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A visit to Broadway

May 16, 2010
Walking through the grand lobby of Studio54 (now home to the Roundabout Theater, I gazed up at the sparkling Chandelier that hung from an intricately designed ceiling and breathed in the surroundings. Patrons were milling in and about, most of whom were probably alive when Studio54 was known as a swanky disco hot spot for  the thrill seeking celebrities of the 80’s. Sadly the demographic of the theater goers tonight seems to echo the sentiment being whispered about the press; ¨Theater is dying¨. Perhaps though what it really meant was the the show did not feature a certain Bieber or Patterson fellow. Instead this particular Broadway show and my first ever, was about a man (who I knew very little about) who is admired and revered worldwide as a legend in musical theater. The man is Stephen Sondheim, and the show is Sondheim on Sondheim.
If you’ve tapped your feet to “West Side Story”, or watched with fascination as Johnny Depp sang ragingly about slitting the throats of patrons in his barer shop in “Sweeney Todd”  then you’ve probably heard the name Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of  the hallmarks of American musical theater composing lyrics that while simple, has layers of complexities that reveal deep truths about the human soul. His Broadway shows have captivated the hearts of millions worldwide and he as amassed multiple Tony, Grammy and theater awards. Yet I hadn’t known much about Mr. Sondheim at all, in fact I had never been to a Broadway show ever!
So you’re probably wondering what prompted me to jump on an 8hr car trip to New York City (besides Mother’s day ofcourse) and grab rush tickets to a show celebrating a man I know very little about. The answer is loud and clear: Vanessa Williams! I am a fan. No let me rephrase, I am a Super fan! Surprising I know, since Vanessa and my mother are about the same age! My love or obsession as my friends are quick to pipe in, began when I was an impressionable teenager growing up in Trinidad. Vanessa was sensationally doing a cha cha cha in her movie ¨Dance With Me¨ leaving me hypnotized not just by her superb dancing and striking beauty but those eyes! Vanessa Williams has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in a woman! After the movie ended, as was the custom in Trinidad programming in those days, they would play a music video. Yes you guessed it- there she was singing about the blue corn moon in ¨Colors of the Wind!¨ My jaw hit the floor. Acting, Dancing, and now singing, this woman is amazing! That’s the night I became a fan. Over the years, I have been to 3 concerts, seen all her movies and watched religiously as Vanessa hilariously reinvented “bitch” on Ugly Betty. It was only natural I’d follow Vanessa to the Broadway stage!
Make no mistake, Studio54 has a certain aura about it, the type of awed feeling you get when you watch the discovery channel showcasing the remains of pyramids. You visualize kings and pharaohs riding grand carriages about. You picture revelries and immerse yourself into it. The same thing happens at Studio54, only instead of mummies, you see disco lights pulsing in tune to music of the early 80’s. I imagined Vanessa Williams “The Right Stuff” would have killed at this joint, and forgave the cramped seating in the now theater. If you’re a tall person prepare to be uncomfortable.
Sitting 2nd row in the mezzanine, I had a very nice view of the stage from the raised platform and quickly tweeted jokingly about being the only person in that row. (Was it because I was black?” ). On the stage, a wall of individual flat screen panels stood together, forming the words Stephen Sondheim in scrabble like block letters. Soon the lights dimmed and the crowd grew silent.
I have chosen to write the review largely spoiler free as it may be adapted for my school publication.

After watching all (almost 3hrs) of the show there is no mistake who the true star is. Its the man Sondheim himself. He is witty, charming, engaging, self deprecating and inspiring. You laugh with him as he recounts how certain songs came about (as well as cut). Sometimes you almost wish the singers didn’t interrupt his commentary! That’s not to say the singers weren’t stars as well. I hadn’t heard any of them before and walked away very impressed with them ALL! Norm Lewis knocked a solo out the park with such clear, strong and powerful vocals, I shivered at the emotion he poured into it.
The young cast members Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton and Matthew Scott performed admirably. Erin Mackay has a promising career in theater ahead of her. Such a lovely voice! I had the pleasure of meeting her backstage after the performance and she was such a doll! I also greeted Mathew Scott and Leslie Kritzer and they signed my playbill! (Eaun Mortan ignored me and the others in line *shrugs shoulders*). The cast has many group numbers, I can’t remember the exact songs and order off the bat but the one I liked best was “Everyone can Whistle”.
Barbara Cook should not be doing a broadway show at 82, yet you’re extremey delighted that she is. When she sings “In Buddy’s eyes I don’t get older¨, you feel the wistfulness of the song and appreciate the feelings Sondheim attempted to convey. Cook also brought lots of comedy and gags including a bit of frontal exposure! While she is older now, her voice and stage presence in the audience eyes will always be beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, Vanessa Williams is stunning. I mean really stunning on stage and what is even more breathtaking, is that she looks so happy, so at home on Broadway that you cant help but smile along when ever she does a number. I may be extremely biased, but the show seem to always get instantly better when Vanessa came on stage. Whether she crooned sadly in ¨We had a Good Thing Going¨ or slinked about seductively in “Ah But Underneath” Vanessa knocked it out the park. On a side note, I was very impressed with how easily Vanessa stutted about in high heels through out the show, including moving about the moving stage props!
The highlight of the show really is also the most emotionally sad. After the second act begins, Sondheim talks about love, him never being married and therefore having no idea how to write a song about married people. He also delves into his tepid relationship with his mother and how it translated into his music. The two consummate pros, Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams sat on two chairs and sang a duet so  haunting, so wrenching, I misted up a bit. The director James Lapine took two famous Sondheim songs “Losing My Mind” from Follies and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along and intertwined them in a melody that echoed heartbreak.
Tom Wopat was at his vocally best leading with Williams on “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. Perhaps this song is an embodiment of Sondheim venting against his mother’s words evident in his lyrics “Careful the things you say, children will listen”. The cast joins in and the melody soars.
Sondheim on Sondheim is also technically a very well created show. The use of multiple flat panel monitors that changed configurations through out the show, showing the footage of Mr. Sondheim as singers flitted about it, on it and under it was quite impressive. The set also featured 4 seats that moved about on its own accord(probably remote controlled). I especially loved that you could see the silhouette of the orchestra behind the whole scene on a balcony. Ambient lighting helped create the scenes for each of the musical numbers. When Mr. Sondheim began to talk about working on Epiphany from”Sweeney Todd”, a blood red lighting filled the stage, the monitors oriented themselves into glass-sharp configurations with dark red splotches of blood and grime. Sondheim on a screen started the melody on his piano and Wopat continued the song on stage. Sadly I am not quite sure he is suited to singing this song. It fell a little flat perhaps because it’s such a powerful song of vengeance and anguish.
The entire setup of wall of shape-shifting monitors made Mr. Sondheim seem, like a very real member of cast even if he is not physically in the building! In fact before the intermission, Sondheim announced that he was taking a break and the audience should too. He then proceeded to nap comfortable on a couch for 15 minutes!
After the show I had a mission. Yes you guessed it again. Find Vanessa Williams! It had always been a dream to say the words “I love you” to the perfect woman. As fate would have it, I am not married so the next best thing was to say it to the woman I idolized. Being the social networking junkie I am, I tweeted for info on how to get backstage and fellow super fan Jazmine(@willie_roxs) promptly responded! (53rd Street)! There was a barrier setup with a hulking body guard growling “Line up”. I had my red marker, playbill, More Magazine featuring Vanessa and camera ready. Almost on cue, out came Erin Mackay! Wow that was fast!
After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, the moment I had been waiting, dreaming and praying for:
Vanessa Williams came out the door and was immediately surrounded by well wishers and fans. I stayed in line patiently, awed and star struck. Eventually she came forward and said “Hi”! AAAHHHHHHHH my heart was racing, I was grinning and trembling at the same time. Vanessa is so gorgeous up-close, so intimidating that it can be unnerving, but then she smiled and you realized she is just like you and me. She  is human, a beautiful human, but human non the less. The words “I love you” and “I am a huge fan” found its way out my mouth. Vanessa said “Thanks I really appreciate it” and signed my magazine. She then stood to take a picture with my and my camera froze.  CRAP!
Vanessa laughed and said “Awww its not working?”  I suppose she understood my panic and stood a moment longer while a guy in line taking the photo fumbled with the buttons. Then snap!
A photo to be treasured for years! Soon after Vanessa was whisked away by the buddy guard.
I immediately tweeted and face-booked my excitement and ran up the street doing a victory dance. I forgot to wait in line to see Barbara Cook!!! By the time I remembered, I had reached times square!
All in all I highly recommend seeing this show! If even a novice like me can walk away from theater with an appreciation for a man I never knew then you may be swayed as well. The entire cast is pretty good. Though I thought Wopat was a bit weak in some numbers, he did improve and deliver well in the second half. The highlights of the show Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams are worth the price of admission alone. Most importantly though, you will spend an evening with an interesting man willing to poke fun at himself (he wrote a song “God” that pretty tongue in cheek poking fun at his celebrity in musical theater) and also open up about his personal life and relationships. In fact I found myself nodding along as Sondheim talked at length about liking to be alone because he was an only child. Yes Sondheim I am exactly the same way. I hereby demand you go see a Broadway show now! For more information on Sondheim on Sondheim, visit The Roundabout Theatre.
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