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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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    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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    Stephen Sondheim Reflected on 'Company' and 'West Side Story' in Final Interview

    In an interview on Sunday, the revered composer and lyricist, 91, contentedly discussed his shows running on Broadway and off, as well as a new movie about to be released.ROXBURY, Conn. — Stephen Sondheim stood by the gleaming piano in his study, surrounded by posters of international productions of his many famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired whether a visitor might be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but hadn’t finished yet.“And now would you like to hear the score?” he asked. Of course, the answer was yes. “You got some time?” he asked, before laughing, loudly, with a sense of mischief: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!”That was Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, had welcomed me to his longtime country house for a 90-minute interview with him and the theater director Marianne Elliott about a revival of “Company” that is now in previews on Broadway. It would turn out to be his final major interview.There was little indication that Mr. Sondheim, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, was unwell. He was engaged and lucid, with strong opinions and playfully pugnacious, as with the tease about his long-gestating, unfinished final musical. At one moment he complained that his memory wasn’t as strong as it had been, but he was also telling anecdotes from a half-century earlier with ease.He was having a little trouble getting around — using a cane, seeking assistance to get in and out of chairs, and in obvious pain when walking — which he attributed to an injury. Asked about the state of his health, he answered by knocking on a wood table and saying, “Outside of my sprained ankle, OK.”Mr. Sondheim was applauded earlier this month at the first preview of a Broadway revival of his musical “Company,” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesHe was busy right until the end. On Nov. 14 he attended the opening of an Off Broadway revival of his musical “Assassins,” directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company. The next night he went to the first post-shutdown preview for the Broadway revival of “Company” — a reimagined production, opening Dec. 9, in which the protagonist, who has traditionally been played by a man, is now played by a woman. And just this week, two days before he died, he did a doubleheader, seeing a Wednesday matinee of “Is This a Room” and an evening performance of “Dana H.,” two short documentary plays on Broadway.“I can’t wait,” he said as he anticipated seeing those shows. “I can smell both of those and how much I’m going to love them.”He was not inclined to make any grand pronouncements on the state of Broadway. “I don’t take overviews — I never have taken overviews,” he said. “Whither Broadway? I don’t answer the question. Who knows. I don’t really care. That’s the future. Whatever happens will happen.”One thing he was hoping would happen: one more musical. For years he had been collaborating with the playwright David Ives and the director Joe Mantello on a new musical, most recently titled “Square One,” adapted from two movies directed by Luis Buñuel.“The first act is based on ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,’ and the second act is based on ‘The Exterminating Angel,’ ” he explained during the interview. “I don’t know if I should give the so-called plot away, but the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”Asked if he had any sense when it might be finished, Mr. Sondheim said, “No.”Why did he hope to keep working when he could just bask in appreciation?“What else am I going to do?” he asked. “I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?”And did he write daily in his final weeks? “No, I’m a procrastinator,” he said. “I need a collaborator who pushes me, who gets impatient.”When it was pointed out that he had been a procrastinator throughout his career, and that it had seemed to work for him, he said, “Yes, I have. Yeah, I think forever. Not when I was a hungry teenager — when I wanted so much to have a show done, I don’t think I was a procrastinator then. But once I had a show done, I think part of me got lazy.”But with his shows running on Broadway and off, and a major film adaptation of “West Side Story” about to be released, Mr. Sondheim was clearly feeling good about the current reception of his work.In the new production of “Company,” the protagonist, who has traditionally been played by a man, is played by a woman, Katrina Lenk, center. Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesHe confirmed his longstanding lack of interest in movie musicals, saying, “Growing up, I was a huge fan of movies, and the only genre that I wasn’t a fan of was musicals — I loved the songs, but not the musicals.”But he was obviously delighted about the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation of “West Side Story,” a musical for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, that is scheduled to be released next month. “I think it’s just great,” he said. He added, “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”He was looking forward to even more in the months to come: a new production of “Into the Woods,” for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, is scheduled to be staged by the Encores! program at New York City Center next May. Also, Mr. Sondheim revealed, New York Theater Workshop is hoping to stage an Off Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, directed by Maria Friedman, who has previously directed well received productions in London and Boston.Asked which of his shows he’d most like to see revived next, he appeared stumped. “What would I like to see again that I haven’t seen in a while? I’d have to think about it, because an awful lot of the shows I’ve been a writer of have been done in the last few years.” He added, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had good revivals of the shows that I like.” 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

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    5 Things to Do This Thanksgiving Weekend

    Our critics and writers have selected noteworthy cultural events to experience virtually and in person in New York City.Art & MuseumsReframing FreedomOne of the murals of Shaun Leonardo’s “Between Four Freedoms,” on view at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island through Tuesday.Anna LetsonThe making of Shaun Leonardo’s latest public artwork — “Between Four Freedoms,” the exhibition of which has been extended to Tuesday at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island — is predicated on the notion that the four freedoms cited in Roosevelt’s 1941 speech don’t apply to everyone equally. How would our most vulnerable citizens interpret them? In a series of workshops leading up to the installation, Leonardo attempted to answer that question. For one, he pointed to the freedom from fear: How can it be considered attainable when children continue to be incarcerated? How can people declare it when for them fear persists in the shadows?The culmination of these exercises is represented in a series of large vinyl murals of hand gestures (which sometimes speak louder than words) that Leonardo applied to the granite walls at the entrance to the park. Words haven’t been completely ignored, though. QR codes surrounding the works link to audio recordings of workshop participants discussing what freedom — or its lack — means to them.MELISSA SMITHKIDSSetting Hearts AflutterAn emerald swallowtail butterfly, which is among the species in the American Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibition, on view through May 30.D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural HistoryThe butterflies are back in town.That may seem like a puzzling announcement in November, but at least one Manhattan site considers it routine: the American Museum of Natural History. After a yearlong pandemic-induced hiatus, the institution is once again presenting its annual exhibition “The Butterfly Conservatory: Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter,” on view through May 30.Mimicking a light-filled 80-degree rainforest, this 1,200-square-foot vivarium provides close encounters with as many as 500 creatures, such as monarch, viceroy, blue morpho and emerald swallowtail butterflies, and atlas and luna moths. (Timed entry is required, and visitors must buy tickets that include special-exhibition access.) For curious children, the thrills of wandering among the show’s blossoms and greenery include seeing these free-flying international travelers alight on an outstretched hand or emerge from a chrysalis.Small visitors who prefer to keep insects at a distance can enjoy several exhibits outside the conservatory’s doors. Among them are a short film about metamorphosis and displays on butterfly habitats and adaptations. Owl butterflies, for instance, have large spots that resemble owl eyes — a way to fool predators — while monarchs contain foul-tasting toxins. Those bright orange wings are nature’s own caution sign.LAUREL GRAEBERFilm SeriesOf Instincts and BuboesSharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct,” one of the films IFC Center is showing for a retrospective of the director’s work in anticipation of his latest, “Benedetta.”Rialto PicturesBefore Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation, the 17th-century lesbian-nun drama “Benedetta,” opens on Dec. 3, IFC Center invites viewers to revisit his scandals of yore. While his early Dutch outrages aren’t much represented (other than “Spetters,” one of the most phallocentric movies ever made, screening on Saturday), you couldn’t ask for a more ice-pick-sharp Friday-night selection than “Basic Instinct” (also showing Sunday through Tuesday), the subject of protests — even during filming — for its depiction of Sharon Stone’s bisexual murder suspect. It stands, along with Verhoeven’s return to Holland, the gripping World War II drama “Black Book” (on Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday), as the high point of his mastery of the erotic thriller.Perhaps less seen, but relevant to “Benedetta,” is “Flesh + Blood,” screening on 35-millimeter film on Sunday. Rutger Hauer’s character leads a group of mercenaries who claim a divine mandate, but the encroaching plague proves impervious to superstition. “Benedetta” will close the series on Dec. 2.BEN KENIGSBERGComedyNo Topic Too HotD.L. Hughley will be at Carolines on Broadway on Friday and Saturday.Phil ProvencioThey say the Thanksgiving table is no place for certain subjects, but those are just the kind of scraps D.L. Hughley can turn into a feast.The comedian, who hosts a nationally syndicated afternoon radio show with a companion series on Pluto TV’s LOL! Network, has been making waves since the late 1990s, when he starred in his own sitcom on ABC and toured as one of “The Original Kings of Comedy” alongside Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, who died in 2008.Hughley had the political savvy to host his own CNN show and the mainstream appeal to compete on “Dancing With the Stars.” In 2012, he created and starred in “D.L. Hughley: The Endangered List,” a mockumentary for Comedy Central that won a Peabody Award. This year, he published his fifth book, “How to Survive America.” He’ll certainly have plenty to talk about when he performs at Carolines on Broadway on Friday and Saturday at 7 and 9:45 p.m. Tickets start at $60, with a two-drink minimum.SEAN L. McCARTHYFive Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More