The American Songbook in London – Steve Ross Sings Stephen Sondheim

Steve Ross sings Stephen Sondheim

Steve Ross (singer/piano)

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 13 February, 2007
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1

The second week in the season of “The American Songbook in London” has singer-pianist Steve Ross featuring the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, indisputably the greatest living American writer of music theatre. Although his main interest has always been working in theatre, he is one of very few people to have won an Academy Award, many Tony Awards, countless Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize.

Around the time of his parents’ divorce, aged ten, he happened to befriend Jimmy Hammerstein, son of legendary Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. It is due to Hammerstein acting as surrogate father and mentor in all things musical-theatre that Sondheim is where he is today. In his range of material he has arguably surpassed the work of his mentor, although in the field of popular hit songs that became classics, Hammerstein has the edge. Oscar did after all write the lyrics for ‘When I Grow To Old to Dream’, ‘I Won’t Dance’, ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ plus Sigmund Romberg’s “The Desert Song”, most of Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” and, with Richard Rodgers, “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music”, among others.

Sondheim, however, has one up on Hammerstein. Apart from contributing just the lyrics to three major shows, “West Side Story”, “Gypsy” and “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, Sondheim has been his own composer and lyricist and produced some of the most complex music theatre songs imaginable.

It is just this flavour that Steve Ross brings out in his Jermyn Street show. Ross is a seasoned cabaret artist well-known to New Yorkers from his engagements at the Algonquin Hotel, and to London audiences from his appearances at The Ritz and Pizza on the Park over the last quarter century.

Although he has often included Sondheim songs in his act, this is the first time he has attempted a complete Sondheim tribute. There is nobody better qualified than Ross is to present the work of Sondheim. His musical taste, like that of Sondheim, is impeccable and he presents the material not as it was written for the stage but in expert arrangements performed with his signature vocal timbre that adds another level of enjoyment to this already outstanding musical output.

Ross dates his appreciation of Sondheim from seeing a run-through of “Company” in 1970, a show that has 15 perfect numbers with no song that does not earn its place, but then this can be said of most of Sondheim’s shows. Think of “Sweeney Todd”, Sondheim’s most accomplished theatre piece with about two dozen numbers and none is superfluous or out of place. From “Company” Ross essays ‘Another Hundred People’ and ‘Sorry/Grateful’, two songs imbued (as much of Sondheim is) with a mixture of happiness and sadness, because nothing is easy in his world and everything is shot through with irony. From “Sweeney Todd” Ross sings ‘Pretty Women’ and ‘Johanna’, again bringing out the incipient sadness of what are essentially expressions of love. Even ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from “Follies” is, yes, a love song, but not as we know it.

Sondheim’s biggest hit number that everybody and his wife has recorded and one that Sondheim wrote overnight for the show’s star, Glynis Johns, is ‘Send in the Clowns’ from “A Little Night Music”. Here Ross includes the extra lyrics that Sondheim wrote for Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album and convinces us that this is exactly what the song needs – something to expand or explain the emotions depicted. On the other hand he also includes some of the less well-known numbers from less successful shows, such as “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and “Anyone Can Whistle”. It’s a stunningly well put together show, a template for others of this ilk, a sort of “Side By Side By Sondheim” but without most of the chat, just the occasional link to make the piece appear seamless.

Host Jeff Harnar introduces Steve and joins him for a few duets, too, accompanied by David Johnson on bass in a show that deserves a much longer run. Steve ends the show with a selection of his favourite songs by Cole Porter and others, and also demonstrates his excellent pianistic skills in a medley of Edith Piaf songs. A great evening indeed.

  • “The American Songbook in London” at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1
  • Telephone: 020-7287 2875
  • 6-11 Feb: Andrea Marcovicci sings Frank Loesser
  • 13-18 Feb: Steve Ross sings Stephen Sondheim
  • 20-25 Feb: Maude Maggart sings Irving Berlin
  • 27 Feb-4 Mar: Jeff Harnar sings Cole Porter
  • Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets: £23.50 including champagne; £20.00 if booking all four shows; concessions £14.00; Tuesday opening nights £40.00 including dinner. Also special dinner and show offer for £40 at Franco’s in Jermyn Street
  • Jermyn Street Theatre

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