NEW YORK – Stephen Sondheim died happily, at the top of his lyrical and compositional game and clearly in love, as his final musical, “Hear We Are,” confirms.
“To love is to live” was a Sondheim belief. So it’s a chance to sit in a theater seat at The Shed in New York and hear not just the same lyrics of “Shakespeare” and “Tesla” but beautiful cascades of new Sondheim music pouring off the stage with a roaring feeling of the end times. The optimism in life that transcends Sondheim’s natural skepticism is as satisfying an experience as I could imagine.
Especially given a production directed by Joe Mantello, orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, and directed by Alexander Gemignani, filled with highly emotional actors who understand that honoring Sondheim means avoiding reverence while doing his job at the highest level possible. Especially its vital internal contradictions.
Featuring a book by David Ives, “Here We Are” is based on two surrealist films by Luis Buñuel: “The Secret Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” about a group of wealthy urbanites trying to find a place to eat dinner, and the even more terrifying “Angel of Destruction.” In ”, mostly the same group of rich people go to a dinner party but find themselves strangely unable to leave the party. Maybe they are no longer alive?
When Sondheim died in 2021, it became clear that the piece was musically unfinished. Act 2, almost the entire book, lacks the numbers that Sondheim would surely have added. So what? This is the show. To prattle on about this is as absurd as complaining about Act 2 of Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign at Sydney Brustein’s Window.” These last works are gifts from great theatrical geniuses. American theater may have been woefully slow to appreciate them — see the miserable treatment of Arthur Miller’s “To Finish the Picture” in New York — but thankfully this production got the right result, with David Zinn’s design work as Sondheim’s last effort. and Natasha Katz gently poke fun at this swanky Hudson Yards venue.
Sondheim would have loved this.
In Act 1 of what Sondheim likes to call “The Blob”—the chatter he so despises in life—actors Rachel Bay Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Tracie Bennett, and Steven Pasquale have fun at the expense of fancy restaurants. and New Yorkers vying for influence there. The satire is rich – Sondheim rhymes Lamborghinis and Vodkatinis, and the server at every restaurant the crew visits is instinctively played by Denis O’Hare. But the real heart of the music, with its lyrical flights and melodic motifs that recall both “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” is the soaring waves that insist on a kind of optimism that Sondheim found in later life, and it comes through very clearly. has come out. Appears in “Road Show”.
“Aren’t We Blessed?” A song goes. “Buy the perfect day for me!” goes to another line. “Buying” is a joke, the desire to be “perfect” is more like the composer’s true feeling. One of the songs Jones sings is “Who’s Gonna Buy It?” From “Oliver.” He is so in love with life. How nice to hear that from a man who wrote this show just before his own end; It followed Ives’s penchant for satire throughout this decidedly quixotic project, but also expressed his awareness of the preciousness of life.
Near the end of Act 1, we meet a young soldier (played by the gorgeous-voiced Jin Ha) who arrives at the awkward dinner party and declares her love for Fritz (the gorgeous Micaela Diamond), one of the millennial teenagers the show satirizes both of them. He is attacking and taking advantage of his own privilege. (Very comforting for us old people, good for Mr. S.) The love song he sings to her is indescribably magnificent:
“This is the end of the world. There is nothing but you. I’ve been looking for love my whole life. I have no other way to go. I just want to be with you, live with you, die with you. I know this much.”
And if there was ever a verse in a song that summed up this show and its value, here it is. Its refined, minimalist and flawless beauty leaps down your throat and into your heart.
David Hyde Pierce will portray a bishop who has ideas about life after death and reaches a remarkable emotional intensity. There are also many beautiful works by Francois Battiste, Amber Gray and Jeremy Shamos. There is so much, and yes, there is so much to desire. Unfortunately, none of us will go on forever.
But “Here We Are.” Thank God. Thank you Sondheim.
through January 21, 2024 at The Shed’s Griffin Theatre, 545 W. 30th St., New York; www.theshed.org
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.