Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams
in Sondheim on Sondheim
(© Richard Termine)
Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams
in Sondheim on Sondheim
(© Richard Termine)
Because the indisputably brilliant composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has towered above the musical theater pantheon for the last 50 years, retrospectives of the great man's work come at us regularly. This has been especially true during 2010, his 80th-birthday year, and for which the Roundabout Theatre Company has created Sondheim on Sondheim, now at Studio 54, which should keep both Sondheim aficionados and new converts alike satisfyingly entertained.

Throughout the 2-hour-and-40 minute piece, which has been conceived and directed by Sondheim's longtime collaborator James Lapine, a videotaped Sondheim talks pleasantly about his career on grid-like screens (designed by Beowulf Borrit) and Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Leslie Kritzer, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, and Matthew Scott (all wearing Susan Hilferty's drab street clothes) sing to illustrate his points.

Unfortunately, much of the show's first act borders on the offensive in the way it often features annoying too-cute medleys and otherwise ill-reconceived approaches to Sondheim's work. In the considerably better second act, however, the singers are allowed to warble most of their gorgeous material in a more rewarding fashion.

Cook -- whose glorious soprano is marked nowadays by tarnished glory -- delivers "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Send in the Clowns" as if giving a master-class in the art of music-comedy interpretation. Williams stands out in the suggestive "Ah, But Underneath," a song added to the London revival of Follies, because, as Sondheim explains, Diana Rigg was more a singer than the dancer Alexis Smith had been in New York doing The Story of Lucy and Jessie. (Here, by the way, stager Dan Knechtges earns his pay.)

Among the show's other musical highlights: master balladeer Wopat scores with "Finishing the Hat"; Lewis booms "Being Alive" brilliantly; the lithe Mackey gets her chance to shine with the title tune from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" (for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music); and Kritzer shows her mettle on "Now You Know." In addition, the entire ensemble recreates the intricate, utterly disarming octet "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" (from Follies) to excellent effect.

For many audience members, Sondheim talking about himself -- easily and articulately as it happens - is the show's major selling-point. He's forthcoming (except when he isn't) and the subjects run the spectrum from devastating (a story about his aloof mother, Foxy Leshin) to insipid (a lame joke about sending his nail clippings to the Smithsonian).

As for his work, Sondheim declares the controversial Assassins the show with which he's most satisfied, Sunday in the Park with George the one closest to his heart, and Do I Hear a Waltz? the one to which he wishes he hadn't devoted a year and a half. And while there's no reason to expect the songwriter to comment on everything he's ever written, he never discusses material he's contributed to films -- not even the 1991 Oscar-winning "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy. (Nor is any of his film music performed in the show.)

Another subject Sondheim doesn't get around to with any elaboration is his composing -- other than in vintage footage of him describing the intentions behind some Sweeney Todd measures. He's traditionally lionized for his lyrics, but his unfailingly irresistible melodies prove to be equally important to the enjoyment of Sondheim on Sondheim.