Being Alive - A Sondheim Celebration

TheatreWorks Bright World Premiere Revue of Sondheim Love Songs

By: - Jun 11, 2024

Stephen Sondheim belongs at the head of the elite Pantheon of stage musical composers.  Not only was he one of the few great ones to write both his own music and words, but his music was noted for its complexity and his lyrics for being perhaps the most sophisticated and witty among successful stage musical writers.  TheatreWorks has produced 20 of Sondheim’s musicals, so it is fitting that Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley and longtime Musical Director William Liberatore have collaborated to create a revue of Sondheim songs.  An adoring audience was duly enchanted by great music and a talented cast at the opening night of the world premiere, “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.”

Several Sondheim revues were already in circulation, among the better known are “Side by Side by Sondheim,” “Sondheim on Sondheim,” and “Marry Me a Little,” so what could be added to the anthology?  Past homages take varying approaches – a simple plot line tied together with songs; a “biggest hits of” jukebox musical; a collection connected by filmed commentary from the honoree.  Since Sondheim wrote until his recent death, and the revues date from as early as 1976, these composite pieces miss his later work to greater or lesser extent.

Kelley and Liberatore decided to explore the theme of love in their collection.  Even Sondheim’s least romantic shows involve relationships, usually with songs about love and its complications.  MTI, the copyright holder of 15 Sondheim musicals, imposed a set of rules that among other limitations prohibited songs from shows that they don’t own and restricted the number of songs from any one show to three – still a lot to choose from. The conceit to perform the tunes is that the artists are preparing for a revue.  Act 1 is an informal run through, while Act 2 is a dress rehearsal, albeit with totally different songs.

The performers enlisted are three familiar faces at TheatreWorks (Melissa WolfKlain, Noel Anthony, and Nick Nackishima) and three fresh ones (Anne Tolpegin, Solona Husband, and Sleiman Alahmadieh).  They are supported by Liberatore on piano and Artie Storch on drums. 

The creators mined the eligible songbook to find much more than just familiar songs from Sondheim’s most successful musicals.  They found gems from more obscure shows like “Love is a bond” from “Saturday Night” and “Everybody says don’t” from “Anyone Can Whistle,” as well as songs that were cut from other musicals but picked up in previous revues, such as the suggestive “Can that boy foxtrot” (from “Marry Me a Little” and cut from “Follies”) led by a sassy Melissa, and “The wedding is off” (from “Sondheim on Sondheim” and cut from “Company”).

There are even instances of songs with music from one source and lyrics from another as in the music of “Putting it together” from “Sunday in the Park with George” while the lyrics are from the revue “Putting It Together.”  Context and delivery can make all of the difference in how a song is perceived, one example being “Kiss me” from “Sweeney Todd.”  The musical itself is dark and propulsive, and the song so rapid fire that the emotion that underlies it can be lost.  Not so in this performance by Solona and Sleiman.

Certainly there is representation from Sondheim’s transformative works like “Company” and “Follies,” but two of the most affecting songs come from “A Little Night Music.”  Probably his most performed and beloved song is “Send in the clowns,” a mournful despondency about disappointment and mistakes, which is given a tender rendition by Anne with an assist from Noel.

The other magnificent number from the same show is “The miller’s son” sung by the vibrant Solona.  Along with many other Sondheim songs, it possesses lyrics that challenge and that are delivered rhythmically at a gallop.  This one is a little unusual in that it contains two main musical idioms, including folk portions that are appropriate to the character singing.  In “A Little Night Music,” it is sung by a servant who has a minor role.  The song ponders the class system and the possibility of rising (or falling) in social stature, yet that the glory of physical love can be enjoyed by any and all.

Final mention goes to “Move on” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” in which Dot declares to George that he is complete, but she is unfinished, which she will remain if she stays with him.  This sad end of the love cycle is sung emotionally by Melissa and Nick, a great comic who also reveals his singing chops. 

Sondheim lovers will revel in the coordinated selection of 36 songs, and all theater goers should appreciate the talent of the cast and the professionalism of the production.  The revue lacks real connective tissue other than one liners that lead from one song to the next, so those looking for a plot won’t find it here.  Aficionados will be able to fill in many of the blanks, while those less familiar will not have a sense of the context that makes each song relevant to its show or how different these fine treatments are from other interpretations.  Most tuns work well with the simplicity of the musical accompaniment, but some would benefit from support by more instruments.

“Being Alive – A Sondheim Celebration,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is a world premiere conceived by Director Robert Kelley and Music Director William Liberatore, produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through June 30, 2024.