Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful a lively monster mash

'Penny Dreadful'

Josh Harnett, Eva Green, Danny Sapani and Timothy Dalton (from left) star in ‘Penny Dreadful,’ premiering tonight on Showtime.


Penny Dreadful, the hugely entertaining new eight-episode Showtime series premiering tonight, takes its title from the lurid serialized horror stories that sold for a penny at Victorian newsstands (the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd is based on one such yarn). Happily, there’s nothing either cheap or dreadful about this lavish and completely unpredictable new period drama.
John Logan, the Chicago-born Tony-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Skyfall), strives to capture the spooky, often gory spirit of those vintage chillers by weaving together recognizable figures from literature, such as ageless lothario Dorian Gray and obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein, with original characters of his own, whom he brings together and sends off on a delightfully macabre mission.
Penny Dreadful opens in 1891 London, in the aftermath of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders. As the police turn their attention to a new spate of gruesome crimes, celebrated explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) comes to enigmatic spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) with a plea for help: His daughter, Mina (the name is a tip-of-the-hat to Dracula), has gone missing. Both Malcolm and Vanessa suspect that supernatural forces are afoot, so they enlist the assistance of American Wild West sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and, sure enough, soon stumble into a nest of feral vampires.
As their quest takes one unexpected turn after another, their party is joined by Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose own studies into the thin veil between life and death dovetail nicely with Malcolm’s mission. Not long after that, the group encounters Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), a consumptive Irish beauty. Other distinguished guest stars include a hilarious Simon Russell Beale as Ferdinand Lyle, a flamboyant Egyptologist, and Helen McCrory as Madame Kali, a (probably fake) clairvoyant.
Beyond that, I won’t spoil any of the surprises awaiting Penny Dreadful viewers – partly because, two episodes in, I honestly don’t know where the hell Logan is going with this nutty narrative. Suffice it to say that both episodes I’ve seen feature absolutely top-tier special effects and, much like those old horror tales snapped up by titillation-hungry Victorians, each episode ends with a jaw-dropping twist that will leave you jonesing for the next installment.
Harry Treadaway

Harry Treadaway stars as Victor Frankenstein in ‘Penny Dreadful.’

PBS delivers a valentine from London’s National Theatre

Judi Dench performs 'Send in the Clowns.'

Judi Dench performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ during ‘ National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage,’ tonight on ‘Great Performances.’


If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Rosenkrantz in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’

‘Six by Sondheim’ an affectionate master class

'Six by Sondheim' celebrates the life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim (second from left) is flanked by performers America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes at the New York premiere of ‘Six by Sondheim.’


It’s obvious that a lot of affection went into Six by Sondheim, a new 90-minute documentary premiering tonight on HBO. The film, which offers a surprisingly intimate and candid look at the life and career of Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who also is an executive producer along with former New York Times drama critic (and longtime Sondheim acquaintance) Frank Rich.
That probably explains how this fascinating film so deftly manages to be both a warm valentine to one of America’s most important living artists as well as an insightful, even revelatory, look at both his personal and professional experiences, reflected in six of his songs.
Told mainly in Sondheim’s own voice, drawn from a variety of interviews over the decades, Six by Sondheim opens with a snippet from a 1977 conversation with Mike Douglas in which Sondheim discusses his fondness for writing about neurotic people.
“ ‘Neurotic’ is one of those fashionable words that to some people means ‘crazy.’ What it means is that everyone has problems. Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people,” he says. “I’m not interested in making people unhappy, but I’m (also) not interested in not looking at life.”
That’s no doubt why, although Sondheim has had his share of commercial disappointments on Broadway, the only show he has trouble defending in hindsight is Do I Hear a Waltz?, a perfectly pleasant 1965 musical on which he collaborated with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. It received polite reviews and offended no one, but ran only about half a year because it had “no passion, no blood, no reason to be,” he recalls.
The first of the six highlighted songs is “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, where Sondheim got his first big break writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s melodies. Although the song remains a favorite for Sondheim, he notes that the show itself was not very well received by many critics and audience members, who found the score insufficiently “hummable,” a charge that has dogged Sondheim throughout his career. (He notes drily that when the movie version of West Side Story became a box-office smash, suddenly everyone had no trouble humming the songs).
Sondheim identifies another spotlighted number, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, as his most autobiographical song, based loosely on his own experiences as he was trying to break into the theater world. Restaged here and performed by Darren Criss (Glee), Jeremy Jordan (Smash), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Laura Osnes (Broadway’s current revival of Cinderella), the catchy number also features a very clever cameo by the composer-lyricist himself.
Other segments are devoted to “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which remains Sondheim’s biggest hit song; “I’m Still Here,” an anthem of survival from Follies that Sondheim based in large part on Joan Crawford’s career; “Being Alive,” the closing ballad from Company; and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George, the song and show that Sondheim says are closest to his heart.
Six by Sondheim also finds Sondheim opening up about his strained relationship with a bitter divorced mother who regarded the birth of her only child as the biggest regret of her life (and sent him a handwritten, hand-delivered letter to that effect when he was 40), falling in love for the first time when he was 60 and why he regards teaching as “a holy profession.”
As we look at Sondheim over the years, we see him transform from the intense lone wolf of the 1970s, when he was still struggling to be taken seriously as a composer, to the Sondheim of today, at 83: happy in a long-term personal relationship, unapologetically proud of his life’s work and still trying to find new ways to push the limits of the American musical form. He wears contentment very well.
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Neil Patrick Harris in good ‘Company’ on PBS

'Great Performances' presents a new concert staging of Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' Friday night on PBS.

Neil Patrick Harris leads an all-star cast in a staged concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical ‘Company’ from ‘Great Performances’ Friday night on PBS.


Emmy Award winner Neil Patrick Harris heads an all-star cast in one of the most iconic musicals about the Big Apple ever written as Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ with the New York Philharmonic Friday night on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
Filmed during a staged concert production at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, this revival of Company marks the second time Great Performances has presented Sondheim’s 1970 musical (with book by George Furth) about Robert, a 35-year-old commitment-phobic Manhattan bachelor, and his gaggle of frustrated girlfriends and meddling married chums. Director John Doyle’s intimate, Tony-winning 2006 revival, anchored by a riveting central performance from Raul Esparza (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), found the show’s cast members doubling as musicians, with each performer playing an instrument.
This new production, staged by Lonny Price, features Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani conducting members of the Philharmonic playing Jonathan Tunick’s original 1970 orchestrations arranged for a 35-piece orchestra. The sound is lusher, fuller and far more extroverted, giving all the musical colors in Sondheim’s ground-breaking score their full due.
Among the actors cast as Robert’s (Harris) married friends are two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Katie Finneran (The Michael J. Fox Show), Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), while Robert’s on-stage girlfriends include Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Tony Award winner Anika Nona Rose, whom fans of The Good Wife will recognize from her recurring role as Peter Florrick’s formidable political nemesis Wendy Scott Carr.
When Company opened in 1970, some Broadway theatergoers and critics were put off by the show’s acerbic perspective on marriage. Even the most devoted of the couples orbiting their mutual friend Robert had at least fleeting moments of ambivalence about staying together, while Robert’s growing interest in finding a mate was rooted mainly in his fears about winding up alone. In the four decades since Company opened, however, the national culture largely has caught up with the show’s somewhat cynical, certainly cautious attitudes toward love and marriage.
Even during its original run, though, almost everyone agreed that Sondheim’s music and lyrics were dazzling, shot through with a wit and sophistication that came to be the composer-lyricist’s calling cards. It wasn’t just Sondheim’s audacious wordplay, which in one song rhymed “personable” with “coercin’ a bull.” It was also the way this music felt fresh and of-the-moment, reflecting the show’s New York setting. In “Another Hundred People,” an Act One number that quickly became my favorite song in the show, an electronic musical pulse deedle-de-deedles away repeatedly in the orchestra while a character sings about living in this “city of strangers,” where new faces are arriving 24/7:

Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

To the college freshman I was when the original cast recording of Company came out in 1970, this was a Broadway musical that sounded like no other, and it wasn’t long before I was schlepping that LP with its purple cover from door to door in my dorm like a deranged Jehovah’s Witness, urging my friends to take a listen.
Sondheim was only 40 when Company opened, with such masterworks as Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George ahead of him. He’s now 83, which explains in part why theater companies and producers are falling all over themselves these days to mount revivals and tributes to his brilliant body of work. This delightful but still surprisingly moving new Company from Great Performances gives us a welcome chance to look back to that moment in Sondheim’s career where everything started to come together in a thrilling way.