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I Went Along To Stephen Sondheim’s Final Musical: Here We Are

A gutsy posthumous musical from the greatest musical composer of all time doesn’t imbue confidence but Here We Are is a reminder of a theatre genius.

Here We Are (originally titled Square One) -becomes the third major Sondheim production running in New York City, alongside Broadway’s Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.

Sondheim said days before his death in 2021 that he did not know when it would be finished, he had written songs for the first act but was struggling with the second. “I’m a procrastinator… I need a collaborator who pushes me, who gets impatient.”

Here We Are – the final Sondheim Musical – is directed by Joe Mantello, and based on two films by Spanish director Luis Buñuel — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, this show is written with the playwright David Ives. Act 1 is Discreet Charm, while Act 2 is Angel.

As for the wider backdrop, in Sondheim’s last interview, he stated that this show had a “so-called plot” in which “the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”

Then again, it’s hard to work out what’s actually going on here. For instance, I read in January that producer Cameron Mackintosh said that the show was incomplete and only “50 or 60 per cent there.”

Cam Mack continued: “I think he wanted me to reinforce his view as to whether or not he was going to complete it. Because of the amount of energy it would have taken.”

Hm. Of course, the most difficult thing about making posthumous musicals is that the progress of the artist is frozen in time. No matter what decisions others make, they can only approximate the artist’s will.

So, is Here We Are any good?

Well, it takes aim at obvious targets, and makes a muddle of hitting them, in which self-absorbed characters are tortured by a wicked cosmos, and permission to laugh is never clearly granted. It’s the performances that make Here We Are a worthwhile, fitting postscript to Sondheim’s legacy.

In fact, everything of interest happens in the first act. The book states familiar truths in the most confrontational of ways; an Eat The Rich satire.

The plot: a group of people attempt to find a place to have dinner. Later, they do have dinner but cannot get out of the room. We are presented with American versions of the French bourgeoisie, this show is brilliantly lit by Natasha Katz: the set shimmered.

And, oh, the thrill of minimal choreography that is exact, from the reset of each attempt to have dinner, to the intimate chemistry between two angst-ridden young lovers. 

Yes, the fantastic cast including David Hyde Pierce, Tracie Bennett, and Bobby Cannavale try their best, but the book’s insistent conceptual droning overtakes them. There are no songs in Act 2.

In a memorable moment of fourth wall-breaking, a horny soldier, played by Jin Ha, sings a love song that is interrupted halfway through with a generic show-stop. 

House lights go up: 

It’s the end of the world

There is nothing but you 

I’ve been looking for love all my life 

I’ve got further to go

I want only to be with you, live with you, die with you

That much I know

Then my mother came in 

I saw that her shirt was stuffed, and the sky was cloth, and the clouds were just painted and the food was just rubber

Then a curtain went up and I realised we were all in a play, on a stage, in a theatre

Here We Are, then, grants these people their idle wishes.

Ultimately, though, this project is a ghostly reminder of Sondheim’s perfectionism. And that’s just it: however much you may enjoy this show, it’s hard to completely accept it as a true Stephen Sondheim musical without his final approval.

As a lyricist, Sondheim followed three rules: content dictates form, less is more, God is in the details. This show all sounds pleasantly like an echo of good Sondheim.

A priest – played with excellent comic timing by Hyde Pierce sings: 

Do any of you think about the meaning of life? Any of you

God. Death. Anyone for purgatory? 

In the middle of mass, all I think is my miter should be tighter

I mean, why a bishop? Why not an analyst? 

Why not a bartender, I could be anything

Don’t get me wrong

I love the church and I don’t only mean the clothes

I mean the statues and the windows

And the rows of yearning people and the special par-king

And then of course there’s God

Don’t get me wrong

I love my dog, though, I don’t always understand him

Or agree 

Do we really need the droughts and the floods

And the plagues. And the earthquakes. And the universal suff’ring?

This was funny.

It’s an ambitious musical that works hard to achieve a lean and contemporary look. But characters that we feel indifferent to turns the plot into a guessing game are not substitutes for suspense.

In the end, its existence with a handful of motifs that stand up to Sondheim’s peerless oeuvre, a satire of the super rich, a musical that attempts to illustrate the dehumanising essence of free-market capitalism, via one-liners and mystical virtues. 

Yet I kept waiting for Here We Are to get started — to get into something. I was still waiting when it was over and I was back out on the street. 

What I am describing sounds like a chore. And by Sondheim peerless standards it mostly is. But it’s a surprisingly absorbing musical, just the same.

Steve has his epitaph now. God is in the details.

 Here We Are runs at The Shed, NYC until January 7, 2024.