Stephen Sondheim had a genius for genre. Some of his best works were adapted from very niche sources like penny dreadfuls (“Sweeney Todd”), epistolary novels (“Passion”) and Roman comedies (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”). Leaning hard into their specific styles, he mined their expressive potential in songs that could hardly be improved and never sounded alike.
Still, for him and for others, surrealism was often a genre too far. Musical theater is surreal enough already. (Why did that taciturn man suddenly start singing? Who are those dancing women in lingerie?) Building a show on a willfully irrational source risks doubling down on the weirdness, leading to “Huh?” results like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and Sondheim’s own “Anyone Can Whistle.”
So as we waited what seemed like decades for what would turn out to be his last musical, never quite knowing if he’d ditched it or not, the dribbles of information he and his collaborators let drop suggested that the new show — eventually titled “Here We Are” — might be misbegotten.
Not only are the two Luis Buñuel films that Sondheim and the playwright David Ives took as their inspiration maximally surrealist, they are also surreal in different, seemingly incompatible ways. “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) is a sunny romp about a group of friends who, seeking a meal, are mysteriously unable to find one. “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) is a much darker affair, about a dinner party no one can leave. Both movies ridicule aristocrats who are underfed yet over-sated: people for whom nothing is ever enough. But one is like the silky tartness of a lemon meringue pie and the other like chicken bones stuck in your throat.
The best good news about “Here We Are,” the combo platter Buñuel musical that opened on Sunday at the Shed, nearly two years after Sondheim’s death in November 2021, is that it justifies the idea of merging these two works and succeeds in making a surrealist musical expressive. In Joe Mantello’s breathtakingly chic and shapely production, with a cast of can-you-top-this Broadway treasures, it is never less than a pleasure to watch as it confidently polishes and embraces its illogic. Musically, it’s fully if a little skimpily Sondheim, and entirely worthy of his catalog. That it is also a bit cold, only occasionally moving in the way that song would ideally allow, may speak to the reason he had so much trouble writing it.
The first act, about an hour long and with perhaps seven numbers — though it’s hard to count because they weave in and out of the dialogue — introduces us to Ives’s American versions of Buñuel’s French gourmands from “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) is a crass tycoon and Marianne Brink (Rachel Bay Jones) a society decorator; their Saturday morning is interrupted when four of their circle arrive at the couple’s hyper-sleek apartment, insisting they’ve been invited for brunch.
The interlopers include Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nose job, and his wife, Claudia Bursik-Zimmer (Amber Gray), an agent, she brays, for “a major entertainment entity.” Along with them are Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), the horndog ambassador from a Mediterranean country called Moranda, and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s sour younger sister, a revolutionary with champagne tastes.
Ives quickly and amusingly delineates the six with specific and almost universally obnoxious traits. Raffael, who butchers his English, and Claudia, quick to pull rank, have a weekly assignation behind Paul’s back; Paul and Leo run a drug cartel with Raffael’s ambassadorial assistance. Fritz is a pill. As they go on the road in search of a meal, accompanied by a Sondheim vamp that starts out marvelously jaunty and ends like water swirling down a drain, each reveals worse and worse traits, except for Marianne, who is too dim to be venal. When she asks her husband to “buy this perfect day” for her, it seems less acquisitive than sentimental.
The changes of scenery as they visit various establishments featuring outré waiters (Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare) in ever more ludicrous wigs (by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell) are accomplished with swift grace on David Zinn’s shiny white box of a set, as neon marquees descend from the flies and then descend further to form tables or banquettes. (Zinn’s costumes are also telegraphic, including Leo’s velour sweatsuit and Claudia’s sky-high purple Fendis.) The theme-and-variations format is enchanting, allowing Sondheim, the great puzzler, to treat songs almost as anagrams. Eventually, along with three other characters they pick up — a colonel (Francois Battiste), a soldier (Jin Ha) and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) — the crew lands, by now starving, at Raffael’s embassy, where they dine as Act I ends.
Here the musical hinges into “The Exterminating Angel,” only instead of a completely different set of characters (Buñuel’s were Spanish, living under Franco), Ives, in a neat piece of joinery, continues with Leo and Marianne and the others. It is they who find it impossible to leave after dinner, and wind up, in Act II, sleeping, bickering and eventually fighting over food scraps as their metaphysical entrapment persists for days. Ives also complicates Buñuel’s antifascist, anti-bourgeois glee, in which plutocrats are exposed as pigs, by implicating the revolution as well; Fritz turns out to be less of a threat to her own way of life than she intended.
Clever as all that is, the windup has problems, as is true for many new shows finding their final shape. To make the characters in “Here We Are” worthy of punishment in the second act has meant making them too obviously awful in the first. Their brutishness throughout also lets us off Buñuel’s hook: His movies are about people whose sophistication and disposable income we should recognize, but “Here We Are,” which sometimes feels like a butterfly box, is about people we don’t dare to.
Had Sondheim written more songs for Act II — there are just a few, bunched at the beginning — that problem might have been eased. In any case, Mantello and Ives decided to reframe the dearth as an opportunity. Before his death, Sondheim apparently agreed with them that the lack of songs in fact made structural sense: Once trapped in a repeating nightmare of deprivation, these characters would have no reason to sing. But then why retain the ones he’d already written?
Perhaps because the songs he did write are everything you could want them to be. There are fewer trick rhymes than usual, but laugh-out-loud jokes nonetheless. A rhapsodic love song for the soldier and a paean to superficiality for Marianne — “I want things to gleam./To be what they seem/And not what they are” — have the familiar Sondheimian depth and luster to crystallize complex insights.
Though we sorely miss that in Act II, and especially at the attempted triple lutz of an ending (which is probably two lutzes too many), Ives, the author of “Venus in Fur” and innumerable clever comedies, has done much to compensate. Some of his dialogue scenes — including a riveting colloquy between the questing Marianne and the questioning bishop — have the shape, rhythm and sorrowful wit of a Sondheim song. (Jones and Pierce are standouts in the excellent cast.) Also lovingly filling in blanks are the musical supervisor, Alexander Gemignani, and Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who have arranged themes from the earlier part of the show as instrumental interludes to take up the slack in the later part.
You can understand their care. Pending the discovery of some unpublished juvenilia or yet another iteration of the penultimate “Road Show,” this is the last Sondheim musical we will ever have. That alone makes the production historic, a pressure that happily does not show in the product, which is fleet and flashy. Natasha Katz’s lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound and Sam Pinkleton’s droll choreography do a lot of the heavy lifting for Mantello’s agenda.
More important, “Here We Are” is as experimental as Sondheim throughout his career wanted everything to be. To swim through its currents of echoes of earlier work — some “Anyone Can Whistle,” some “Passion,” some “Merrily We Roll Along” — is to understand the characters’ monstrous insatiability. We, too, will always want more, even when we’ve had what by any reasonable standards should already be more than enough.
Here We Are
Through Jan. 21 at the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.