No question that Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber are living legends. Even casual theater fans who might not know their names are aware of “West Side Story,” “Cats,” “Gypsy,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeny Todd.”
But most Sondheim and Lloyd Webber fans can’t be regarded as casual. That creates the aura of legendary status for an evening dedicated to the works of these two Broadway musical theater superstars – like Pacific Symphony’s upcoming double bill featuring their works.
It’s a significant event: the opener to Pacific Symphony’s 2019-2020 Pops Season.
Richard Kaufman, the orchestra’s principal pops conductor, holds the baton for the show, titled “An Evening of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
Each innovative in his own way, Sondheim and Lloyd Webber have created a broad array of melodic and compositional hallmarks, facets the symphony will bring to life. But the linchpin of any Sondheim or Lloyd Webber show is how the music and lyrics are wedded – and how that admixture is amplified by the work of star vocalists.
Singers Are in the Spotlight
So the spotlight this weekend will shine brightly on vocal guest artists Debbie Gravitte, Hugh Panaro and Scarlett Strallen.
All three are Broadway and West-End veterans. The individual resumes of any one of the three is enough to bowl over any musical theater devotee. Having all three on stage at once augurs a night of musical theater magic.
Each, as one would expect, has firm connections with the evening’s star composers.
Gravitte’s lengthy list of recordings includes “Unsung Sondheim” and Strallen has portrayed Clara in Sondheim’s “Passion.”
Panaro has starred in more than 2,000 performances of “Phantom,” but his credits are also top-heavy with Sondheim: He’s currently essaying the title role in Barrow Street Theatre’s immersive Off-Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and is a veteran of “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Company.”
Musical theater legend Meredith Willson will have a slice of the stage for Friday night only when guest conductor George Schreyer leads an instrumental version of “Seventy-Six Trombones” from “The Music Man.”
Sondheim and Company Fill Act One
As Sondheim is regarded as the more technically innovative of the two, his works occupy the bulk of Pacific Symphony’s selections, comprising the first half of the evening.
Among the most iconic songs from “Company” are “Being Alive,” which Panaro will essay, and the comedic “Getting Married Today,” which will feature all three stars, and Strallen gets the call for the equally famed “Send In the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.”
Early Sondheim musicals “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Gypsy” get nods with the equally singular “Comedy Tonight,” delivered by the three singers, and “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” by Gravitte.
Rounding out the program’s Sondheim selections are “Broadway Baby” (from “Follies”), sung by Gravitte; Panaro in the “Sweeney Todd” solo “Not While I’m Around”; and a Strallen and Panaro duet of the “Sunday in the Park with George” number “Move On.”
Composers Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne will also bask in Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall’s floodlights when the symphony opens the show with the overture to “Gypsy” and performs an instrumental medley of selections from “West Side Story.”
Sondheim provided lyrics but no music to both shows, which helped launch his career and allow him sufficient clout to compose.
Act Two Belongs to Lloyd Webber
Opening the show’s all-Lloyd Webber second half is the evening’s second non-vocal medley, featuring works from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which can be considered Lloyd Webber’s first mega-hit show.
Of the vocal Lloyd Webber selections being showcased, three are among the composer’s most iconic songs. Strallen will solo “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (“Evita”), Panaro “Music of the Night” (“Phantom”) and Gravitte “Memory” (“Cats”).
The trio of stars teams up for “Any Dream Will Do” (from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), and Strallen and Panaro will deliver the title song from “Phantom of the Opera.”
That total of 15 vocal and three instrumental selections makes for what is a full and presumably satisfying evening.
That assessment holds true both for admirers of Pacific Symphony’s and the legions of fans who have been on board for each successive hit show flowing for more than a half-century from the two superstar musical theater phenoms – living legends in our midst.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.