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Here We Are, an apocalyptic satire of the 1 per cent inspired by the surrealist films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel.Emilio Madrid/Handout

Isn’t it ultrarich?

When he died two years ago this week, on Nov. 26, 2021, the indisputably great American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim left behind one final musical: Here We Are, an apocalyptic satire of the 1 per cent inspired by the surrealist films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

That almost finished hat – final dramatic dots posthumously connected by book writer David Ives and director Joe Mantello – is now having an intimate world premiere off-Broadway. The show is exquisite despite a lingering sense of incompleteness.

It finds itself onstage even as star-studded revivals of two of Sondheim’s older shows, Merrily We Roll Along (featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff) and Sweeney Todd (starring Josh Groban) are jostling with populist blockbusters The Lion King, Hamilton and Wicked for position as the top five highest-grossing shows in any given week on Broadway.

It’s hard to think of a time in his life when Sondheim – whose critical reputation always exceeded his gross potential, and who never had a show run in New York anywhere near as long as, say, Come From Away – has been pulling in more at the box office.

It’s also hard to think of a time in Sondheim’s life when Broadway, North America’s central commercial marketplace for musical theatre, catered so clearly to the economic elite.

Merrily, which was a 16-performance flop in its 1981 premiere, had a top ticket price of US$599 the November week I was in town; indeed, tickets for director Maria Friedman’s acclaimed production were selling for an average of US$241.44 – the highest of any show on Broadway.

Back when Sondheim made his debut on the Great White Way as a lyricist with West Side Story in the 1950s, average ticket prices for a musical were closer to US$5 – about US$55 today.

I Remember Stephen Sondheim

Which invites the question: Is Sondheim getting more popular, posthumously – or is his chosen art form becoming less populist?

Though it is appearing a couple years after Sondheim’s departure and was developed over the course a decade leading up to that death at 91, Here We Are, nevertheless, feels eerily in tune with current cultural satires cutting into the upper crust for which live theatre can now sometimes seem aimed.

It shares themes and sensibility with such recent eat-the-rich entertainments as The Triangle of Sadness and The Menu on the big screen, and The White Lotus and Succession on the small screen.

It’s hard to tell whether it is ironic or simply fitting that Here We Are should be having its premiere in a 500-seat theatre at the Shed, a multiarts venue that cost nearly half a billion dollars to build and opened in 2019 in the high-priced-for-Manhattan Hudson Yards district next to a luxury mall.

Even before the Shed was the shooting location for Kendall Roy’s overopulent party in the Succession episode “Too Much Birthday,” it had the air of a plutocrat’s playhouse.

Here We Are begins in what could very well be the US$32-million penthouse at the top of 15 Hudson Yards, the residential skyscraper attached to the venue where it is playing.

Leo (Bobby Cannavale) and Marianne Brink (Rachel Bay Jones) are relaxing one morning in a sweatsuit and a peignoir, respectively, in their top-level, white cube of a condo. A maid dusts a painting on the wall made of dots, but big Damien Hirst ones, not little Georges Seurat ones.

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These three are modern-day lords and ladies who brunch – and they are expecting the Brinks to provide one, but the pair don’t recall inviting anyone over and don’t have a crêpe to give.Emilio Madrid/Handout

Then, private elevator chimes, doors open, in comes unexpected company: plastic surgeon Paul (Jeremy Shamos), superagent Claudia (Amber Grey) and an ambassador from the fictional Moranda (Steven Pasquale).

These three are modern-day lords and ladies who brunch – and they are expecting the Brinks to provide one, but the pair don’t recall inviting anyone over and don’t have a crêpe to give.

Ostensible odd person out among this bunch is Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s sister, who fancies herself an anti-capitalist crusader and sing-cheers for an end to “Lamborghinis and vodkatinis” – but is happy to come along for a ride and a drink as they all head off in search of fine dining.

For their plot, Sondheim and Ives have stitched together elements of two Buñuel films: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which an affluent group’s attempts to have dinner are repeatedly frustrated by strange events, and The Exterminating Angel (1962), in which wealthy characters find themselves unable to leave a dinner party.

But the pair have fully updated these cinematic scenarios for the 21st century. If you’re looking to pinpoint their class, for instance, Leo and Marianne are in the process of cloning their dogs, which puts them in a social strata that includes Argentina’s new far-right populist president Javier Milei (and Barbra Streisand).

How Stephen Sondheim saved my life

(Sondheim and Ives, old pros both, are too smart to upstage their story by putting real animals onstage, of course, and resist the urge to send in the clones.)

The score by Sondheim is one of his most jaggedly dramatic, but he overlayed lyrics that at times are as eloquent in their irony as any he penned previously. Marianne, a classic Sondheimian figure lost in her delusions, sings sweetly in praise of the nice day she’s having with words that will come back with bite: “I’m completely undone / by the endless abundance of life / aren’t you?”

Of course, she’s not the only one whose uppance is about to come: Here We Are follows her high-flying friends to such symbolic restaurants such as Café Everything, which has, as the name says, everything listed in a menu that’d be harder to tear in half than a phone book. (Does anyone still tear a phone book?)

However, Café Everything, as it turns out, now has nothing – as a waiter sings in an astounding piece of over-the-top operetta, impeccably delivered both comedically and vocally by Denis O’Hare.

In outlining the unavailable offerings, and in unabashed punnery, the server’s song shares DNA with Sondheim’s most crowd-pleasing of songs, A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd. “We do expect a little latte later,” he intones, mournfully. “But we haven’t got a lotta latte now.”

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The problem with the show, barely hidden, is in the move from the first act to the second act, from no service to no exit.Emilio Madrid/Handout

More ridiculous restos follow, as do tidbits about a drug-smuggling operation and an impending terrorist attack. And, just when things are starting to feel a little repetitive, a bishop with a shoe fetish shows up. He is played by Tony-winning actor, and everyone’s favourite Frasier star, David Hyde Pierce – and the fact that he is the weakest in the production, and still pretty darn good, gives you an idea of the calibre of cast assembled by Mantello and how well directed they are in his impeccably stylized production.

The problem with the show, barely hidden, is in the move from the first act to the second act, from no service to no exit.

Journalists who have written about how Here We Are came to be reported that Sondheim got stuck on how to musicalize the latter half for a long time. The reason is obvious: It’s just saying similar things from a different angle, and Sondheim couldn’t even write songs for serial killers or assassins without humanizing them, which would water down the satire.

It’s left to Ives to tie things up in what essentially becomes a play with underscoring. The Venus in Fur playwright conjures up some amusing moments, some strange and chilling ones, and one really fine speech that explains the show’s title.

But, in searching for a climax of his brunch seekers, Ives waffles, offering variations on the death and resurrections of his characters instead of a strong conclusion; that’s what comes from asking a master of one-acts to solve a second one. The 1 per cent ultimately wiggle off the hook, to purchase their premium seats to a matinee, a Sondheim play, once again in peace.

Here We Are continues to Jan. 21, 2024 at the Shed.

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