How YouTube will sustain and transform Sondheim's legacy
"This is by far the benchmark performance of this song."
"A genuine guilty pleasure."
"What true Broadway looks like."
These are not snippets from New York Times reviews by Charles Isherwood or Ben Brantley, nor are they the insightful ruminations of the late Howard Kissel. They are the midnight musings of Sondheim's faceless fans: the people of YouTube. Their thoughtful critiques live eternally below every video, juxtaposed with scores of comments featuring grammatical errors, misspellings, misinformation and keyboardconstructed smiley faces. Like it or not, these candid critics are the new stewards of the works of Stephen Sondheim.
We begin with a scenario. Imagine newcomers to the theatre seeking out a recording of a seminal Sondheim tune someone has recommended. In today's media environment it's unlikely they will purchase an official cast recording, at least not before searching for the song on YouTube. Extrapolating from the social theories of Jürgen Habermas, John Carr and Cass Sunstein about the use and impact of digital technology, one could infer that intrepid novices will choose the most-watched video among the results and, to some extent, they will assume that this video captures a gold standard performance because of the substantial view count. After watching this video and being influenced by the comments immediately below it, they will come to a series of conclusions that will deeply affect their opinions of this song, its corresponding show and Sondheim as an artist. What will these conclusions be?
Let's start with "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George. Recently thrust into popular discourse with the publication of Sondheim's collected lyrics (the first volume of which adopted that title) the number is often considered semi-autobiographical, and it's Raúl Esparza who has the privilege of telling the tale on YouTube. With more than 65,000 views, this shaky bootleg recording tops the search results and captures about three minutes of a 2002 Kennedy Center performance of Sunday in the Park with George. This pixelated encapsulation of one of Sondheim's most celebrated ballads wobbles and sputters its way into theatre history with Esparza at the center as George. Our hypothetical trainees stumbling upon this video might not have known much about the multiTony-nominated Esparza before, but that's about to change entirely, and not just because of his performance.
The pages of comments below this video are crowded with the heated words of debate regarding two unknowing parties, Esparza and Mandy Patinkin. As waves of comments appear in cycles over time, a pattern emerges. Each feud begins as one might imagine: How does Esparza's performance compare with Patinkin's performance as George in the original Broadway cast? From there, with points scored on both sides of the argument and a healthy helping of obscenities throwing a wrench in the entire affair, users tend to drift toward a somewhat surprising follow-up question: Would Patinkin have performed the role of Bobby in Company as effectively as Esparza did in John Doyle's 2006 revival? The debate rages on in these odd directions, yet somehow neglects to mention Daniel Evans who played George on Broadway in 2008 and whose performance at the Visa Signature's Tony Award Preview Concert is actually the second-most-popular recording of the song on YouTube, below Esparza but above Patinkin.
New students of Sondheim find themselves with a variety of conflicting critiques and a growing list of must-see videos. A search for Esparza in Company will yield his Tony Awards performance of "Being Alive," with a whopping 275,000+ views, and when seeking out Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George, they'll watch the beautifully filmed (and performed) original Broadway production.
It's fortunate that the comments have led our viewers to this video because the initial Kennedy Center clip is far from an acceptable standard. …