A week ago, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be attending the New York Pops‘ celebration of Stephen Sondheim‘s 80th birthday. There was a possibility that I might be attending with my blog/twitter friend Kelly Cameron, who was covering the show for Broadway World. Then as the week progressed, I received an invite to the dress rehearsal the afternoon of the performance, an opportunity on which I pounced. I figured, if I couldn’t see the actual concert, I could at least have a chance to hear the selections. Kate Baldwin and Christiane Noll, in my estimation the two best actresses in a musical last season, were singing as well as Alexander Gemignani and Aaron Lazar. Singing legend Marilyn Maye was a very special guest artist, on hand to sing “I’m Still Here.” The NY Pops musical director and conductor is Steven Reineke. Choral support was provided by Essential Voices USA (under the direction of Judith Clurman).
There are few performing spaces that I would consider “pure” and Carnegie Hall is one of them. Every time I enter Stern Auditorium my breath is taken away. It’s so pristine and majestic, yet intimate. The acoustics are stunning, some of the best I’ve ever heard (I could clearly hear every instruction Reineke gave the orchestra while facing the stage wall). Since I was a guest and not a patron of the hall, I entered through the stage door and checked in with security. I was then let into the hall by way of the side entrance. The first ten or twelve rows were taped off, but we were allowed to sit anywhere behind that.
Unlike most dress rehearsals, this was not a formal run-through but a working rehearsal in mufti. The singers and players were in jeans and comfortable clothes. Reineke took to the podium and got things off to a start with the Overture from Merrily We Roll Along. While the sound man and stage manager worked out kinks with microphones, placing and monitor issues, Reineke stayed at his podium and led the rehearsal with patience and poise. He ran a smooth rehearsal; there was time for the orchestra to review its parts as well as the singers to fine tune their lyrics and minimalist staging. Songs were stopped and started and refinements were made.
My friend Lauren and I sat in awe as the actors, seemingly stress free, polished their material. It was a lot of work and I’m sure a lot of pressure to pull it all together for the evening show. Lauren is an actress and told me that the experience was beneficial for her to witness, almost like a master class in performance preparation.The invited dress audience was made up of friends of the performers and Carnegie Hall and we were all quite taken with them. The work session was obvious longer than the actual concert, but I was enraptured hearing many of the original arrangements and a plethora of selections from Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods. It was also lovely hearing “I Remember” from Evening Primrose as well as selections from Saturday Night. I was a little bummed there was nothing from Assassins or my beloved Pacific Overtures (the latter has been painfully overlooked in every one of these birthday concerts).
For me, it was really a joy to hear the orchestrations. Many of the original arrangements were used (from Jonathan Tunick and Michael Starobin). There were some points where the orchestra ran through sections without the singer: I got to hear the final section of “Another Hundred People” and Reineke had the horn practice the final run for “A Weekend in the Country.” I got chills when when “Weekend” started. It was my first time hearing it live with those charts. It culminated gloriously when the Essential Voices stood in for the Liebslieders in the final section. I sat there in awe, silently screaming “Encore!” in my head. Another musical moment that has always stopped me in my tracks: the release toward the end of “Move On” – when I was in a production of Sunday, I made it a point to be backstage when that moment happened; it’s utterly thrilling every single time.
What I found out just before the rehearsal started was that I was also going to be at the sold out concert that evening (good thing I was well-dressed), so for me it was going to be interesting to see how it would turn out in actual performance. Kelly arranged it so that I would cover for her. Suddenly I was seated on the aisle in the parquet with lots of glorious Broadwayites and concertogers. In a matter of hours, here I was covering the event for Broadway World. There was a bit of deja vu, as I basically retraced my entire afternoon. It was theme and variation in the best tradition of Sondheim. It struck me as surreal and amusing at the same time. I also had a lovely chat with the woman next to me, whose son was singing with the Essential Voices and come down from Boston. (One of her fondest recollections was of the legendary Wall to Wall Sondheim Event in 2005; she and her son spent the entire day basking in Sondheim!) I’ll have more on the actual concert later…