June 22, 2022

Princeton Festival Presents “Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim”; Tribute by Vocal Duo Intersperses Songs with Quotes from Letters

“YOURS SINCERELY, STEPHEN SONDHEIM”: Princeton Festival has presented “Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim” in tribute to the late Broadway legend. Matthew Stephens was the music director and accompanist for the concert, which was presented June 15 in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. Above: vocal duo Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Into the Woods is a musical in which familiar fairy tale characters meet, and their stories intersect. In the prologue, the characters sing about their reasons for journeying into the titular forest. Cinderella sings, “I wish to go to the festival.”

Last Wednesday she could have been referring to the Princeton Festival, which presented Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim, a tribute to the show’s late composer and lyricist. Vocalists Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach performed several of the Broadway legend’s songs, interspersed with quotes from his letters — many of which his correspondents have shared via social media since his death last November. Music Director Matthew Stephens accompanied the duo.

The June 15 concert was presented in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. The seating was configured to resemble a dinner theater or cabaret; tables were set up so that audiences could enjoy drinks and light (but elegant) snacks — the latter served before the show and during intermission. A set for the Festival’s subsequent production in the tent (Albert Herring) resembled a bar, adding to the illusion of being in a Times Square nightspot.

A classically trained singer, Giannetti made her professional debut as an understudy for the role of Christine Daaé in the first national tour of Love Never Dies. She was in the cast of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s world premiere of UNMASKED: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Forbach currently appears in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. He has performed the role of Enjolras in the 25th Anniversary National Tour and Broadway revival of Les Misérables, and has recorded three solo albums (A New Leading Man, Revolutionary, and Remembering to Dream).

Stephens has performed in venues such as Lincoln Center and Feinstein’s/54 Below. He was associate conductor for the National Tour of The Sound of Music. Other engagements include The Body Politic (NYMF) and The Mikado (NYGASP). His advocacy for new works has led to collaborations with organizations such as the American Opera Project and American Lyric Theatre.

The concert opened with Stephens playing a piano solo whose staccato notes resembled passages from Sunday in the Park with George (1984). The program of vocal selections in the first half loosely followed the chronological order of Sondheim’s early productions.

Forbach opened with a suitably boyish, eager rendition of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story (1957).  Collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on the musical numbers for that show gave Sondheim his Broadway debut. After finishing the song, Forbach appreciatively noted the “depth” of Sondheim’s characters, and described his letters as “his other work.”

Although the passionate ballad “Take Me to the World” was written as a duet for the offbeat television musical Evening Primrose (1966), the prominence of the female part enables the song to be performed as a solo in concerts, which Giannetti did here. The lyrics convey a plea for an end to isolation, which makes the song particularly resonant now.

Commenting on the continuing relevance of Sondheim’s work, the duo noted the currently running Broadway revival of the 1970 musical Company. For director Marianne Elliott’s production, which recasts the male protagonist as a woman, Sondheim — who was open to revisiting his own work — allowed some character names to be changed, and accordingly rewrote some lyrics. The production won five Tony Awards this year, including Best Revival of a Musical. Giannetti sang one of the revised numbers, “Someone Is Waiting.”

The duo read from a letter in which Sondheim remarked, “I’ve never understood why Sweeney Todd is considered ‘controversial.’” The comment is amusing because the show’s subject matter is atypical of musicals, especially for 1979. A barber murders his customers, after which his accomplice uses them as ingredients for her meat pies. Sondheim wrote a letter to thank a school for mounting an almost-canceled production of the show, which explores “injustice, morality, and greed.”

Two songs from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street were featured. Forbach performed a jazz-infused arrangement of the sentimental “Not While I’m Around,” which took a few liberties with the melody and added some wordless vocalises. Giannetti’s rendition of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” another song in which a female character sings wishing for freedom from captivity, was closer in style to the original, and is a good fit for Giannetti’s soprano.

The Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along (1981) closed after 16 performances. But Sondheim was fond of the show, partly because it allowed him to write semi-autobiographically about his own experience as an aspiring composer. “Opening Doors,” which Forbach and Giannetti performed as a duet — with an extended piano interlude by Stephens — conveys the starry-eyed excitement of young, ambitious musical writers as they try to get their work produced.

The second half opened with Giannetti singing the breezy “What More Do I Need?” A wry love letter to New York City, the song was written in the 1950s for the unproduced (until 1997) musical Saturday Night. Giannetti infused the rendition with some of her most exuberant body movement of the concert.

Much of the second half was given to a medley from Into the Woods (1987). Sondheim once remarked that he never expected anyone under 40 to like what he wrote. Forbach finds this particularly ironic, because he has loved Woods ever since he was a 14-year-old student who was shown a video of the original production. Forbach has reason to thank his drama teacher: he is slated to perform in the upcoming Broadway revival (which opens June 28), having appeared in the recent Encores! production.

Forbach performed segments of four songs from the show, which displayed his versatility as a performer, as well as his sturdy tenor/baritone voice. Included were Jack’s wide-eyed “Giants in the Sky”; the Wolf’s dangerously seductive “Hello, Little Girl” (Giannetti sang Little Red Riding Hood’s part, and Forbach moved into the audience); “Agony,” in which the Princes pine for, respectively, Cinderella and Rapunzel; and the Baker’s pained “No More.” Giannetti sang Cinderella’s “A Very Nice Prince.”

There were two other duets (besides “Hello, Little Girl”): the buoyant “It Takes Two” (sung by the Baker and his Wife) and the comforting but cautionary anthem “No One is Alone.” Forbach observed that the latter song’s resonance is heightened by current events.

The duo read a montage of quotes from letters in which Sondheim thanked supporters; one of the recipients was Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Also in some of these letters were details about the niceties of songwriting, particularly the difficulty of making lyrics fit a melody. Giannetti sang “Goodbye for Now,” which was written for the film Reds (1981).

The finale was the uplifting duet “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George (1984), a number that starts introspectively and swells to a soaring climax. To lead into the song, Giannetti quoted a line of dialogue: “Are you working on something new?” In a clever juxtaposition, Forbach’s response was a quote from a 1983 letter in which Sondheim announced the original production of Sunday (“a small and peculiar musical that I’m writing in collaboration with James Lapine”).

As an encore, Giannetti sang “Not a Day Goes By,” a somewhat bitter song from Merrily We Roll Along that captures the ambivalent attitude (toward romantic relationships) that characterizes a fair amount of Sondheim’s work.

The concept behind Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim is a smart one. Many of Sondheim’s letters reveal his passion for his craft and his support of talented aspiring songwriters, as well as the elegance and wit that distinguish many of his songs. This thoughtfully programmed, well-performed concert clearly was a love letter in its own right — a tribute that probably would have pleased its subject.

For more information about The Princeton Festival 2022, which runs through June 25, visit princetonsymphony.org. To read the Sondheim letters that have been shared with the public, visit the Instagram account @sondheimletters.