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27 Oct

Goings On: Sampha’s Ornate Neo-Soul

Goings On: Sampha’s Ornate Neo-Soul

Alex Barasch
Culture editor

Since Stephen Sondheim’s death, in 2021, the legendary composer has remained a gradual presence on Broadway: a gender-flipped “Company” was succeeded by a spare but magnificent “Into the Woods,” a baroque “Sweeney Todd,” and, most recently, a transfer of “Merrily We Roll Along,” starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez. This latest—a revival of Sondheim’s notoriously troubled work from 1981—is a triumph of chemistry and empathy. The show follows a trio of friends in reverse, from lonely middle-aged successes back to the tight-knit strivers they were of their twenties. Franklin Shepard (Groff) has the farthest to fall: he’s the one who abandoned his friends to make his fortune in Hollywood. But Maria Friedman’s production takes seriously the competing desires and compromises that got him there, capturing something real concerning the way a life sneaks up on you. The rapport between the leads makes the dissolution of their bond as wrenching because it is believable.

Photograph by Emilio Madrid

Friedman had known Sondheim for many years, first as an actor in after which as a director of his shows; one other longtime collaborator, Joe Mantello, midwifed “Here We Are” (reviewed this week by Helen Shaw), Sondheim’s final musical, which opened this week, on the Shed, in a state that may generously be called unfinished. The primary act follows a bunch of rich friends who’re continually stymied of their efforts to eat brunch; the second, which bears almost no trace of Sondheim, finds all of them at a meal they’re mysteriously unable to depart. Light satire is supplanted by a descent into Hell: infidelities are uncovered, a person confesses to a murder, and the world outside, it’s implied, has literally ended. None of those plot machinations matter—the characters emerge cheerfully unchanged—and, with no songs to smooth the tonal whiplash or to distract from David Ives’s disjointed book, I began to feel trapped, too. (By the point someone decides a human sacrifice is required to get them out of the room, I used to be prepared to volunteer.) Seeing this uneven experiment on the heels of “Merrily,” whose problems were solved by years of tinkering, only underscored the loss. I couldn’t help wishing that Sondheim had had more time.


Goings On Samphas Ornate NeoSoul

Illustration by Jamiel Law


Sampha likes to take his time, making him a special commodity in an age of easy gratification. The English singer-songwriter’s early collaborations—with a powerful list of auteurs, including Beyoncé, Drake, and Frank Ocean—treated his vocals like ornate flourishes to upgrade a song’s architecture. A few of his outsourcing felt like a private delay: Sampha tinkering with and attempting to perfect his own sound. His stunning, experimental début, “Process,” from 2017, rewarded those waiting with a methodical album that blended electronic music with neo-soul because the singer grappled with losing his parents. After one other prolonged hiatus, Sampha returns with the much more deeply considered “Lahai,” finding inspiration in recent fatherhood for vital music that ruminates on progress.—Sheldon Pearce (Webster Hall; Nov. 7-9.)

An illustration of the New York City skyline.

About Town


Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” had its première in 1986, but, despite favorable reviews, it went largely unrevived for many years. Now this poetic musical biography of one among the 20 th century’s great civil-rights orators arrives on the Met for the primary time. With a combination of minimalism, atonality, and jazz, the opera transforms Malcolm’s confrontational declamations into something more mesmeric, like incantations, as in a potent Act I aria wherein Malcolm (Will Liverman) sings, “You would like the reality, but you don’t need to know.” Robert O’Hara’s production, originally staged in Detroit, has stops in Seattle and Chicago—so plainly corporations are finally able to listen.—Oussama Zahr (Metropolitan Opera House; select dates Nov. 3-Dec. 2.)


With its lists of compliments and come-ons, the Song of Songs is one of the crucial sensually suggestive parts of the Bible. “Song of Songs,” a dance-theatre work by Pam Tanowitz and David Lang, is ardent but chaste. Lang’s compositions analyze fragments of the scriptural text in limpid vocal harmony. Tanowitz’s choreography is classical and largely indirect, with touches of people dance and only hints of erotic pursuit and longing. In its formal beauty, “Song of Songs” resembles her earlier pieces “Recent Work for Goldberg Variations” and “4 Quartets,” though it’s a bit of paler. Here, each music and dance, refined of their repetitions, emphasize choral expression, communal love.—Brian Seibert (Recent York City Center; Nov. 11th of September.)

Off Broadway

Scene from David Adjmis production “Stereophonic” with Chris Stack and Tom Pecinka

Photograph by Chelcie Parry

The exquisitely designed world-première production of David Adjmi’s “Stereophonic” plunks viewers right into a nineteen-seventies California recording studio, where, between snorts of cocaine and screaming matches, an up-and-coming rock band grinds away at an album. Seated behind the blending board, the audience gazes right into a glass-walled booth where the band lays down tracks (written—though you’d never guess it from how period-perfect they sound—by Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire). Sessions are continually delayed by Peter (Tom Pecinka), the band’s perfectionist guitarist, who offers nonstop ideas (sometimes good) and feedback (never good), often to the lead singer, Diana (Sarah Pidgeon, a standout in a powerful ensemble), his long-suffering girlfriend. Adjmi and the director, Daniel Aukin, never soft-pedal the electrical drama, but, as with some seventies rock classics, you could wish that it had been trimmed.—Dan Stahl (Playwrights Horizons; through Nov. 26.)

Indie Rock

The Chicago-based indie-rock band Slow Pulp exists in a near-constant state of dazed soul-searching. Across its two albums, the group has made a fuzzy sort of dream pop that scratches the brain with its muted textures. Emily Massey, the lead singer, has a gauzy voice that dissolves into quietly lush guitar beds, and Slow Pulp’s clouded sound is mirrored by her lyrics, which navigate self-doubt. The band’s 2020 début, “Moveys,” proceeds briskly through its songs; this 12 months’s follow-up, “Yard,” is mellower in its pursuit of introspection and achievement. Its closer, “Fishes,” marks a vital turn in Slow Pulp’s evolution: toward greater trust within the self.—Sheldon Pearce (Bowery Ballroom on Nov. 1 and Nov. 4; Le Poisson Rouge on Nov. 2.)


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