In a Saturday afternoon recital that was the result of years of planning and commissioning, pianist Anthony de Mare opened his performance by making a verbal case for Stephen Sondheim's standing as a top American composer. That should be a no-brainer for theater lovers, who have long known Sondheim as the reigning king of musicaldom.
But de Mare's proclamation was for the Van Cliburn Foundation crowd—the performance, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim, was on the Cliburn at the Modern series—who should consider Sondheim up there with Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein.
And then he set out to prove it, playing works inspired by Sondheim songs by such noted composers as William Bolcom, Steve Reich and Jake Heggie.
The reworkings had each composer's style stamped on them. The tunes included Gabriel Kahane's "Being Alive" (from Company), Fred Hersch's "No One Is Alone" (Into the Woods) and, in one of the more interesting versions, David Rakowski's take on "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Company), with bossa nova lines and an evocation of the character, Joanne, who sings that song. Hard to do, considering those lyrics (and Elaine Stritch's original performance) are probably among the best known of any Sondheim tune, except maybe "Send in the Clowns."
Bolcom's piece was called "A Little Night Fughetta," and used "Send in the Clowns" and "Anyone Can Whistle" (from the musical of the same name). In a similar vein, Ricardo Lorenz's "The Worst [Empanadas] in London" was a tribute to Sweeney Todd, taken mostly from "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest," but also "Pretty Women" and "My Friends," and infused several Latin American styles, including meringue.
Paul Moravec and Jake Heggie each gave new titles to their songs, taken from lyrics in their respective selections. Moravec's was "I Think About You," riffing on "Losing My Mind" from Follies (and the descent into madness was evident in de Mare's performance); and Heggie created "I'm Excited. No You're Not" from A Little Night Music's "A Weekend in the Country."
The repetition Steve Reich is known for was apparent in "Finishing the Hat" (from Sunday in the Park with George), with a second piano part that was recorded and played under it (also played by de Mare).
Ethan Iverson's "Send in the Clowns" was written as if it were played spontaneously on an upright piano in a saloon. Sounding closer to their source material than many of the tunes were Ricky Ian Gordon's "Every Day a Little Death" (A Little Night Music); and Kenji Bunch's "The Demon Barber (A Fantasia on 'The Ballade of Sweeney Todd')."
All the while, de Mare would introduce the sections and stress Sondheim's fondness for collaboration, creating a show as a joint venture not just with the book writers (and early on, the lyricists, until he took on that role), but with directors, designers and performers, too. That's something he learned from one of his mentors, Oscar Hammerstein.
And as if to upturn that notion, Shields-Collins Bray, the Fort Worth Symphony's principal pianist who curates the Cliburn at the Modern series, and introduces the guests, had some fun as a collaborator with de Mare. Doing the page-turner duties during Eric Rockwell's "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" (from Company), he'd miss his cues, stand between pianist and audience, run off with the music and return only to place it upside-down, and do another annoying things that might have turned up in pianists' nightmares of psychotic page turners.
Considering that Rockwell is known for the clever musical parody The Musical of Musicals: The Musical—in which the styles of Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jerry Herman and the teams of Kander and Ebb and Rodgers and Hammerstein are each parodied using the same melodrama plotline ("I can't pay the rent" / "you must pay the rent!" )—it seemed entirely fitting.
Send in the clowns, indeed.