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    Stephen Sondheim, as Great a Composer as He Was a Lyricist

    Our chief classical music critic remembers playing and teaching the unforgettable scores of “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and other shows.“Sweeney Todd” had been open for a few months on Broadway when, one Saturday afternoon in June 1979, I passed by the theater where it was playing. I assumed that Stephen Sondheim’s latest musical was sold out, but I decided to take a chance and see if I could get a ticket to the matinee.Amazingly, there was a great one available — fourth row center. I was unshaven, in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying a stuffed backpack. I didn’t care. Elated, I took my seat.Then who walks in and sits directly in front of me? John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Would I be distracted by their presence?Not a bit. Even two cultural gods faded before the engulfing beginning of “Sweeney.”Sondheim, who died on Friday at 91, establishes the work’s dark, gothic mood in strange, chromatically wandering organ music right at the start. Then the deafening blast of a factory whistle breaks in, and the orchestra starts the prologue, a subdued, murmuring minor-mode riff over which the hushed chorus sings: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”I was immediately riveted by the grim, suspenseful drama of the music. Even in those opening moments, the musician in me wanted to know more. What were those harmonies, the chords that the rippling figure was tracing? What were those notes that seemed to escape from the orchestra and jab me with touches of dissonance? When the bass line that grounds the music took a sudden low plunge, it seemed, briefly, like the harmonic floor had opened a chasm. I had to get the score, to study the music, to see if I could figure out what was going on.Twenty-two years later, by then the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, I found myself seated at a piano, playing that opening music to “Sweeney” in front of its composer and asking Sondheim questions about it. During that Times Talks event in 2001, I also played other extraordinary passages from the show — like the moment early on when Sweeney, obliquely telling the young sailor Anthony the story of his tragic life, sings, in understated phrases, “There was a barber and his wife,” over a slow accompaniment that echoes the prologue.Then, Sweeney adds, “And she was beautiful.” At that final word — “beautiful” — the chord below, which repeats three times, is piercingly, hauntingly dissonant. A graduate seminar in music theory could devote considerable time to deciphering the elusive harmony. It has always struck me as a counterintuitive touch. Shouldn’t the wife’s beauty be conveyed through something more melting, more radiant?Yet, as we learn, it was this young woman’s beauty that made her the prey of the lecherous, powerful Judge Turpin. In our interview, Sondheim acknowledged that the moment had this subtext, yet denied that he had calibrated the effect; he said he had just followed his musical instincts.I also played excerpts from “Merrily We Roll Along,” never his most popular but perhaps my desert-island Sondheim musical, and one of his most appealing, ingeniously intricate and moving scores. All the songs are “interconnected through chunks of melody, rhythm and accompaniment,” as he put it in the liner notes for the original cast recording.I tried to show the audience how those chunks break down and fit together. Sondheim mostly just smiled and listened, nodding and saying, basically, “Yep, that’s it.” He never liked to discuss the inner workings of his music in front of the public. This was his business, he felt.He did offer detailed analyses of several of his works in a series of interviews in 1997 with Mark Eden Horowitz, a music specialist from the Library of Congress, later published as an essential book, “Sondheim on Music.”If you want specifics, this is your source. Of a passage in “Passion,” Sondheim says that two chords “represent the entire progression” of the sequence.“I write long-line stuff in either whole notes or half notes,” he added. “A whole note could represent four bars, eight bars, 12 bars, 16 bars,” but the “glue has to be harmonic” — “has to be spinning out the triad and spinning out the harmony.”Between my first time seeing “Sweeney” — I went back twice! — and getting to know him personally in the late 1990s, Sondheim was a singular presence in my life and work. When I taught music theory at Emerson College in Boston, I used Sondheim songs like “The Miller’s Son” (from “A Little Night Music”) and “Barcelona” (from “Company”) as illustrations of how he, while hewing to a tonal musical language, activated harmonies and folded elements of jazz and Impressionist styles in his own distinctive, exhilarating voice.In the early ’90s, at several memorial services for friends who had died of AIDS, I played “Good Thing Going,” a wistful song about recalling imperfect but cherished relationships. “Marry Me a Little,” cut from the original production of “Company” but beloved in later revivals as the protagonist’s statement of determination and despair, was another piece I relished performing; I still use the demanding perpetual-motion piano part as an exercise to keep my finger technique limber.In 2010, I made an 80th birthday tribute video to him for the Times website, in which, among other excerpts, I played and analyzed the wondrous chords at the start of “Sunday in the Park with George.” Here, the hero, Georges Seurat, speaking to the audience, explains the elements of painting, how the artist must bring “order to the whole” through design, composition, balance, light — and, finally, harmony. Each word is accompanied, almost musically illustrated, by a variant of a five-note arpeggio figure that uncannily embodies each concept. The chord for light is so piercing and bright you almost want to squint.In 2016, I posed to Sondheim the question of why such a master composer so seldom wrote a purely instrumental work. Yes, he was one of the greatest lyricists in the history of musical theater. But wasn’t he tempted to put words aside now and then, and just compose, say, a piano sonata?He answered that it wasn’t really the words that generated his musical ideas. “I express the character,” he said. “Let’s see what happens to him. I express it musically.” He was endlessly fascinated by the “puzzle of music,” he added. But when he gets solely into music, the “puzzle takes over.”I’ve been thinking since his death about a trip to the Bronx Zoo my husband and I took in the spring of 2019 with Sondheim and his husband, Jeff Romley. They were passionate animal lovers, and my cousin Kathleen LaMattina works and lives there with her husband, Jim Breheny, the zoo’s director. In a special room, these honored guests could pet sloths and penguins, and even get close to a cheetah, under a staff member’s calm control. I have pictures of Sondheim feeding leafy tree branches to a giraffe.I’m looking as I write this at the piano-vocal score to “Sweeney Todd” Sondheim signed for me the first time he came to dinner, in 1997.“To Tony,” his inscription reads. “With thanks for the enthusiasm.”That enthusiasm will never diminish, and the thanks will always go the other way. More

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    20 Stephen Sondheim Songs to Listen to Right Now

    The lyricist and composer, who died on Friday, wrote dozens of piercing tunes for Broadway. Here is a selection of his most brilliant and surprising.The career of Stephen Sondheim, the celebrated Broadway songwriter who died on Friday at the age of 91, spanned decades and included 20 major productions, including forays into television and film. Here is one song from each of those 20 in chronological order, highlighting a genius that was evident from a jarringly early age (even if critics took a while to catch on) for mixing longing and ambivalence into clever, spiky, dependably unexpected lyrics.‘What More Do I Need?’From “Saturday Night,” 1954Dyspepsia lurks way in the background of “Saturday Night,” his first complete musical (which wouldn’t see a New York stage until almost a half-century later). But in this song, performed here by Liz Callaway, Sondheim depicts a level of dewy-eyed optimism — “Why, I can see half a tree/And what more do I need?” — that will become rare in his later musicals, which tended to pull the rug out on his clearly deluded dreamers. Here is the work of someone barely out of college who can’t believe he is already creating would-be standards.‘Something’s Coming’From “West Side Story,” 1957If this were a list of Leonard Bernstein songs, “Maria” or “Tonight” or “Somewhere” might easily take this spot. But it fell upon Sondheim to depict the inchoate yearnings of a street youth, played by Larry Kert, and offer a plausible glimpse into a mind barely able to glimpse it himself. Sondheim spent the next 60-plus years grumbling about the quality of his “West Side Story” lyrics: the unintelligible passages, the too-clever-by-half internal rhymes. We should all be so flawed.‘Rose’s Turn’From “Gypsy,” 1959How to pick just one song from what many consider is the greatest musical ever? None other than Cole Porter gasped at one of Sondheim’s lyrics in “Together, Wherever We Go,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” earned the 29-year-old a spot in Bartlett’s book of quotations. But it is Ethel Merman’s absolute tour de force — one that, owing to the composer Jule Styne’s previous engagement one fateful night, Sondheim largely willed into being at a rehearsal piano — that gave the clearest example of what lay ahead.‘Comedy Tonight’From “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” 1962The galumphing opening chords marked the first time Broadway audiences heard Sondheim’s music as well as lyrics. And they were this close to instead hearing an opening number called “Love Is in the Air,” which is sprightly and charming and the absolute wrong way to kick off an evening of vaudeville turns and eunuch jokes. Luckily, Jerome Robbins caught an out-of-town performance just before its New York transfer and mentioned this to Sondheim, who wrote that weekend the no less hummable “Comedy Tonight,” sung here by Jason Alexander. As exacting as he was with his notes and his words, Sondheim did what he had to do in order to make a show work.‘Anyone Can Whistle’From “Anyone Can Whistle,” 1964There is a frequently cited notion (one that Sondheim just as frequently refuted) that the show’s title song represents the purest, most unadulterated look into his own emotionally stunted psyche. Leaving that aside, the song — performed on the original cast recording by Lee Remick — is a bittersweet oasis in a show stuffed with ideas and set pieces and pastiche numbers and the sorts of Big Ideas that Sondheim would soon learn to convey more adroitly. It’s not all so simple, not by a long shot.‘We’re Gonna Be All Right’From “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” 1965Sondheim didn’t want to go back to solely writing lyrics, and he quickly regretted teaming up with Richard Rodgers, the longtime writing partner of Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. One of the collaboration’s many skirmishes involved this song, a wry evisceration of an unhappy marriage that apparently sounded an awful lot like Rodgers’s own. The version that made it to opening night is clever; the one that got tossed, later resurrected and sung here by Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie, is brilliant.‘I Remember’From “Evening Primrose,” 1966Not even the “I want” song remained intact in Sondheim’s visionary hands. This quirky made-for-TV romance, in which the female lead ruminates on the years she has lived inside a department store and pines to see the sky again, had all but disappeared until Mandy Patinkin invited his “Sunday in the Park With George” co-star Bernadette Peters to record the score with him on a 1990 album. With its trees like broken umbrellas and ice like vinyl, the song is more than a little bit creepy and altogether marvelous.‘Getting Married Today’From “Company,” 1970Possibly the greatest artistic hot streak of the 20th century (take note of the dates on this and the next two entries) began with this quasi-Brechtian look at marriage through the eyes of 35-year-old Bobby, who — maybe, sort of, kind of — wants no part of it. This anxiety-drenched patter song from one of his friends, sung on the original cast album by Beth Howland, doesn’t do much to allay Bobby’s fears. In the process, the already high-bar of Sondheim’s lyrical virtuosity vaulted several notes higher.‘The Road You Didn’t Take’From “Follies,” 1971The word “ambivalence” typically surfaces in a discussion of Sondheim and his themes, with “Company” as Exhibit A. (That score includes the song “Sorry-Grateful.”) But while the “Follies” score is chockablock with such barn burners as “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Still Here,” along with the piercing “Losing My Mind,” this character study, sung on the original cast album by John McMartin, sublimely lays the groundwork for the misgivings to come. And its final two lines — “The Ben I’ll never be/Who remembers him?” — should hang in a museum.‘Send in the Clowns’From “A Little Night Music,” 1973The haunting “Every Day a Little Death” and the virtuosic triptych of lust that is “Now/Soon/Later” would be career-defining works for just about anyone else. But any time Sarah Vaughan, as heard here, and Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins and Barbra Streisand and Judi Dench and Krusty the Clown of “The Simpsons” can agree on anything, let alone a bittersweet rumination on lost love with an oscillating time signature, the choice is obvious.‘Fear No More’From “The Frogs,” 1974As reluctant as Sondheim was to write lyrics for other composers, it was almost unheard of for him to write music for other people’s lyrics. But he made an exception for William Shakespeare (as one tends to do) in this curiosity that debuted in a Yale University swimming pool and reached Broadway 30 years later. In this adaptation of an Aristophanes comedy, Shakespeare squares off against George Bernard Shaw in an agon, the high-stakes debate that was common in ancient Greek comedies; Sondheim’s gossamer arrangement of this soliloquy from “Cymbeline,” sung here by George Hearn, helps earn the Bard a ticket out of the underworld.‘Someone in a Tree’From “Pacific Overtures,” 1976Sondheim described the frequent request to name a favorite of his own songs as “understandable but unanswerable.” Still, he repeatedly answered it anyway by suggesting this prismatic song, in which an eyewitness and an earwitness give markedly different accounts of a meeting (accounts that are muddied further by the re-recollections of the eyewitness as an old man). Perhaps it was his wish to essentially elevate his audiences to collaborators: Whether high up in a branch or seated in a Broadway theater, the very act of experiencing something makes that thing real (“Without someone in a tree/Nothing happened here”).‘A Little Priest’From “Sweeney Todd,” 1979Seconds before this song, the titular “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has morphed from a revenge seeker into an indiscriminate psychopath in the bruising aria “Epiphany.” Only one song remains before intermission. How could the tension possibly heighten even further? It can’t, and so Sondheim (and book writer Hugh Wheeler) instead puncture it with an uproarious one-liner from Sweeney’s murderous counterpart, Mrs. Lovett, followed by a ghoulish list song — possibly the greatest of Act I finales — in which the two, here Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou on the original cast album, make macabre sport of listing the various individuals they plan to grind into meat pies.‘Good Thing Going’From “Merrily We Roll Along,” 1981What do you call a recapitulation whose narrative unspools backward? A precapitulation? The DNA of this sadder-but-wiser lament can be found throughout the show, including in an earlier (or later, by the show’s logic) up-tempo iteration and in the evening’s very first (which makes it the very last) piece of music, a high school commencement song. But the third (first?) time is the charm, complete with a devastating and just-flashy-enough final line that helped turn it into a crossover hit for Sinatra, heard here.‘Finishing the Hat’From “Sunday in the Park With George,” 1984Seeing as Sondheim named not one but two books after this song (the second edition is called “Look, I Made a Hat,” and both are essential reading), it clearly had significance for him. As a teenager, I thought this depiction of creation — and the combination of rigor and abandon that it requires — ended on a note that was equal parts proud and rueful. How wrong I was about the rueful part. And the immensity of “What you feel like, planning a sky,” sung here by Mandy Patinkin, will never dissipate.‘On the Steps of the Palace’From “Into the Woods,” 1987So many of the most astonishing moments in Sondheim’s lyrics come from decisions made then and there: young Gypsy Rose Lee finding her voice mid-striptease, Bobby in “Company” resolving to be alive by not being alone, Sweeney Todd settling on the idea of mass slaughter. Perhaps the most beguiling is this number, in which Cinderella, played here by Kim Crosby, turns the act of leaving her glass slipper behind into a conscious choice. Sondheim credited his “Woods” book writer, James Lapine, for the idea, but the sparkling execution is his alone.‘The Ballad of Booth’From “Assassins,” 1990More than 30 years into a convention-shattering career, Sondheim still raised eyebrows when he announced he was about to musicalize the likes of John Hinckley Jr. and John Wilkes Booth. Some of those eyebrows never totally lowered: A Broadway revival was postponed in the wake of 9/11. But this early set-piece, in which Booth (Victor Garber, joined by Patrick Cassidy as the Balladeer) mashes up grandiose poetry, self-pity, cogent criticism and vile racism in a plaintive cri de coeur, went a long way toward reminding audiences that they were in very good and very frightening hands.‘What Can You Lose?’From “Dick Tracy,” 1990Madonna’s slinky “Sooner or Later” may have won the Academy Award, and “More” may be more chockablock with musical theater Easter eggs. But it’s this Harold Arlen-inspired song of unrequited love that gives Warren Beatty’s rather cluttered film the closest thing to a heartbeat. Sondheim’s original duet has become a heart-rending solo for the likes of Audra McDonald, Gavin Creel and, from his virtual 90th-birthday celebration, Judy Kuhn.‘Loving You’From “Passion,” 1994“Passion” was the first musical I saw (and saw again and again) in its original run. And those initial audiences hated Fosca, the grasping, manipulative, unprepossessing third point of the show’s love triangle. This song comes late in the piece, just as she reappeared in a way that had people around me snickering and groaning at the mere sight of her. These 135 seconds — one of Sondheim’s simpler melodies — changed pretty much everything. Fosca, played here by Donna Murphy, was every bit as suffocating as before, and maybe even more baffling. She was also a heroine.‘Isn’t He Something!’From “Road Show,” 2008This show — which started as “Wise Guys” and then became “Bounce” before settling as “Road Show,” each time with a starry new director and a commensurate lurch in direction — went through very public growing pains, including an ill-fated reunion with Hal Prince and lawsuits with Scott Rudin. This melancholy charmer, sung by a doting mother (here, Alma Cuervo) about her ne’er-do-well son, entered the show’s ever-changing song stack fairly early on and remained a high point each step of the way. More

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    Jennifer Nettles Had Sung ‘She Used to Be Mine.’ But Not While Crying.

    The country singer and musical-theater fan was grateful to play the intense title role in “Waitress” not long after her Broadway-themed album came out.Sara Bareilles and Jennifer Nettles have been friends for over a decade, and Nettles had long been itching to step into Bareilles’s musical “Waitress.”“For years we kept trying to make it happen but it never worked on the logistics side,” she said in a recent video call.Everything finally fell into place this fall, and on Wednesday Nettles, who is most famous as half of the Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland, wrapped up a five-week run playing Jenna, a pie-making wiz dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, in the show, as it returned along with Broadway itself.“It’s a beautiful, sacred space, and Broadway is such a community,” Nettles, 47, said of finally getting to tie on Jenna’s apron. “It was very poignant to be in this show for this reopening.”Bareilles was happy to see Nettles connect with her show as well, and with the song “She Used to Be Mine.”“Jennifer so clearly knows who Jenna really is,” she said by email. “I watch my friend disappear onstage and I see only Jenna’s complexity. Her final moments in ‘She Used to Be Mine’ are some of my favorite of all time. She digs down deep and does not come up for air, connecting the musical phrases as her character finds her strength.”Nettles in her dressing room, preparing for her final performance in “Waitress.”Karsten Moran for The New York TimesSeeing Nettles thrive on Broadway may surprise those who only know the singer-songwriter from Sugarland or her thriving solo career. But “Waitress” wasn’t Nettles’s first show-tune rodeo. She played Roxie Hart in “Chicago” in 2015 and Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!” at the Hollywood Bowl two years later. In June she released a collection of musical-theater numbers titled “Always Like New.”She also has a burgeoning screen career with roles in the movie “Harriet” and as the matriarch of a televangelist family in the HBO comedy “The Righteous Gemstones.”The effervescent Nettles spoke about becoming a mom, sensible shoes and, er, poison from her dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, shortly before one of her last performances in “Waitress.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.You’ve loved musicals since you were a kid. Why did you end up choosing country music?All the way through high school and college I was able to do both because there were programs and community theater. I started having traction in music in college and had that fork-in-the-road moment, and I thought, “Music has some momentum, I’m going to go over here.” But I always longed to be able to do both, and I was just one person [laughs].“I wish it could have been longer but in some ways it’s just the right-size bite, you know?” said Nettles (signing programs and photographs for fans) of the five-week run.Karsten Moran for The New York TimesWhen did you start planting the seeds for a turn to musical theater?Around 12 years ago, I was going to do Elphaba in “Wicked” on tour and then make my way to Broadway. But I was dealing with a ton of acid reflux at the time, before we really knew that was such a thing for singers. I was really, really stressed and I pulled out because I didn’t know what was going on with my instrument. The right thing always happens at the right time, you know, and in 2015 I was able to enjoy going right to the Broadway stage in “Chicago.”Between the new album and Broadway reopening, did it feel like musical-theater serendipity for you?I had been recording “Always Like New” over the course of 2019 and we recorded the last note of the last song on March 12, 2020. I walked out of the vocal booth and our phones started lighting up, saying Broadway was closing. I put the record out in June and that felt sort of like waving this flag of, “OK, we’re coming back,” because we knew of the plans of hopeful September reopening. So to move from an album I’ve always wanted to make to stepping on to the very stages that inspired it — artistically that felt like this is how it’s supposed to be.What’s your take on Jenna?The journey of motherhood, for me as it is for some women, was such a confluence — I have jokingly called it a bludgeoning of identity. I was never one of those women who thought she always wanted to have kids. I was open to it and I love children, but I already had another purpose. The loss that happens to everybody but specifically to mothers who have a pre-existing job purpose outside of family — the loss was extreme. The gains were beautiful, too, don’t get me wrong, but both of your hands are full in motherhood: There is sacrifice and loss and death, and there is birth and beauty and fullness. I relate to Jenna as a woman, as being Southern, but that transformation where she’s just like, “Wow, what is happening to my life? Who am I? What do I want?” is so accessible to me.You have done Jenna’s showstopper, “She Used to Be Mine,” in concert. What was it like singing it in the show?It’s so different. In concert you’re just doing it as a piece of music. To do it within the character and within the arc, and that being her 11 o’clock moment. Performing while crying is its own animal.Did you look forward to the number or did you dread it?Once I figured out how to sing it and act it and cry it and scream it all at the same time, I actually did look forward to it. So much tension has been building for her this whole time that to allow for that release is very cathartic every time I do it.Fellow cast members surround Nettles at the final curtain call.Karsten Moran for The New York TimesAt least you got to do it in sensible shoes.Thank you, Lord! I’m glad she is a waitress and able to wear those shoes, that’s for sure.What’s going through your mind as you are wrapping up with the show?I wish it could have been longer but in some ways it’s just the right-size bite, you know? I would rather leave still a little bit hungry than over-full and like, “Get me out of here!”You’re writing the score for a new musical inspired by Giulia Tofana. What can you tell us about her?She was a slow poisoner in the 17th century. She’s attributed with what they call the first Italian divorce, where she helped women get out of their marriages by killing their husbands [laughs]. Which just makes it fun.It’s definitely a different career path from pie or country music.And to be able to tell a story of a woman who isn’t this 20-year-old ingénue! I have gone into way darker transformative caves as a woman in my 40s than I ever did in my 20s. The stakes are higher. This isn’t some budding hero’s journey — this is a blossoming warrior’s journey. Very different. It is also a warning that we still have very far to go where women are concerned. Sexism has been so delicately woven in that, oftentimes, we don’t see it and we think, like, “Oh, we’ve come so far.” Have we? So I am excited to tell this story — to celebrate her, to offer conversation, provocation. More

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    Kiki and Herb Will Be Back Where They Belong for Christmas

    Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman have resurrected their Christmas act for “a big, old chosen family reunion.”Kiki and Herb, the glamorous and harrowing cabaret duo created by Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman, never performed as reliably as the Radio City Rockettes. But for a while in the early 2000s, no Christmas felt complete without them — especially if you are the kind of person who prefers a belt of Canadian Club to eggnog.In those days, Bond played Kiki as an elderly “boozy chanteusie,” with Mellman as Herb, her childhood friend and put-upon accompanist. In fright drag, with age makeup crisscrossing her face, Bond’s Kiki would stalk through the crowd like a bloodthirsty elf, savaging holiday carols and performing medleys that intermixed “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with “Suicide Is Painless.”“It seemed like a gift to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be going home for Christmas, wouldn’t necessarily have the best relationship with their family,” Mellman said recently. Their shows wrapped that present in spilled drinks and smeared mascara.Kiki and Herb played their last holiday show, “Kiki & Herb: The Second Coming,” in 2007. Bond and Mellman dissolved their artistic partnership not long after. Mellman continued in the cabaret scene and performed with the band the Julie Ruin. Bond wrote new music and evolved as a visual artist. They didn’t speak for years. After reuniting at a memorial for their friend José Esteban Muñoz, they performed together again, in a show called “Seeking Asylum!,” at the Public Theater in 2016. And now, they have resurrected their Christmas act for what Bond calls, “a big, old chosen family reunion.”Beginning Tuesday, Mellman and Bond will debut “Kiki & Herb: SLEIGH at BAM,” for five performances. Studded with fan favorites — Tori Amos’s “Crucify,” Belle and Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” — the show will include new numbers, like Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.” (During the duo’s last hiatus, Mellman built a file of 300 potential new songs.)On a recent weekday afternoon, Mellman and Bond met at a coffee shop in Brooklyn to chat about reclaiming Christmas and how their characters might spend the holiday. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.It’s been 14 years since your last holiday show. Why restart the tradition now?JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND Before the pandemic, Kenny found this footage of our 1999 show at Flamingo East. I had a meeting with David Binder [the artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music] to propose recreating it. He goes, “You should do a Kiki and Herb Christmas show.” They never take the good idea, I thought at the time. But then history happened, and I was feeling pretty sad last Christmas. As I started looking at what we could do as things opened up again, David sent me another email. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to get together with everybody for Christmas.This set list is mostly familiar material, right?KENNY MELLMAN It’s a question of when you go to see your favorite band and they play none of the songs you want to hear. We skirted that for years, but I felt it’d be nice to give people a Christmas present this year of being like, here. Have it.BOND We’re unpacking all the broken ornaments.How were Kiki and Herb birthed into the world?BOND I created the character of Kiki during the AIDS crisis. I was a young person in my 20s, a street activist. I felt like saying all the things I wanted to say as myself would sound too strident, too earnest. To have this boozed up old person who had done it all, seen it all, I could say anything as this character.MELLMAN All the glitz and craziness and insanity and surrealism lends it a gravitas that it would not have if you just said it in a very straight way.BOND I brought elements of people I really knew into Kiki — very intimidating, very smart women who had just gotten a [expletive] hand dealt, who somehow became these amazing creatures. So that was always there. Herb was based on this guy who worked in a piano bar that we performed at sometimes, this single guy who would drink tequila and had a picture of his cat on the piano.MELLMAN He would drink tequila and just start crying.How has the act changed over the years?MELLMAN We started this as a kind of street theater inside a bar [in San Francisco]. We were both super young, going to queer clubs, protesting every night. Coming to New York — a different atmosphere, a different queer scene — it became less like, Oh, we have to be screaming at the end of the world.BOND We started performing Kiki and Herb here in January of ’95, and ’95 was the year that the cocktail [the antiretroviral therapy for H.I.V.] came and started making lives last longer. So, it became different.MELLMAN We stopped doing mushrooms. So that changed it.BOND It’s New York, we’d better raise our game, we’d better stop doing mushrooms.What was it like to move through adulthood performing these characters?BOND That’s part of why I had to stop. I just felt like I didn’t know fully who I was. I always feel like I’m a disappointment. Because I know that people love that character so much. And I’m not that character. I remember, I thought, maybe if I just did a reality show, and I just lived as that character, people would like me more and I wouldn’t be so lonely.MELLMAN Back in the day, we were doing late-night shows, and then going out even later because we wanted to hang out with all these amazing people. There was no balance.BOND Last year when I was doing streaming performances from my house, I discovered that after 30 years in the business, that I never did a show where I didn’t go out and greet the public afterward. That’s probably why I don’t have any intimacy in my life.But as wild as the act could be, as grotesque as it could be, it was also about love.MELLMAN Like no matter what Kiki does Herb will be there. I find that really lovely and something to aspire to in a weird way. As much as a real psychological expose of that relationship would probably be horrifying, at the base of it is this incredible love for each other that transcends everything.It’s the idea that what if someone saw you at you’re just absolutely worst —MELLMAN And would still be there.So do the shows reach for a kind of emotional truth?MELLMAN Oh, for sure. There was always an emotional center to the act, because it came from a place of survival. I was recently just picturing what San Francisco was like when we created this. I wrote a poem that had the line, “The freshly dead are walking the streets.” That’s what it felt like.BOND Also it goes back to the people that I based the character on, who I had so much love for and who I felt were judged so harshly. My whole drive was to be this very unlovable character, whom people could not help but just love.How do you think Kiki and Herb would be spending this holiday?BOND Probably like us when we were young — meeting at some dive bar and playing pinball and drinking all day. Which sounds nice to me actually.MELLMAN They’d be like, I heard there’s a free buffet.BOND Right? Bottomless cocktails and free buffet at Christmas.MELLMAN Perfect. More

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    Get to Know Sondheim’s Best in These 10 Videos

    Jake Gyllenhaal, Patti LuPone, Judi Dench and an all-star Zoom trio find the wit, pathos and heartbreak in a remarkable songbook.Songs are there to serve the story and the show, Stephen Sondheim insisted. That’s not to say that his poignant duets, skittery patter songs and ambivalent tributes to old Broadway can’t deliver thrills even out of context. Here are 10 videos that show why, in mourning his loss, performers and writers are expressing thanks for his genius.‘Finishing the Hat’Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in the title role of “Sunday in the Park With George” was meant to last three concert performances, but the response was so glowing that what started as a 2016 Encores! fund-raiser was retooled for Broadway. This backstage rendition of “Finishing the Hat,” a lament for the artistic struggle, shows why.‘Loving You’Judy Kuhn starred as the lovesick Fosca in the Classic Stage Company’s 2013 revival of “Passion,” one of Sondheim’s most austere, yet romantic scores. Among those who have covered this aching ballad are Barbra Streisand and Barbara Cook; Kuhn is onstage now at the same theater, playing Sara Jane Moore in Sondheim’s “Assassins.”Judy Kuhn, accompanied by Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on cello, sings “Loving You” from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “Passion,” now in revival at the Classic Stage Company.‘The Ladies Who Lunch’Sondheim’s 80th birthday was marked in an all-star tribute with the New York Philharmonic, in which Patti LuPone ripped into “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the boozy “Company” showstopper she is performing on Broadway in the revival now in previews. (Elaine Stritch, who introduced the song in the original production, was there, watchfully watching; she gave her all to “I’m Still Here” from “Follies.”)‘The Ladies Who Lunch’While the composer’s 90th birthday fell in the middle of the pandemic, a Zoom tribute still managed to hit the heights, no higher than when Audra McDonald, Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski knocked back the vodka stingers to “drink to that.”‘Giants in the Sky’A spate of stripped-down revivals have brought new life and young fans to the Sondheim songbook. Here Patrick Mulryan, playing Jack (of Beanstalk fame) in the Fiasco Theater’s 2014 “Into the Woods,” sings the plaintive “Giants in the Sky.”Mr. Mulryan sings “Giants in the Sky” from the Fiasco Theater’s production of the musical “Into the Woods,” with Matt Castle on piano. The show is at the Laura Pels Theater through April 12.‘I’m Still Here’Yvonne DeCarlo originated this showbiz survivor’s anthem in “Follies” on Broadway 50 years ago, and Ann Miller, Polly Bergen and Shirley MacLaine (onscreen in “Postcards From the Edge”) have done it, too. Tracie Bennett got the plum assignment in the National Theater’s lush 2017 revival; its director, Dominic Cooke, is on tap to make the very-long-awaited movie.‘Losing My Mind’The middle-aged former showgirl Sally Durant sings this “Follies” classic, but Jeremy Jordan proves this ballad of obsessive love and lifelong regret is truly universal.‘Send in the Clowns’Sondheim’s one true pop hit, thanks to Judy Collins, has become a full-fledged American songbook standard, thanks to Judi Dench and other performers who’ve gotten under the skin of the rueful actress Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music.”‘Not While I’m Around’This duet between the murderous Mrs. Lovett and her young charge Tobias offers the rare glimpse of unadulterated affection in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” though it turns out to be short-lived. Melissa Errico keeps things uplifting in this lilting track from her much-praised “Sondheim Sublime” album.‘Move On’Singing from home, earbuds and all, can’t dampen the emotion of this unforgettable “Sunday in the Park With George” duet between the artist Georges Seurat and his mistress (and model) Dot, played on Broadway by Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. More

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    Impromptu Stephen Sondheim Wakes Fill Piano Bars With Tears and Tunes

    Lines of Stephen Sondheim fans formed outside Marie’s Crisis Cafe in Greenwich Village as news of his death spread. Inside, it was all-Sondheim on the piano.LaShonda Katrice Barnett had just finished a nice rooibos at a tea salon when she overheard some people at a nearby table.“They were all on their mobile phones and someone said, ‘Stephen Sondheim passed away just now,’ and I screamed ‘Oh no!’ very loudly,” Ms. Barnett, 47, said. “I jumped up, went into the bathroom, cried a lot for a while. Threw up.”She immediately knew her next move. “I thought, ‘I need to be with people in grief,’” she said. “So I came here two hours ago, and I’ve been here, singing and crying.”After hearing the news of Mr. Sondheim’s death, LaShonda Katrice Barnett headed to Marie’s Crisis Cafe. “I came here two hours ago, and I’ve been here, singing and crying,” she said.Jeenah Moon for The New York Times“Here” was the Greenwich Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis Cafe, where a line formed in the late afternoon and never let up for hours as fans gathered to commune, aware that they would be surrounded by people who not only perfectly understood their feelings, but who also knew Sondheim deep cuts and could nail tongue-twisters like the “Bobby baby, Bobby bubi, Bobby” line from “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”“I had other plans tonight,” said Mark Valdez, 28. “My family’s busy for the Thanksgiving holiday, but then we found out that Mr. Sondheim died.” Asked if he had ditched them to go to Marie’s, he laughed and then choked up a little: “Oh no, I just brought them. It’s a family here and I want to be with family.”Jim Merillat, 63, was at the piano from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., playing Sondheim tunes the entire time. “This was a place to process the news and celebrate his life and his work,” he said, chatting with friends an hour after his shift had ended.“I found that phrases or even fragments of phrases in songs would catch me in a different way because now it was about him,” he continued. “I found myself a little choked up several times through the evening.”It was a crowd that knew its Sondheim tunes.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesAcross the street from Marie’s, the mood was decidedly more raucous at the Duplex, where an ad hoc reunion of “Mostly Sondheim,” an open mic that ended a 12-year run in 2016, was underway. Inside, musical-theater insider jokes freely mixed with raunchy profanity and references to “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” The appreciative room fell into a hush at all the right moments, though, as when the music director Brian Nash teared up during the spoken opening of “Sunday in the Park With George.”“See, I’m crying so hard, ” he said. Then he and hosts Emily McNamara and Marty Thomas went straight into the upbeat “Comedy Tonight.”Shortly after hearing the day’s news, Mr. Nash decided to bring back “Mostly Sondheim.” Luckily, the upstairs cabaret at the Duplex, a few doors down from the Stonewall Inn, was available. “It seemed important to hold a space for folks to feel whatever they needed to, to sing and cry and laugh and be with people who understood what a loss this was to those who love theater,” he said in an email sent near dawn.He had no problem rallying the troops.“I was so ready to go home and go to bed,” said Ms. McNamara, who had been at a big family gathering in New Jersey. “But when Brian called me I was like, ‘I’ll chug some caffeine, put on some lashes, and let’s go!’ ”There was trivia: “Now we’re going to find if there are actual nerds in the room: On what song did Sondheim write the lyrics under the pen name Esteban Río Nido?”(Answer: “The Boy From …” with music by Mary Rodgers.) And there were reminiscences about first encounters with Sondheim, and of high school performances.And even those stuck at home could join in when Telly Leung (who was once in a Broadway revival of “Pacific Overtures”) encouraged the crowd to sing along to “Not a Day Goes By” — the event was livestreamed on Facebook. (A commenter rejoiced: “I am trapped in Delaware with no access to a piano bar. Thank you Brian and all for bringing the tribe to me.”)Others mourned and celebrated Mr. Sondheim at the theater: he had shows running on Broadway and off when he died, and Friday night’s performances were exceptionally emotional.The cast of the new revival of “Company” took a moment before the show to mark his loss, with Patti LuPone center.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesAt the Classic Stage Company, which is presenting “Assassins,” Daniel Jay Park was there to celebrate his 40th birthday, but also to honor a master, whom he had worked with when he appeared in the 2004 revival of his musical “Pacific Overtures.”“Whenever any one of us would mess up, his head would just lift up from the newspaper and we would all know,” he recalled before the Friday evening performance. “Before any note was given, we would all know that something was wrong and we had to go back home and study, fix it.”Eric Anderson Jr., 38, a voice teacher and music director who lives just outside of Boston, was visiting New York for the holiday when he saw the news about Mr. Sondheim. Almost immediately, he told his husband he needed to go for a walk.He ended up gravitating toward Times Square — and decided on a whim to go on something of a pilgrimage to Mr. Sondheim, visiting the Broadway theater named after him and then the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on 45th Street, where the new revival of “Company” was set to begin at 8 p.m.He saw people standing in line hoping for a last-minute ticket, and decided to get one too.“Our industry and our art form owes everything to him,” Mr. Anderson said. “I teach him to all of my students, of course. He is the history of American musical theater in one person.”Matt Stevens and Sadiba Hasan contributed reporting. More

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    Praise for Stephen Sondheim at ‘Company’ and ‘Assassins'

    “I would ask you to sit back and luxuriate in his extraordinary words and music,” the director John Doyle said before Friday’s performance of the “Assassins” revival.Hours after Stephen Sondheim’s death, the director of the Broadway revival of “Company” walked onstage before the curtain rose on Friday to acknowledge the news that many in the audience already knew but that some — judging by the murmurs that followed — had not yet heard.“Stephen Sondheim, so sadly, passed away in the early hours of this morning,” said the director, Marianne Elliott. “He was truly the greatest artist that we, in our lifetime, possibly will ever know.”Around the same time, 32 blocks downtown, the director of the Off Broadway musical, “Assassins,” walked onstage before the show with a similar mournful speech.“Today is a sad day for the American theater,” said the director, John Doyle. “Stephen Sondheim changed the face of the American musical, and we feel very blessed to be in this space at this time.”It was evidence of Sondheim’s long-lasting popularity that, on the day of his death, audience members lined up to see revivals for two of his musicals: “Company,” a Broadway production starring Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk, and “Assassins,” about the people who killed or tried to kill American presidents. Both had been delayed by the pandemic.With the cast of “Company” standing onstage behind her at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, arms around one another’s shoulders, Elliott said that Sondheim’s death had been a shock to the production, whose members had gotten to know the composer and lyricist during the preparation for the revival. Even at 91 years old and with more than six decades of writing music and lyrics for Broadway behind him, Sondheim had taken an active role in the new run of the musical, which first premiered in 1970 and won six Tony Awards. The current production was a hit with critics when it debuted in London in 2019.“He didn’t need to do that,” Elliott said. “But he became the greatest enthusiast for it, and every single line of George Furth’s and every single lyric we talked about, we debated, we argued, we chatted, we laughed,” Elliott added, referring to the playwright.In this version, the central character, a bachelor with commitment issues, is played by a woman (Lenk). He had been supportive of the changes to the musical, Elliott said. “He really understood about art,” she said, “and he really understood about the now and why art should speak to the now.”Right up until his death, Sondheim was both a fairly active writer and theatergoer. Earlier this month, Sondheim had traveled to Manhattan from his home in Connecticut to see these productions himself, attending the opening night of “Assassins” at the Classic Stage Company on Nov. 14 and a preview of “Company” the next day. This week, Sondheim discussed his current project — his final musical — with The New York Times, saying, “What else would I do with my time but write?”Speaking to the audience at “Assassins,” Doyle urged the theatergoers to celebrate Sondheim’s work rather than grieve.“He would be curious if you sat here sadly tonight,” he said. “I would ask you to sit back, to luxuriate in his extraordinary words and music.” More

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    Covid Restrictions Are Back at Some of Europe's Theaters

    Strict controls on playhouses and music venues are returning as the continent deals with a new coronavirus wave.For months, Europe’s opera, music and theater fans have been flocking to packed venues as if the coronavirus pandemic was fading from view. Now that feeling of freedom is receding for many.In Vienna, all performances are now banned until at least Dec. 13, after Austria imposed a lockdown to deal with a rise in coronavirus cases. The Dec. 5 premiere of the Vienna State Opera’s new production of “Don Giovanni,” directed by Barrie Kosky, will be televised from an empty house.In Munich, performances are still taking place at the city’s storied Bavarian State Opera despite a surge in cases in Bavaria. Only vaccinated patrons or those who have recovered from Covid-19 are allowed in, and they must also all show proof of a negative coronavirus test and wear a medical-grade mask. According to new rules announced Tuesday, venues in Bavaria can admit only 25 percent of their maximum capacity.In Milan, there are no restrictions on audience numbers at venues including La Scala, and no social distancing requirements — but only vaccinated audience members are allowed in.The confusing picture across the continent has been getting more complicated by the day in recent weeks as national and regional governments respond to a new wave of cases and as an alert about a new variant prompts concern. On Wednesday, Germany reported 79,051 new cases — its highest daily number since the pandemic began.After months of relative normalcy, Europe’s opera houses, concert halls and theaters are reintroducing measures all too familiar from earlier phases of the pandemic, restricting audience numbers and mandating testing, if not canceling shows outright. Some cultural workers at venues where the doors are still open are concerned that they might not stay that way for long.Leipzig Opera’s production of “Hänsel and Gretel” has been canceled for the rest of the company’s season because of coronavirus measures.Oper LeipzigDespite the new prevention measures, the mood was “very different” from previous lockdowns, said Ulf Schirmer, the general music director of Leipzig Opera, in eastern Germany. All performances in the city of Leipzig are banned until Jan. 9.“We’ve learned so much from past lockdowns,” Schirmer said, “we now know what to do.”Leipzig Opera would lose 1 million euros, about $1.1 million, by refunding tickets for canceled performances across all shows, Schirmer added. The company could cope with that, he said, because it receives a significant government subsidy and has sufficient reserves.Other venues throughout the continent, where the pace of cancellations and restrictions has been accelerating since last month, might not be in such a secure position. Latvia was one of the first countries to impose new restrictions on cultural life, when it ordered performance venues shut from late October as part of a national lockdown. Since then many other countries and regions have imposed new, if varied, restrictions. This month, the Netherlands went into a partial lockdown that let performances continue in front of seated audiences but forced other venues such as bars and restaurants to close by 8 p.m. Austria initially introduced a lockdown for unvaccinated people that included barring them from attending cultural events, before announcing a nationwide lockdown days later.Some venues that remain open in Europe are putting in place extra safety measures, even without government mandates. In Berlin, performance venues are allowed to operate at full capacity, as long as attendees show proof that they are vaccinated, recovered or provide a negative test, and wear a mask. But Sarah Boehler, a spokeswoman for the Sophiensaele, a theater in the city, said her venue would also require a negative test in addition to either proof of vaccination or recovery. The theater expected that city officials would require such a measure “in a week or two anyway,” she said, adding it was better to get ahead of the curve.There is one place that looks unlikely to see new restrictions on cultural life: Britain, where governing lawmakers have spoken since July of the need to live with the virus. New coronavirus cases have averaged around 40,000 a day for the past month, and one of the government’s leading scientific advisers this week said the country was “almost at herd immunity.”In England, theater and opera goers are not required to wear masks, or show proof of vaccination. Instead, each venue can decide its own requirements. Many West End theaters ask for proof of vaccination, and most encourage spectators to wear masks, but enforcement varies.This month, a revival of “Cabaret,” starring Eddie Redmayne at the Playhouse Theater, went further than other London shows by requiring attendees to show a negative test result to gain entry. The Ambassador Theater Group, which owns the venue, said in a statement that “the intimacy of the production,” in which the audience sits close to the actors, was behind the decision. But no other theaters have appeared to follow its lead.The composer and theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber on Tuesday told the BBC he would be happy to mandate masks and proof of vaccination at the six theaters he owns in London. “If that was what was necessary to keep our theaters open without social distancing, I think that’s a very small price to pay,” he said.Even if few in Britain’s theater world anticipate new restrictions, elsewhere in Europe, where governments are weighing actions to curb rising case numbers, industry figures are worried that more closures are on the way.“Everyone is still very concerned there will be another lockdown soon,” said Boehler of the Sophiensaele. “We just hope vaccinated people will be in a position to keep going to the theater.” More