Arts and Entertainment

Sondheim’s Last Musical Is a Let Down

Stephen Sondheim’s final musical, Here We Are, is ambitious but hollow and without nuance.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A seemingly never-ending escalator ride to The Shed’s sixth floor leads to an intimate venue showcasing Here We Are, Stephen Sondheim’s last musical. Sondheim worked until his passing at the age of 91, leaving behind a legacy that has stood the test of time. His works as a composer and lyricist are considered classics in the world of musical theater, most notably the renowned West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. Released two decades after his previous works, Here We Are was highly anticipated, even if Sondheim didn’t live to see the final product. Written with David Ives and directed by Joe Mantello, Here We Are is maximally absurd, seething with complexity and inscrutable plotlines. 

The musical is based on two surreal films by Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). The former details a group of rich friends facing bizarre interruptions as they search for a fancy dining experience; the latter portrays a batch of wealthy guests inexplicably unable to leave a dinner party. Ives interweaves these narratives, using current references and subject points to make the plot potently modern. The ditzy Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) and tycoon Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) begin the musical in a sleek white room. Not expecting company, the couple finds themselves expected to host a brunch they were unaware was happening. Their friends flashily pile onto the stage: Claudia Bursik-Zimmer (Amber Gray), a reputable agent; her husband Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nose job; and Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), an ambassador from the fictional country of Moranda. Marianne’s younger sister, Fritz (Micaela Diamond), snakes around the stage with a camera. An insurgent against their opulent way of life, Fritz’s critiques of the rich—powerbrokers, overpaid actors, and people who own Lamborghinis—are glaring throughout the first act as she plots a revolution to end the world.

The characters end up going out to eat, as Marianne and Leo have nothing prepared. While they dance around looking for a restaurant, they are repeatedly sent away from establishments unable to accommodate them (including one that ran out of food and another with a funeral happening in the back room). Sondheim shines through in these scenes with eccentric, bouncy melodies and his signature witty lyrics: “We do expect a little latte late, / But we haven’t got a lotta latte now.” After each restaurant visit, the set becomes a blank white stage and Leo shouts out “Back to square one,” calling the group into vibrant musical numbers that vary only slightly each time. The play finds structure in these repetitive phrases; the predictable framework of the soundtrack and dynamic set changes work to combat the narrative chaos of the musical.

Sondheim’s distinct voice quiets in the second act, however, when the group settles down at Raffael’s embassy after three unsuccessful tries at restaurants. After a brief period of singing, the music devolves into a slew of periodic instrumentals rather than complete musical numbers. This leaves the production somewhat bare, feeling more like a play with accentuations than a musical. This may have been Ives’ intention—the rawness without song mirrors the act’s intimate and introspective nature—but it feels devoid of Sondheim’s signature touch. The group, now unexplainably supernaturally barred from leaving the embassy, grapples with their surreal predicament, their disorientation and internal struggles openly on display. They sleep, squat on the floor, and beg for food scraps like animals. Marianne’s and her husband’s marital problems are exposed, Claudia breaks down in a scream that lasts 30 seconds, and a drug coup between the three men is exposed. The mockery of the bourgeoisie is embodied here: we see the mask of civil behavior drop, unveiling the deeper secrets that lurk within the upper class. The characters’ cries for release may symbolize their calls for freedom from these social constraints, with the absence of music emphasizing the hollow nature of their lives.

The cast is impressive, each with resonant vocals and a powerful stage presence. Unfortunately, the musical lacks any real emotional engagement with the characters, as its overindulgence in satire leaves little room for character depth. There is one memorable scene in the second act between Marianne and a materialistic priest (David Hyde Pierce) that the group has invited to join their dinner party. Tying the musical to its title, the two contemplate their existence and the true meaning of their lives in the midst of the chaos. Jones and Pierce deliver a vulnerable performance, inviting the audience to sympathize with their characters. However, this sentiment feels somewhat out of place against the critical, exaggerated backdrop of the musical.

Here We Are is disjointed, and—though ambitious—takes its extremity too far. Though Bunuel’s films are enigmatic in nature, the musical lacks the nuance to tie together a compelling and cohesive narrative. Instead, the main theme shading the bourgeoisie feels jarringly obvious—almost suffocatingly so. The musical forces its narrative down the audience’s throat, with Marianne outwardly singing about her superficiality (“I want things to gleam / To be what they seem / And not what they are”) and Fritz’s incessant shaming of the group’s aging. Some subplots, like a military general’s tragic backstory and a priest wishing for another profession, are overly confusing and unnecessary. Is the play really a satire, or is it just a blatant mockery of the bourgeoisie with some plot complications added in? Because the work was only finished after his death, Sondheim’s musical voice is stretched too thin—his last work will not be remembered as one of his best. 

The characters end up “Back at Square One” for the last time before the show cuts off. After a long three hours in the venue, the escalator ride leading out of the theater feels almost like a metaphor: the theater is Raffael’s embassy, and the audience, singing their praises, are the very people the musical seeks to condemn.