I’ve missed out on the Ordway’s well-received “Broadway Songbook” shows until now, and so I am delighted the center has expanded the series into this year. In September, the Ordway (a Knight Arts grantee) offered an homage to the musical theater legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Hart. This week, the center’s back with a new Songbook installment spotlighting Stephen Sondheim, whose continuing career as a composer and lyricist for stage and screen now spans more than 60 years. His most famous Broadway credits include “Sunday in the Park with George,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company,” “Follies,” Sweeney Todd,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Into the Woods;” partnering with the composers Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne (among others) he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” respectively.
It’s an informal, evening-length show in the Ordway’s intimate McKnight Theatre; the set includes nothing more than a piano and some stools. The performances consist of Sondheim songs and stories compiled by the center’s producing artistic director, James Rocco, who also serves as the show’s host. Rocco’s a natural raconteur, singing a tune or two here and there as the night progresses, regaling the audience between songs with behind-the-curtain anecdotes and dishy Broadway apocrypha. The vibe is inviting and unpretentious.
The evening’s performers are a varied cross-section of Twin Cities musical theater talent: Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Joel Liestman, Dieter Bierbrauer, Regina Marie Williams, Kersten Rodau and Erin Schwab. Over the course of a couple of hours, they deliver a bevy of Sondheim numbers, 24 in all – among them, beloved songs like “Send in the Clowns,” “Not While I’m Around,” “Being Alive,” but also more than a few deep catalog, seldom heard surprises.
Taken together, the mix of songs and stories offer a revealing, bird’s-eye view on the composer’s body of work. Heard in this way, Sondheim’s songs run the gamut of styles and moods, but all are marked by his unmistakable expansiveness, his irrepressible optimism and affection for ordinary folks looking to catch a break – full of underdogs and working stiffs, cock-eyed dreamers and star-crossed hopefuls.
Rocco tells us Sondheim’s music is notorious among singers – the songs are rife with complex lyrics and fiendishly difficult melodic shifts. It’s all the more impressive, then, that the assembled “Broadway Songbook” performers make Sondheim look so easy, pulling off his breath-defying riffs with aplomb. Erin Schwab – a singer new to me but a fixture in the cabaret scene in town – merits particular mention: her wickedly clever rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch” (from “Company”) just killed, bringing the house down the night I saw the show.
I can see why the “Broadway Songbook” shows often sell out. It’s an entirely engaging way to get a bit deeper understanding of the composers behind this catalog of great American popular music.
“Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Stephen Sondheim” is on stage for one more weekend, running through January 27th in the McKnight Theater at Ordway Center for Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, St. Paul. For tickets and more information, visit www.ordway.org.