Simply Sondheim Revue Review: Great Musical Theater Without the Theater

While watching “Simply Sondheim,” the third virtual concert of Sondheim songs that I’ve viewed during the pandemic, I suddenly recalled an argument I had with a fellow usher at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, where I worked summers during high school.
I was quite full of my opinions about theater and life, one of which was that serious theater meant straight plays. “Musicals are simply entertainment. “
What about Sondheim, the other usher countered.
He was right, which makes the title “Simply Sondheim” strike me as unfortunate.
Sondheim isn’t simple; his complexity has always been part of his appeal. The title started me thinking about the downside of these revues.
Let me quickly say there is much delight in “Simply Sondheim,” which Signature Theatre of Arlington, Va. is presenting through March 26. It features a new overture by long-time Sondheim orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and 32 songs from a dozen Sondheim musicals (and one movie) that range over half a century of the composer’s career. (See the song list below.) They are performed by a 15-piece orchestra and a dozen singers — a mix of Broadway (Norm Lewis, Emily Skinner and Conrad Ricamora) and DC-area regulars. I expected to be knocked out by the Broadway stars I already knew, but Donna Migliaccio (a co-founder of Signature) also won a new fan for her performances in “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd and a pair of songs from Follies.  

The reasons for these virtual revues – the others I saw were “Take Me to The World” and “Sondheim Unplugged” — are simple and sensible: Sondheim turning 90, and the pandemic. When we experience his work anew, we’re not just honoring his artistry, but also the memory of live theater…and his (and our) survival. At the same time, a raging infection and the need for social distancing has made a new production of a complete musical extremely difficult and risky.
It is important to give Signature its due. As it boasts in the program: “Over the past 30 years, Signature has produced more of Stephen Sondheim’s work than any other theater in the United States. Annually, we present the Stephen Sondheim Award to a theatre legend…As a sign of our special relationship, Mr. Sondheim gave permission to film and release this theatrical concert…”
Conceived by David Loud and Signature co-founder Eric Schaeffer, it was performed in the theater without an audience, and presents 110 minutes of one song after another without any patter in-between (maybe that’s what they mean by the title.) But there is also what one might call intelligent design.
The creative team makes sure there is a mix of the familiar and what will count for many viewers as new discoveries. Five of the songs were performed in all three revues I’ve seen since April. I guess there are certain beloved Sondheim songs that one leaves out at one’s peril. Although it’s sometimes risky for individual performers to open themselves up to comparisons with the greats who made some of these songs their signatures,  I’m certainly not complaining about Norm Lewis’s rousing rendition of “Being Alive” here, or Conrad Ricamora’s exquisite “Finishing the Hat.”
The company also puts over rare musical numbers, like “Something Just Broke” from Assassins – the ensemble recalling where they were and what they were doing when the president (whichever president) was a staccato cacophony of nationwide shock…which, let’s face it, is a good succinct summation of our current moment.
It’s not just the mix but the order. Some are obvious – putting three songs from the musical “Passion” back to back. Others are subtler. There are three songs in a row about sexual frustration – the title song from Saturday Night, “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” from Company, and “Now/Later/Soon” from A Little Night Music.
But creating this new context for a revue doesn’t completely compensate for having removed them from the contexts of their respective musicals. I have sympathy for viewers who don’t know who Frederic, Anne and Henrik are to one another in A Little Night Music. But at least 1. Since the concert is on demand, you can pause it to Google a synopsis, learning that Frederic is Anne’s much older husband and Henrik’s father from his first marriage.) and 2. It’s clear enough from the song that there’s some kind of love triangle going on

The presentation of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is playful, nearly cheerful. Each time the three performers sing a line with the word “zombie” in it

Knock-knock! I’m workin’ all my charms
Knock-knock! A zombie’s in my arms

You impersonate a person better
Than a zombie should

they hold out their arms like the extras in The Walking Dead

Their presentation is in sharp contrast to the meaning of their words, and to the emotion the lyrics express: These are three women who are all dating Bobby; he is so unresponsive to their needs and desires that it feels like mistreatment.
Their exuberance in the song can be read as a cool metaphor for the overactive efforts they exert – to no avail — to establish a relationship with Bobby.
That layering is clever, and thought-provoking – and, I would think, lost, if you haven’t seen the scenes that surround the song. 
This lack of context puts a burden not just on the audience, but on the performers. Rather than having two (or three) hours to inhabit a character, they have three minutes, which encourages posing and gestures in place of convincing characterization.

This may just be another way of saying that, I can’t wait until this era is over, and Sondheim returns (to paraphrase Jerry Herman) back to where he belongs – to the serious theater of fully staged musicals.

Simply Sondheim is online through March 26, 2021. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Lighting by Adam Honoré; sound by Ryan Hickey. Running time: 110 minutes. Tickets: $35.

Song list

The Simply Sondheim Orchestra

Merrily We Roll Along/Bounce
From Merrily We Roll Along & Bounce
Nicholas McDonough, Donna Migliaccio, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray,
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Awa Sal Secka & Bobby Smith

Saturday Night
From Saturday Night
Paul Scanlan, Christopher Mueller & Nicholas McDonough

You Could Drive a Person Crazy
From Company
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Awa Sal Secka & Katie Mariko Murray

From A Little Night Music
Bobby Smith, Katie Mariko Murray & Nicholas McDonough

The Worst Pies in London
From Sweeney Todd
Donna Migliaccio

Another Hundred People
From Company
Solea Pfeiffer

From A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Bobby Smith & Nicholas McDonough

Getting Married Today
From Company
Katie Mariko Murray, Christopher Mueller & Tracy Lynn Olivera

From Company
Bobby Smith, Nicholas McDonough & Paul Scanlan

Every Day a Little Death
From A Little Night Music
Tracy Lynn Olivera & Katie Mariko Murray

From Pacific Overtures
Conrad Ricamora & Christopher Mueller

All for You
From Saturday Night
Awa Sal Secka

Loving You
From Passion
Emily Skinner

Is This What You Call Love
From Passion
Norm Lewis

I Wish I Could Forget You/Sextet
From Passion
Awa Sal Secka, Donna Migliaccio,
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Bobby Smith & Nicholas McDonough

A Weekend in the Country
From A Little Night Music
Nicholas McDonough, Donna Migliaccio, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray,
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Awa Sal Secka & Bobby Smith

Something Just Broke
From Assassins
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Donna Migliaccio, Katie Mariko Murray, Paul Scanlan, Christopher Mueller, Bobby Smith & Nicholas McDonough

Now You Know
From Merrily We Roll Along
Awa Sal Secka, Donna Migliaccio, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Nicholas McDonough & Bobby Smith

Who Could Be Blue/Little White House
From Follies
Nicholas McDonough & Katie Mariko Murray

Country House
From Follies
Donna Migliaccio & Bobby Smith

The Best Thing that Ever Happened
From Bounce
Paul Scanlan, Awa Sal Secka,
Nicholas McDonough, Katie Mariko Murray, Bobby Smith & Donna Migliaccio

Could I Leave You?
From Follies
Donna Migliaccio

The Right Girl
From Follies
Bobby Smith

Goodbye for Now
From Reds
Tracy Lynn Olivera

I Guess This is Goodbye
From Into the Woods
Christopher Mueller

On the Steps of the Palace
From Into the Woods
Katie Mariko Murray

Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By
From Follies & Merrily We Roll Along
Emily Skinner & Solea Pfeiffer

Finishing the Hat
From Sunday in the Park with George
Conrad Ricamora

The Ladies Who Lunch
From Company
Emily Skinner

Being Alive
From Company
Norm Lewis

The Hills of Tomorrow
From Merrily We Roll Along
Nicholas McDonough, Donna Migliaccio, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray,
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Awa Sal Secka & Bobby Smith

Merrily We Roll Along/Bounce (reprise)
From Merrily We Roll Along & Bounce
Nicholas McDonough, Donna Migliaccio, Christopher Mueller, Katie Mariko Murray,
Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Awa Sal Secka & Bobby Smith

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply