Review: Sondheim’s Swan Song Is Goofy, Satirical, And A Joy to Hear

Sondheim’s final work, 'Here We Are,' takes a gaggle of rich, entitled New Yorkers from a perfect day to the end of the world.

The company of Here We Are. Emilio Madrid

Here We Are | 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. | The Shed | 545 West 30th Street | 646-455-3494

For a musical inspired by Luis Buñuel’s surrealist cinema, getting to Here We Are is itself a Buñuelian experience. You trudge west through corporate canyons of luxury high-rises in a part of New York City defamiliarized by wealth to find The Shed, then continue your trek up a stack of escalators that rise through brutalist architecture with all the charm of an Abu Dhabi airport. Were this a Buñuel film, socialites in evening dress clutching flutes of champagne would ascend this interminable automated zigzag until something nasty greeted them at the top.

Nasty is not the word that leaps to mind when considering Stephen Sondheim’s final work, completed, with his blessing, after his death. I’d go with elegiac, insouciant, even liberated. Sure, suffering and death hover over its two acts and spite comes easy to its gaggle of rich, entitled New Yorkers. But any flash of nastiness is tempered by Sondheim and book writer David Ives’s gentle affection for their pampered subjects, blithely ignorant of the social upheaval at their door. As nonbinary millennial activist Fritz (Michaela Diamond) angrily rants: “Comes the revolution — / Don’t laugh! It’s coming! / Can’t you hear the sound of that distant drumming? / Once the revolution is up and humming, / That’ll be the end of your world.” The objects of her scorn, one-percenters in search of food and drink, laugh off such Cassandrian couplets. Life is pleasure, beauty, and infinite possibility. Until Act II, that is.

Here We Are, based on Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel juxtaposes two claims: “what a perfect day” and “it’s the end of the world.” In fact, both are true: the frisky joys of living eventually pass into stasis and death. The first act is a moveable farce: one morning financier Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) and his bubbly, peignoir-clad wife, Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones), receive a surprise visit from friends who think they’ve been invited to brunch. Abrasive talent agent Claudia (Amber Gray) and her unctuous plastic-surgeon husband Paul (Jeremy Shamos) show up with Raffael (Steven Pasquale), womanizing ambassador from a Mediterranean nation called Moranda. Soon the group, sulkily accompanied by Fritz (Marianne’s sister), head off in search of a restaurant. Director Joe Mantello ranges the A-list gargoyles along the upstage wall à la police lineup, Sondheim’s jaunty vamp commences, and we’re off.

Amber Gray, Jeremy Shamos, David Hyde Pierce, Bobby Cannavale, and Steven Pasquale (from left) in Here We Are. Emilio Madrid

What follows is a comedy of consumption, as the would-be noshers learn that Café Everything has nothing to serve, a chef’s funeral reduces waiters to tears at Bistro A La Mode, and the food at Osteria Zeno turns out to be plastic. Into the latter establishment marches Colonel Martin (Francois Battiste) on the hunt for an international drug cartel (run by Leo, Paul, and Raffaele, coincidentally). At the same time, Martin’s handsome lieutenant (Jin Ha) falls instantly in love with Fritz, who is likewise swept away—despite being gay “from age three.” Fritz momentarily forgets their covert mission for PRADA (People’s Revolutionary Anti-Domination Army), which leads to Denis O’Hare’s starchy British servant, who has a secret or two himself.

Ives excels at such high-concept zaniness, wordplay, and sex jokes, and from script-doctoring many a revival for City Center’s Encores! he knows how gags and puns should flow around Sondheim’s score—which bends toward parody and list songs. (There’s a bit of looseness in the master’s lyrics, such as inventing “hydrofractors” to rhyme with “overpaid actors.”) The first act is silly, absurd, and played to perfection by the cast of all-stars. O’Hare pops up as cartoonish waiters of many nations, his chameleonic clowning matched by the acidic Tracie Bennett in Edith Piaf drag belting out an anti-I-Want song: “Sometimes you want too much, too soon, and then it’s too late.” When the group finally gets a meal at the Morandan Embassy, David Hyde Pierce tumbles in as a priest with a shoe fetish who’s lousy at his job (“In the middle of Mass, / All I think is: My miter / Should be tighter”). After intermission, this gang of movers and shakers no longer moves; due to some mysterious force, they cannot will themselves to leave the embassy salon and so devolve into starving, fighting, raving prisoners—of an offstage political uprising, then of time itself. 

Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Steven Pasquale, Bobby Cannavale, Rachel Bay Jones, and Jeremy Shamos (from left) in Here We Are. Emilio Madrid

Are we supposed to like any of these people? Crowds in Sondheim are often monstrous; their mass expressions seldom warm the heart (excepting “Old Friends” and “Sunday”). Instead, harmonizing hordes are unwitting cannibals (“God, That’s Good!”), smother the hero with affection (“Company”) or push a vicious credo (“Another National Anthem”). Sondheim groups are often to be feared. The vain, moneyed fops of Here We Are most resemble the Hollywood parasites and The Blob from Merrily We Roll Along—why should they get the spotlight? Sondheim and Ives somehow manage to thread that needle, redeeming the unlikeable without promising a happy ending. Sondheim’s music is the great leveler; once the characters find themselves stripped of status and power, the score itself begins to recede, fragmenting into underscoring. The metaphor for death is the sound of no music. As Frank Rich reported in a lengthy and illuminating piece about the long gestation of Here We Are, Sondheim hit a block in writing for the show, and Mantello and Ives made dramaturgical lemonade out of it. 

Directing—forgive the technical jargon—the hell out of Here We Are, Mantello assembles the most mouthwatering cast in years and presides over an outrageously chic and unified design, from David Zinn’s morphing white-cube set and au courant costumes to Natasha Katz’s dazzling lights and Tom Gibbons’s ghostly soundscape. Jonathan Tunick’s sprightly orchestrations, conducted by with zest by Alexander Gemignani, inevitably evoke earlier work: a frolicking snatch of Into the Woods here, a dissonant raspberry from Company there. When Marianne danced in waltz time with a bear, I felt A Little Night Music in the room. What music there is, is playful and joyous. You wish there were more of it, especially a finale. But Ives and Mantello do heroic work endowing it with coherence and force. Sondheim always insisted on giving equal credit to his book writers, those who fed him and goaded him. It’s fitting that his last collaborator finished the epitaph. Viewed in the context of Sondheim’s monumental career—quirkiest since Anyone Can Whistle, most political since AssassinsHere We Are is a tenderly whispered coda. It shocks, how much he achieved: writing the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy before he was thirty; noodling at the piano in his nineties. Here he was. Yet he’s still here.

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Review: Sondheim’s Swan Song Is Goofy, Satirical, And A Joy to Hear