NOTES: Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Sondheim in concert at Town Hall
Two weeks ago, I attended what might long rank among the most magical and special concerts I will ever have the privilege to see.
For the 50th monthly one-night-only concert in his residency with downtown music venue SubCulture, composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”, “The Last Five Years”) built an unforgettable evening around one prompt: who do I most want to work and make music with?
The answer? Stephen Sondheim. And Katrina Lenk. Oh, and Shoshana Bean, Joshua Henry, and Rob McClure. No big deal.
The sold-out concert at Town Hall, directed by Daisy Prince, raised $300k for the Brady Campaign against gun violence and provided a veritable feast of “pinch-me” moments—from a cameo appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “Franklin Shepherd Inc.” with Mr. Brown, to Katrina Lenk’s jaw-dropping rendition of “The Last Midnight” from “Into the Woods”, and Stephen Sondheim playing the piano and singing “Good Thing Going” from his beloved 1981 flop “Merrily We Roll Along” (yes, there were tears across the auditorium).
Mr. Sondheim, a living legend at age 89, has rarely performed his own music in public. As the greatest lyricist of the musical theatre, and arguably its most important innovator, he changed the trajectory of the form with boundary-pushing works like “Company”, “Follies”, and “Sunday in the Park with George”.
When Katrina Lenk sang the words “Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around” from the song “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd” while looking directly into Mr. Sondheim’s eyes as he mouthed the words back to her, she expressed a sentiment shared by musical theatre fans worldwide. After all, Mr. Sondheim has at least one more new musical in the works—an adaption of two films by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel.
Mr. Brown was joined on stage by a fabulous 15-piece band conducted by his wife, composer Georgia Stitt, that lushly performed songs from the composer’s impressive catalogue, including “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Honeymoon in Vegas”, and his 2018 solo album, “How We React and How We Recover”, in addition to a host of Sondheim tunes.
Two special treats included a wonderful song from “The Connector”, a forthcoming musical by Mr. Brown, and “Inconceivable/Nothing’s Bigger Than Kong”, a song from the full score Mr. Brown composed for “King Kong” the musical before departing the project. With no disrespect to the current production on Broadway, I’d love to hear the balance of Mr. Brown’s score (and suspect I’d much prefer it to Eddie Perfect’s unremarkable pop songs).
While Mr. Sondheim joined Mr. Brown for only 30 minutes or so of the nearly three hour concert, that segment included some delightful banter, and a unique musical exercise. Explaining that every song consists of harmony, rhythm, and melody, and that it is the harmony that characterizes a composer’s work, Mr. Sondheim took the melody of “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” from Mr. Brown’s 1998 musical “Parade”, and wrote his own accompaniment, free from pre-conception. The result was fascinating: a Jason Robert Brown melody that unmistakably sounded like a Stephen Sondheim song. Mr. Brown promised he’d deliver the reverse in a future concert.
The most memorable moment of the entire enterprise, though, will always be Sondheim signing Sondheim. The evening had the feel of an historic event, one of which its fortunate attendees, myself included, will long remember.