Imagine being invited to spend a few casual hours at Stephen Sondheim's house. He noodles a bit at the piano. He tells a juicy anecdote about Ethel Merman. He lies on his comfy sofa and shows you how he writes (yellow pads, soft lead pencils), how he stalls to keep himself from writing, how he measures out exactly an ounce and a half of liquor at a time, so, if he wants more, he has to get up and get it.
Every so often, eight singers, including no less a Sondheim specialist than Barbara Cook, illustrate live in the theater what he has been describing on video about the creation of "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "Assassins," "Sunday in the Park With George" - you know, selections from a dozen or so of the world's great musicals.
Welcome to a new form on Broadway: the docu-musical. Wondering perhaps what to give a friend who has everything (including star-encrusted tributes and a theater named after him) for his 80th birthday, author-director James Lapine has come up with the revealing, fascinating, utterly charming "Sondheim on Sondheim."
Lapine, Sondheim's frequent collaborator, cannily and irreverently puts together childhood photos, historic interviews and tapes made for the occasion. These are projected on a grid of 35 rearranging squares. A hidden onstage orchestra plays new and classic arrangements for obscure and favorite songs.
One would love to report that the performances were as transforming as the documentary. The cast is fine, especially the younger contingent: Leslie Kritzer, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, Matthew Scott and, particularly, Norm Lewis. But, for all his likability and theater experience, Tom Wopat should not be expected to compete with the giants who have sung "Finishing the Hat."
For all her warmth and Tony-nominated history with "Into the Woods," Vanessa Williams doesn't touch the raw profundity of "Losing My Mind." Cook, whose Sondheim cabarets have been revelations, was not in top vocal shape at the preview I saw. Still, there are few artists who can find the shimmering ambiguities in such art songs as "Beautiful."
Even without perfect casting, this is a smart revue, an enlightening primer and an intimate portrait of a famously private, complicated man. He may be having the birthday, but this is a priceless gift to the theater.
WHAT "Sondheim on Sondheim"
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., Manhattan
INFO $36.50-$126.50; 212-719-1300; round abouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Imperfect casting, but revealing and utterly charming.