Songwriter anthology revues can be a tricky prospect, especially when you go back repeatedly to the same piano bench. The Sondheim songbook has been mined at least six times — and that’s only counting authorized affairs — with diminishing returns since the sparkling “Side by Side by Sondheim” in 1977. Leave it to James Lapine, librettist-director of the composer-lyricist’s “Sunday in the Park” and “Into the Woods,” to come up with a secret ingredient to lift “Sondheim on Sondheim” out of the pack: the fascinating Stephen Sondheim himself.
Not Sondheim in the flesh, but Sondheim-as-talking-head hovering over the stage. Numerous interviews with the erudite and cantankerous songwriter — most conducted recently at either his Turtle Bay townhouse or his woodsy Connecticut retreat, but with some archival pieces going back until 1962 — have been mined for provocative statements that are illuminated by an octet of singing actors. We get to hear the songs, yes, and some of them exceptionally well performed. But Sondheim is our guide, which makes “Sondheim on Sondheim” much more than just another revue.
Barbara Cook, who by the calendar is older than the 80-year-old songwriter, leads the cast. Lapine finds the perfect way to use her: pretty much as a comedienne, except when she’s singing one of those imperishable ballads. Cook scores again and again, with such tender beauties as “Take Me to the World,” “Loving You,” and especially “Send in the Clowns.”
The nominal co-stars are less successfully used. Vanessa Williams, who headlined the Lapine-directed 2002 revival of “Into the Woods,” is given spots that don’t quite suit her, like “Ah, But Underneath” (from the London “Follies”) and “Smile, Girls” (cut from “Gypsy”). Tom Wopat fares better in places, but it seems unfair to ask him to perform the admittedly difficult “Finishing the Hat” and “Epiphany.”
The five featured performers are considerably stronger. Norm Lewis shares the singing honors with Cook; he is especially strong on “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened to Me” (with Matthew Scott) and an exceptionally good “Being Alive.” The entire cast is used effectively in group numbers that often soar, including “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” an “Assassins” sequence, and an invigorating “Opening Doors.”
Lapine has turned this video-heavy entertainment into a visual tour-de-force, with the large overhead screen suddenly and stunningly fragmented midway through the show, after which Sondheim comes at the aud from all angles. Set designer Beowulf Boritt cleverly make this possible — the video screens and the central unit do all sorts of turns and pirouettes — while lighting designer Ken Billington keeps up with the changing vistas. Peter Flaherty has devised one of the more impressive video and projection designs seen on Broadway of late.
But centerstage is Sondheim, at times crusty and outspoken — his monster of a mother comes in for several well-placed shots — mostly in a friendly and eccentrically professorial mood. Michael Starobin provides a supportive orchestration for eight pieces, with especially strong arrangements coming from music director David Loud.
Not content to merely contribute interviews, Sondheim has even written a song for the occasion “God,” suggested by a New York Magazine cover headlined “Is Sondheim God?” And needless to say, it’s a good one: “The man’s a God/Wrote the score to ‘Sweeney Todd’/With a nod to de Sade/Well he’s odd/Well he’s God.”
One sometimes wonders what the notoriously exacting Sondheim privately thinks of the many revues and revivals of his work that come along. No worry here; “Sondheim on Sondheim” is engrossingly entertaining and thoroughly captivating. An enchanting, warm and provocative opportunity to hear not only Sondheim’s songs but — literally — the master’s voice.