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Comparing the greats – Bernstein and Sondheim – at the Huntington

Journal Correspondent

Maria Friedman presents “Lenny and Steve” September 18 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre in Boston.

SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – Over the course of the 20th century, it was difficult to swing a musical number without bumping into a hit by either Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein.
From “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” to “Into the Woods” to “Merrily We Roll Along” (which will have its internationally acclaimed British production staged at the Huntington Avenue Theatre from September 8 through October 15), Sondheim is the winningest stage director in history, and at age 87 continues to contribute onstage and off. Born in Lawrence and educated at the prestigious Boston Latin School, the philanthropic and socially-conscious Bernstein, who died in 1990, composed and conducted for orchestras around the world (including the Israel Philharmonic), taught at Tanglewood, and headed up such legendary productions as “Candide” and “On the Town.”

Though the dynamic duo only officially worked together once – on the award-winning 1957 Broadway musical, “West Side Story” – their combined accolades and influences continue to linger. On Monday, September 18, “Merrily” director and famed Sondheim collaborator and champion Maria Friedman will bring them together for a unique theatrical experience as she presents “Lenny & Steve: The Music of Bernstein and Sondheim,” for one night only at the Huntington.
During the show, Friedman will compare and contrast songs from each composer, as well as from their joint masterpiece, “West Side Story.”

Having directed the Olivier Award-winning 2012 revival of “Merrily” in London’s West End, the British musical theater star has strengthened her ties to Sondheim, starring in smash productions of “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Passion,” Sweeney Todd,” and others. She was one of the hand-selected performers in an all-Sondheim BBC special and at the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations in New York and Washington. She also has performed the music of Sondheim and Bernstein as part of her popular solo and cabaret shows at such venues as New York’s Café Carlyle.

When asked what attracts her about the two composers, Friedman says it is the “layers of psychology” that are evident in the repertoire. And while she claims that Bernstein will “lift you up and knock you down and penetrate something immensely personal,” she cites Sondheim’s “humanity,” claiming that, like Shakespeare, he holds a mirror right up to us all and asks, “What do you see?”

“Every word, every note, is so precise and used to dig deeper into what it means to be human,” she asserts. “It’s these layers that make it something truly revelatory.”

Though she is a great fan of both Sondheim and Bernstein’s collections of works, Friedman sees “West Side Story” as a unique correspondence between them, posing it as “the beginning” for Sondheim and the “apex” of Bernstein’s creative genius.

“The layers to this score, musically and emotionally, are astounding,” she observes. “It was watershed for both of them, and a heart-wrenching yet mirthful gift for all of us.”

As she has worked with and performed for only one of the two, Friedman admits that her affection for and connection to Sondheim is stronger than that for Bernstein. In fact, when this production began, the repertoire and title were both different.

“There was no Lenny in the early version of ‘Lenny and Steve,’” she recalls. “It was all Steve.” However, when she fixed her heart on performing “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” music director Jason Carr said, “We couldn’t do that song and leave Bernstein off the bill. So there you had it!”

The more she began to explore Sondheim’s one-time collaborator, the more Friedman saw similarities between the two titans, including one that could be called spiritual.

“I think there are certain keys, chords, relationships to keys that are Jewish,” she suggests. “It’s something ineffable, but when I sing a song written by someone who’s Jewish, it feels like I’ve come home. It’s something in the DNA, in the experience that comes out through the music, and I can tell you that when I’m singing or even just listening to Sondheim or Bernstein … I’ve come home.”

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