Review: A Musical Legend's Life Work is Honored in 'Sondheim on Sondheim'
"Sondheim on Sondheim" at Farmers Alley Theatre. Photo by Klose2U Photography


In the world of musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim might as well be God.

The celebrated songwriter who died in 2021 was so fully aware of his deity-like status, he openly poked fun at it, penning a song in response to the 1995 headline in New York Magazine, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”

“You have to have something to believe in. Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate. Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname: God!” sing the cast to open the second act of “Sondheim on Sondheim”, the 2010 musical revue currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre as part of this year’s Gilmore Festival.

Conceived and directed on Broadway by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the show is a delightful tribute to the 20th Century’s most innovative and influential musical theatre composer and lyricist—and his incomparable contributions that arguably revolutionized the art form. Known for creating character-driven songs central to moving the plot forward, his music is infamously challenging to sing, criticized for not being particularly hummable, and utterly unforgettable.

Songs from “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum”, “West Side Story”, “Company”, “Merrily We Roll Along”, “Follies”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Passion”, “Into the Woods”, “Assassins”, “Gypsy”, and “Sunday in the Park with George”, are but some of the featured numbers in “Sondheim on Sondheim”. Snippets from his lifetime’s body of work, including songs well-known, revised, and cut from musicals are interpreted and performed live by the tremendous cast of eight, with solos, duets, and big ensemble numbers interspersed with projected video recordings of largely charming interviews with Sondheim himself. 

The interviews provide the show’s structure and turn Sondheim into the primary storyteller who offers revelations about his creative process as well as reflections on his personal and professional life that segue beautifully into songs that illustrate his stories.

For example, he tells a poignant story about how he discovered his mother regretted giving birth to him and what directly follows is an especially moving rendition of “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods”. 

With exceptionally imaginative, colorful lighting design from Lanford J.Potts that shapes mood and emotion; and a simple, malleable set, with complementary costumes by Director Kathy Mulay, the 30-plus songs often feel new, even as they’re largely untethered from the scores and shows to which they belong. Mulay stages each number with minimal technical elements and in so doing puts the performers’ unique interpretations of the songs center stage.

Even without fully-fledged plots to hold them up, the performers create powerful characters through these gorgeous songs that sound wonderful under music direction from Chris Gray and a really terrific 9-piece band upstage, including Gray on the Steinway grand piano on loan from The Gilmore.

Universally, the performers sing songs that are well-suited to their voices, with highlights including Denene Mulay Koch’s “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” and “In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies”; Jeremy Koch’s “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd”and “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park with George”; and Aaron Pottenger’s “Being Alive” from “Company”.

The entire cast is wonderfully eclectic and diverse and also includes gorgeous voices and terrific acting from Jason Long, Meredith Mancuso, Rowan McStay, Patrick Poole, and Ciarra Stroud, who each create marvelous characters and a wide range of emotionality through song, making the performance, at turns, hilarious, sad, frightening, contemplative, thought-provoking, and joyful. 

It’s a tall order to make a cohesive and entertaining show from the disparate parts of one God-like artist’s tremendous life’s work, and Farmers Alley Theatre creates real artistry with “Sondheim on Sondheim”. The man, the myth, the legend, the stories behind his creative process and collaborations, and the phenomenal work that is his legacy deserve nothing less. 

No doubt God is proud.

Sondheim on Sondheim
Farmers Alley Theatre
April 25-May 19