most of the huge names of Broadway are gone. Certainly there are young talents that have created some memorable shows. Perhaps one day they will build up the mountain of classics that we received from the likes of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein, and others. There are even a couple of writers out there that have amassed that kind of a career. Andrew Lloyd Weber absolutely comes to mind as a fine example. But Stephen Sondheim is the last of a dying breed. It’s been quite a while since he’s created anything new, but his shows live on in revivals and film versions where they will likely continue for decades to come.
In March the writer/composer celebrated his 80th birthday in style. The bash was held at the celebrated Lincoln Center in New York. The performers included a who’s who of Broadway for the last 40 years. The music was provided by the world renowned New York Philharmonic, conducted by long-time Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani. The event was hosted by David Hyde Pierce. The concert lasts about two hours but you’ll find time flies by as the show demonstrates the incredible variety of Sondheim’s work. Pieces from all of his milestone shows are on display. Often the performers who originally gave voice to these pieces are on hand to deliver this tribute performance. Many of these performers hadn’t seen each other in decades. They likely haven’t performed these particular pieces in a long time. But not a single performance was less than magical. An absolute treat for any fan, to be sure. Sondheim also wrote a small number of scores so the show is not quite all song. There’s a dance routine attached to a sample of music from the Reds score.
If you’re a fan, this one is a no-brainer. If you’re not really sure who Sondheim is, all you have to do is think about West Side Story or Sweeney Todd. This release will be a wonderful introduction to some of his work. I must confess that many of these names and faces I did not know. I have a cousin who is deep into the Broadway scene, and I’m sure these faces and voices are like old friends to her. I certainly got the impression that this was true for the audience in attendance. Now I feel like I do know some of these performers. Here’s your chance it only comes once in a lifetime … or at least in 80 years.
It might very well have been Sondheim’s birthday, but you get to open up all of the presents if you pick up this high-definition release of the concert. Inside you’ll find the following performances:
•”America” (Dancers, West Side Story) •”Something’s Coming” (Alexander Gemingnani, West Side Story) •”We’re Gonna Be Alright” (Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, Do I Hear a Waltz?) •”Don’t Laugh” (Victoria Clark, Hot Spot) •”Johanna”(Nathan Gunn, Sweeney Todd) •”You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and “Love Will See Us Through” (Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella, Laura Osnes, Bobby Steggert, Follies) •”Too Many Mornings” (Nathan Gunn, Audra McDonald, Follies) •”The Road You Didn’t Take” (John McMartin, Follies) •”It Takes Two” (Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Into the Woods) •”Growing Up” (Jim Walton, Merrily We Roll Along) •”Finishing the Hat” (Mandy Patinkin, Sunday in the Park with George) •”Move On” (Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Sunday in the Park with George) •”Pretty Women” (Michael Cerveris, George Hearn, Sweeney Todd) •”A Little Priest” (Michael Cerveris, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Sweeney Todd) •“Theme from ‘Reds’” with Pas De Deux (NY Philharmonic, ABT Dancers Maria Riccetto and Blaine Hoven) •”So Many People” (Laura Benanti, Saturday Night) •”Beautiful Girls” (David Hyde Pierce) •”Ladies Who Lunch” (Patti LuPone, Company) •”Losing My Mind” (Marin Mazzie– Follies) •”The Glamorous Life” (Audra McDonald, A Little Night Music) •”Could I Leave You” (Donna Murphy, Follies) •”Not a Day Goes By” (Bernadette Peters, Merrily We Roll Along) •”I’m Still Here” (Elaine Stritch, Follies) •”Sunday” (Broadway Chorus, Sunday in the Park with George) •”Happy Birthday” (All Cast).
The concert is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 20-25 mbps. The show is filled with bright colors that translate quite well in this image presentation. There is a segment of the show that features several women in brightly-colored red dresses that just jump from the screen. The brilliance and accuracy is remarkable. Contrast is quite important here, as the show relies on performers standing out from the darkened theater through the use of lighting. The effect is reproduced quite strongly here. Black levels are fine if not extraordinary. The entire presentation captures the ambience of a live show quite well. It’s the next best thing to being there, and since the concert’s over, it’s the best you’re going to get. The only disappointment happens to deal with Sondheim himself. There are several reaction shots of him in the audience. Unfortunately, someone planned poorly for those shots. The image here is dark with very poor black levels and a ton of grain. You really can’t see him well at all. It would have been a simple matter to avoid this problem, but apparently no one thought about it ahead of time. It’s a shame, because it appears that his reactions would have been priceless.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is quite dynamic. You can hear all of the music in crystal clarity. There isn’t a lot of sub, so some of the orchestra’s lower instruments don’t stand out like they might have live. There are some lower vocal performances that do stand out even with the absence of a lot of sub. The high pitches come through without distortion. There is one noticeable flaw about 34 minutes into the concert where I heard a series of crackles. I can’t be sure if it occurred at the performance, likely, or was a glitch in the audio presentation here.
What must have been an incredibly moving moment for Sondheim was the finale. The stage was literally mobbed by hundreds of performers who are currently working in some Sondheim-penned creation. With this kind of show it’s all about the legacy. What person celebrating their 80th birthday wouldn’t give everything to see so many people touched and touching others with things that were only just in your head before they were anything else? If he didn’t realize it before then, he knew at that exact moment in time that his music will survive long after he’s gone. What better way could there have been to say, “Happy birthday, Steve”?