Stephen Sondheim’s final musical is a satisfying cap to an extraordinary career
The Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim didn’t have much time for rock music in his lifetime, which ended at the age of 91 almost exactly two years ago. But there is a case to be made that his exemplary career as musical theater’s pre-eminent cult favorite and experimentalist for the latter half of the 20th century has parallels in the rock annals—i.e., in the long, slow climb from the wilderness to the canon experienced by the likes of, say, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop or Big Star.
Now, also like many a rock star, Sondheim is having his biggest hits posthumously, with starry Broadway revivals of the pitch-black operetta “Sweeney Todd” and the reverse-engineered showbiz fable “Merrily We Roll Along” posting eye-popping box office numbers—a particularly heartening feat for the latter show especially, as it started in 1981 as Sondheim’s most dispiriting flop. Of course, the success of these productions can’t really be chalked up to the kind of obituary curiosity that compels many folks to revisit the back catalogs of recently deceased pop figures. These shows are succeeding partly on their buzz-worthy excellence and, it must be said, the presence of stars like Josh Groban in “Sweeney” and Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff in “Merrily.”
“Here We Are” feels gratifyingly close to a fully realized valedictory statement by one of the theater’s most singular voices.
There’s at least one other sense in which Sondheim’s posthumous career resembles that of a dead rock star: His final work has just been unveiled, with lavish fanfare, luxe packaging and explanatory footnotes about its provenance and relative state of completion at the time of his passing. But “Here We Are,” now playing at a posh venue in Hudson Yards called The Shed, is no mere raid of the composer’s vaults, nor is it quite as dubious as the digitally assembled quasi-collaboration recently released as The Beatles’ “Now and Then.” Instead, this new musical, adapted from two absurdist films by Luis Buñuel, feels gratifyingly close to a fully realized valedictory statement by one of the theater’s most singular voices.
First, the caveats: In the months before his death, Sondheim reportedly signed off on a version of the show that had almost no music written for its second half. There’s a dramaturgically sound reason for this lopsided construction: The first act, based on the film “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” has the bustle and momentum of its characters’ episodic but fruitless quest to share a meal together, while the second act, based on “The Exterminating Angel,” finds them sated but trapped in a sort of narrative black hole, unable to move forward until certain lessons are learned.
Librettist David Ives, director Joe Mantello and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick have done their heroic best with this bifurcated conceit, with Ives deftly threading the scripts and characters of the two Buñuel films together, Mantello marshaling a stellar cast and Tunick artfully spackling a handful of Sondheim songs into quasi-reprises and underscoring. It is an exquisite embroidery, even if some seams are showing. For as much as I sensed the presence of Sondheim’s prickly intelligence, his complicated mix of empathy and bloody-mindedness, throughout the proceedings, these inevitably felt channeled through his collaborators rather than directly applied.
Sondheim has left the building, and he lives on only in interpretation and iteration, no less than Shakespeare or Mozart.
This is, of course, how it will be from now on. Sondheim has left the building, and he lives on only in interpretation and iteration, no less than Shakespeare or Mozart. By those lights, he is in exceptionally good hands. The Broadway revival of his masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd,” has been directed and conducted by two “Hamilton” veterans, Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire, respectively, with special attention to the show’s human contours and passionate operatic score. While this has struck some critics as slighting the Gothic horror and humor foregrounded by previous productions, I found the results plenty wrenching and funny, as well as moving, with not only Groban rising to the occasion as Sweeney but Annaleigh Ashford, as his lusty partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, giving the role a piquant, plaintive edge.
Like “Sweeney,” “Merrily We Roll Along” has at its center an antihero circled by colleagues who either abet or oppose his descent. But composer-turned-producer Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff) has no murders on his ledger, just two failed marriages and two ruined friendships, the latter with playwright Charlie (Daniel Radcliffe) and author Mary (Lindsay Mendez). This trio of actors have a rambunctious, unfakeable chemistry that goes a long way toward explaining why this production, from director Maria Friedman, finally seems to have cracked this tough but beautifully humane show, which tells its story in reverse, from middle-aged disillusionment back to youthful idealism.
I would also argue that audiences may have simply caught up with Sondheim’s experiments, many of which used to put off more people than they wowed. We have since learned to read narratives that stop, start and go every which way, and one artist among many who taught us how was Sondheim himself, from the revue-like layout of “Company” and “Assassins” to the cracked-mirror structures of “Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”
That’s at least one reason why “Here We Are,” for all its flaws, makes such a satisfying cap to an extraordinary creative output. Gloriously weird and witty, it is true to the artistic spirit of a man whose main legacy is the liberating sense that musical theater can treat any subject and take nearly any form. To be clear, this was not mere formal innovation on his part: Sondheim sought new forms so he could go places, and say things, no musical had gone or said before.
In “Merrily,” he ruefully considered betrayal and compromise, and in “Sweeney,” he gave a bracingly stark account of apocalyptic vengeance. In “Here We Are,” fittingly enough for a final work, he reckoned with mortality and meaning. “It’s the end of the world,” he has a young would-be revolutionary (Micaela Diamond) sing at one point, but by show’s end, she, with resignation as much as hope, must admit that her prognosis was premature. Or, as the Baker memorably sang in “Into the Woods,” in a lyric as close to the theme of resurrection as Sondheim ever got, and which handily sums up his bright posterity: “They die but they don’t.”