“The power of Sondheim: TSR contributors and others describe how Sondheim affected them”
News and Notes
Sondheim at 80
Mark Eden Horowitz suggests that Stephen Sondheim — and his music — won’t leave us alone
TSR contributors share anecdotes and memories about how Sondheim has affected them
Night Music’s Broadway revival
A shadow of oblivion: TSR’s review of the Broadway revival
Theatre critics assess the revival of A Little Night Music
Catherine Zeta-Jones is a flamboyant and vulnerable Desiree
Alexander Hanson wears Fredrik’s nightshirt for the second time
Ramona Mallory has family ties to Night Music, but she’s making it on her own
Jason Robert Brown writes about a youthful encounter with Stephen Sondheim
James Lapine discusses collaborating with Sondheim
Music director David Loud talks about Sondheim on Sondheim
Sondheim’s use of names
Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre in Virginia
Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle
A Sondheim tribute at Manhattan School of Music
Penn State presents Sunday in the Park with George
Book review: Theatre of the Real
Recording review: Road Show
Singing Sondheim: Songs on new recordings
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
The Power of Sondheim
TSR contributors and others describe how Sondheim affected them
Last century, when I was a timid and bookish teenager, I joined the Fireside Theatre, a now defunct book club that specialized in plays. The initial offer included the hardcover edition of Company. I had been reading plays for years, but Company was unlike anything I had encountered before: Not only did I find it structurally innovative (read: hip), but it made a drama of being alone, a condition I was all too expert at. For a solitary adolescent, this was reassuring, even comforting. If Robert was still seeking someone at 35, maybe I shouldn’t sweat it at 15. Being a curious and methodical type, I also purchased the original cast LP, which spun my head around. I had tutored myself in Broadway musicals, but here was a sound I had not heard before: a fascinating synthesis of electric guitars and sweeping orchestrations, contemporary language arranged in dizzying vocals and lyrics that demanded careful listening. Company taught me that a character’s mental/emotional state could be the subject of drama, that song lyrics could say intelligent and uncomfortable things, that the Broadway musical could express the confusions, uncertainties and unspoken longings that modern life made unavoidable. And that helped me feel less alone — and more alive. — Paul M. Puccio, Little Falls, N.J.
My first exposures to Sondheim were like windows into foreign worlds. Seeing Company and Follies as a 13- and 14-year-old, provided scary, exciting and fascinating views of adult doings. “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “I’m Still Here,” “The Right Girl” and the like seemed to be warnings of all the pitfalls and dangers ahead, but they were not from a universe I inhabited. Then a Sondheim work coincided with the life I was living, and the reverberations from that direct hit have never stopped. The song was “Later” from A Little Night Music, and for the first time all my inner-most secret thoughts, fears, desires and passions were laid bare in 32-bar song. It wasn’t only the ideas expressed in the lyrics , but the thwarted intensity in the music — all that turgid emotion in the accompaniment, and the hope and daring in those brave leaps, punctured like balloons by deflating pizzicatos. Since that time, Sondheim has given voice to my secret self on many occasions and now, alas, I have grown into some of those earlier numbers of anger and regret. But never have I regretted having his songs to underscore and illuminate the journey. — Mark Eden Horowitz, Washington, DC
With the emphasis in recent years on more intimate (“chamberized”) Sondheim, I feel like the rest of the world is finally seeing what I saw in a series of scrappy, un-star-studded, and for me definitive productions in tiny Los Angeles theatres throughout the 1990s: a knockabout Into the Woods at Actors’ Co-op, an impassioned Sweeney Todd at East West Players, an electric Assassins at L.A. Rep, a delicious Putting It Together at the Colony, an urgent Company at West Coast Ensemble. These 99-seat productions confirmed for me what a broader audience and the critics seem to be noticing lately, thanks in part to revivals by John Doyle and at the Menier Chocolate Factory: that Sondheim’s piercing, complicated lyrics, as well as the jagged, richly satisfying counterpoint of his music, work surpassingly well when we’re close enough to the actors to see their lips form the words and when the band is small and tight enough that we can hear each line of the interlocking accompaniment. (I know this last point is controversial, and audiences for Sondheim’s newer Broadway revivals often pay full price to hear smaller orchestras, minus the increased intimacy.) My run of superlative Sondheim in L.A. culminated with East West Players’ Pacific Overtures, which opened their new midsized theatre in Little Tokyo in 1998. Even at this slightly bigger venue, the intimacy — not to mention the almost prophetic relevance of the show to its setting — was in full effect, and has seared that rendition that indelibly in my memory . — Rob Weinert-Kendt, New York City
I must have been about 12 when I first encountered Sondheim’s music. It was through a pretty adventuresome community theatre. Over the course of two or three years I saw what might today be considered “chamber versions” of Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. I was instantly taken. My dad, a dedicated Richard Rodgers fan, always complained that the music wasn’t as melodic and the people were so unhappy. Teenage rebellion struck, and I decided all Rodgers must be bad and all Sondheim must be good. Thankfully, with age, I’ve come to realize that there can be just as much pith in a Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Similarly, my dad’s come to appreciate Sondheim’s work, most notably Sweeney Todd. He’ll watch the video of the original Hal Prince production at the drop of a hat and swears it’s one of the best musicals ever. — Andy Propst, New York City
I had been invited to audition for the understudy roles of Pirelli and The Beggar Woman because I played instruments, so I thought I should see the John Doyle version of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Since I was a flute and voice major in college, I will admit to being jaded about what I was going to see. I imagined that the acting would be superior and the music would be just so-so. I spent the entire first act with my jaw dropped. They all acted, sang and played in the best version of Sweeney I had ever seen. The musicianship was amazing, and I heard things I had never heard before in relation to the characters and the instruments being “one.” It was so gritty and real that I left thinking “Oh my gosh, I can’t understudy that, it’s too complex!” I didn’t need to worry; I wasn’t cast. A bit later I was called in for Doyle’s Company and learned, from the ground up, how to dive into a Sondheim musical with both feet … and fingers. — Kristin Huffman, Milford, Conn., who played the role of Sarah (plus flute, sax and piccolo) in the Tony Award-winning revival of Company
During my senior year in high school in the late ’70s I began studying Greek, believe it or not! Later that year I was cast in a production of The Boy Friend, in which I was a featured danced dancing a tango. One night on TV a promo appeared for an upcoming episode of The Dick Cavett Show with Elaine Stritch as a guest. As it happened, she is a distant relative of my best friend, who called and told me I had to watch. Elaine sang “Anyone Can Whistle,” and you can imagine the moment when I heard the lyric “I can dance a tango, I can read Greek.” It was a definite “stop moment.” Never mind that, as so many Sondheim fans often report, the rest of the song spoke to me on very specific and intimate levels. That was the night that Stephen Sondheim’s art entered my world. — John Bell, Center Valley, Pa.
“Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company.” Standing at the back of the orchestra in the Alvin Theatre, hearing Larry Kert sing these words, seeing Boris Aronson’s jungle gym of elevators and platforms, experiencing this heralded new Broadway arrival, I knew that Company was what I’d been waiting for. Time has not dimmed my ardor, nor has another Sondheim opus supplanted my ardor for this show. Is there a more visceral, pulsating, energetic or musically dazzling opening number in musical theatre? Is there a show with more songs that can unequivocally be called showstoppers. Indeed, are there any in Company that cannot be so described? Is there not at least one character to whom anyone can relate? From a series of non-musicalized, one-act plays, Sondheim and George Furth fashioned something unlike anything else. Despite being labeled a forerunner of the new breed of “concept musicals ,” this trailblazer is a show that integrated song, dance, and dialogue. It’s a clear descendant of the lineage that began with Oklahoma! — Jerry Beal, William Paterson University, Wayne, N.J.
When I took the plunge and first subscribed to cable TV in the early ’80s, I was determined to get my money’s worth by watching everything on the pay channel. Showtime used a clever marketing ploy to promote its presentation of the national tour of Sweeney Todd: “This is the musical that shocked Broadway!” I had heard of Sondheim from reading theatre reviews in news magazines, but had never seen any of his shows. From the first viewing of Sweeney I was hooked. I borrowed a VCR, taped the show next time it was on and watched it over and over, sometimes multiple times in one day. Near obsession followed, and I read all I could about the creators and performers. That started me down the path of eventually writing occasionally for TSR. — B.J. Sedlock, Defiance, Ohio
I used to be a casual Sondheim fan. I mostly knew his work as the lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy. It wasn’t until I saw the 2004 Broadway production of Assassins during my senior year in college that I recognized his genius. This musical that made me simultaneously sympathize with and despise these killers. One scene in particular stands out: Alexander Gemignani as John Hinckley and Mary Catherine Garrison as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme singing “Unworthy of Your Love,” with its beautiful melody and disturbing lyrics. The dichotomy between the two unnerved me, and I liked it — it wasn’t something I was used to witnessing on a Broadway stage. Since then, I’ve never missed a Sondheim show that was playing near me and I’ve seen some gems. Nevertheless, Assassins remains my favorite. — Linda Buchwald, New York City
Seeing the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd was an incredible theatrical experience and a great introduction to Sondheim’s musical genius. My ticket was for the Feb. 2, 1980, a Saturday evening performance before Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou left the cast. The weather in New York was enervating, windy and bitterly cold. I’d spent the afternoon at Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera, preceded that weekend by Otello. When I got to the Uris Theatre, I discovered that I’d lost my ticket. Exhausted by the cold and two intense operas, I nearly returned to the warmth of a friend’s apartment. But the house manager found a seat for me, and I was soon enthralled by the production’s complex set. Having only seen Gypsy live, I was a Sondheim novice. By the time Lansbury and Len Cariou sang “A Little Priest,” I was agog. The dramatically charged second act was just as exciting. After the show ended, I joyously pumped my fists in the air. Maybe seeing Sweeney when Cariou and Lansbury were peaking was serendipity, but it was a great way to get hooked on Sondheim. — Jerry Floyd, Washington, D.C.
Although I adored the original Broadway version of Into the Woods, my favorite production was one for which I served as musical director at the Black River Playhouse in Chester, N.J., an old church converted into a theatre-in-the-round. Aside from an excellent cast, what made this production so marvelous was the intimate space — the theatre seats no more than 100 people — with actors literally walking around the theatre and forcing the audience to join the characters in their journeys through the woods. The circular nature of the space illustrated how these individuals were not merely embarking on a linear journey to reach some unobtainable object (especially when they realize that their physical prizes were useless), but rather they were spiraling deep into their psyches toward the epiphany that no one is truly alone. With our director’s expert staging, this charming theatre-in-the-round enhanced the frustrated journeys of the main characters, while their relentlessly circular movements were obsessively in sync with Sondheim’s score, with its repeated musical motives and lyrical phrases. — Patrick Horan, Bloomfield, N.J.
I first discovered Stephen Sondheim’s work when I was about seven and saw a rerun of an episode of The Brady Bunch, “The Show Must Go On?” Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) and Marcia (Maureen McCormick) performed at a school talent show where, dressed as hoboes, they sang “Together, Wherever We Go.” I instantly found the song to be lyrically and musically superior to the usual bubblegum fare on that sitcom (“It’s a Sunshine Day,” “Time to Change”). I distinctly liked the “she goes”/”egos”/”amigos” rhyme scheme, even though I had to ask my mother what an “ego” was. Don’t smirk about the song’s appearance on The Brady Bunch; given the number of times that particular episode has been rerun over the last 35 years in hundreds of markets around the world to tens of millions of viewers, it just might be Sondheim’s most widely heard lyric. — Andrew Milner, Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Is there any show in American musical theatre more graceful than A Little Night Music? Any examination of what went wrong with the American Dream more incisive than Assassins? (Well, maybe Road Show.) Any meditation on evil more chilling-yet-exhilarating than Sweeney Todd? What makes Sondheim’s scores the most penetrating in the canon is their integrity, in the sense of wholeness, of being complete and undivided. Those critics who insist that “Sondheim can’t write melody” clearly haven’t been listening to the soaring “Kiss Me” or the long, sustained orchestral line underlying the frantic New York patter in “Another Hundred People.” Instead, they’ve been hearing the words — and little wonder. Sondheim’s lyrics are the quirkiest, the edgiest, the most literate; they are bearers of emotional truth. “Which comes first generally — the words or the music?” that clueless interviewer asks Charley Kringas in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” In Sondheim, the words and the music are one. You can pick them apart if you want, but they’re as intertwined as a double helix of DNA. That’s the quality that makes a Sondheim musical a “Sondheim Musical” — to the extent that casual observers tend to forget the Hugh Wheelers and the James Lapines and the John Weidmans of this world and assume Sondheim wrote, in the words of Buddy Plummer, “the whole show.” They provide the book, but he supplies the soul. — Diane Nottle, New York City
The bold jacket to the original cast LP, still looking groovy after all these years, proudly proclaims Company: A Musical Comedy. On first glance at what quickly became a “desert island disc” for me, I thought it might have been an ironic moniker. Hadn’t Sondheim abandoned “pure” musical comedy as he pushed the form forward with this landmark concept show? How wrong I was. Sondheim and Furth’s Company takes all the elements of musical comedy — the book! the score! the choreography! the production numbers! — and puts them in service of an acute, incisive look at relationships that is still raw and truthful today. The characters are so identifiable, so familiar that it’s impossible to leave the theatre without looking into ourselves and those good crazy people, our friends. And Sondheim’s score? It finds music in everyday life and yet sounds like no other score. “Thrilling” and “pulsating” come to mind. It’s edgy and rhythmic, like the city that is in its DNA. Moreover, Company lends itself to a staggering variety of interpretations by directors and performers. Every new production is an adventure. The orchestration, the setting or the tone might change, will change, but I remain provoked, intrigued, laughing, crying, relating — it’s simply the best that musical theatre and musical comedy can offer. Company is timeless. It remains the most affecting show for me in Sondheim’s entire canon. — Joe Marchese, Clark, N.J.
The original production of Follies was unique. Instead of being told in a typical clear narrative style, the show had a dreamlike atmosphere, going from scenes with the lead characters to a vignette with a minor one, from present to past, and then having the past and present interacting. Things that could seem unreal or pretentious worked and seemed natural. And when, on a dark, almost bare stage, in the middle of the quarreling characters, Loveland suddenly appeared out of nowhere, filling the theatre with light and music — the effect was incredible. Financial reasons would probably keep anything on that level from being done today — unfortunately, because part of the point of Follies is the contrast between the lavishness of the “Follies” and the reality of the lead characters’ lives. The original performers supplied unforgettable moments: Gene Nelson’s dance to “The Right Girl”; the way, at the end, when Buddy is telling Sally they will deal with things tomorrow, Dorothy Collins is looking out into the empty theatre and saying, “Dear God, this is tomorrow.” — Greg Darak, Trumbull, Conn.
For every artist, there is one moment in your life when something clicks within you and things just make sense. For me, I will always remember the moment I saw Sunday in the Park with George for the first time. It was a period of time when I wasn’t sure of my path. I was uncertain what I should do with my life. As “Sunday” finished the first act, I found tears pouring down my face. Not tears of sadness, but rather joy, for at that moment, everything finally made sense. I had the opportunity to play George a few years later. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I find myself most alive when I have the opportunity to work on a Sondheim piece of production — to get lost in the world of his amazing work. I’m still finishing my hat. I hope I never finish it. — Micah-Shane Brewer, Morristown, Tenn.
Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along came to the Bloomsbury Theatre in May 1983. The first London production was by students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, directed by Ian Judge, a director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It had six performances before a short transfer to the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and 11 performances at the Bloomsbury. News of the shows failure at New York’s Alvin Theatre late in 1981 drew some top-drawer theatre critics to this London premiere, including the Guardian’s Michael Billington, who wrote a very favorable notice. The songs were fascinating because they seemed to be variations of each other, and the narrative of the juvenile hopes and aspirations becoming corrupted by success, fame and greed was worthy of Dickens. The negative Broadway reception had led Sondheim and Lapine to revise and enlarge the unpleasant character of Gussie who, in later versions, became very destructive. The early version has been withdrawn and Gussie has taken over, but I fondly remember the original. Perhaps Michael Grandage agreed when he used the earlier version at the Donmar in 2000. He pleaded ignorance when told that he had used the unlicensed version. Although Sondheim has said he likes the revisions, many of us prefer the original. — Bill Bray, London
We began our friendship as partners at bridge (a onetime Sondheim avocation) and then discovered that we shared a passion for the work of Stephen Sondheim. Together we have been inspired, moved and forever changed by attending productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Road Show, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Assassins and our favorite, Company, as well as benefit and tribute concerts. We have also made a trip to the Museum of Broadcasting to see Evening Primrose and have contributed articles to The Sondheim Review. Our friendship continues to be enhanced and deepened by our connection to this greatest of American musical theatre composers. — Jim Schneider and Mark Shaiman, Long Island, N.Y.
I had always liked Kaufman and Hart’s obscure 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along, so I was thrilled when I heard that Sondheim and Prince were making it into a musical. As a former aspiring lyricist who grew up in the late ’50s and the ’60s, when I heard that the playwright and painter protagonists were being changed to a composer and lyricist team, and that the between-the-wars time period was being updated to 1955-1980, I had this weird feeling that the show was being written especially for me. The score lived up to my impossible expectations. I especially liked the way the characters’ songs reflected the world around them in the particular year in which each song was set. In 1968, “Old Friends” showed civility fraying at the edges. In 1973, the collapse of the protagonists’ friendship on live network TV in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” echoed the invasion of privacy and televised drama of the Watergate hearings. But my favorite song was set in 1960. “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” absolutely froze a moment in time: the heady optimism of the aftermath of JFK’s election, as expressed in the barrage of Kennedy jokes; the cultural icons of the moment; and the kind of clever revue numbers that were featured in cabarets like “Upstairs at the Downstairs.” There is not a single false note. The song is funny and poignant and nostalgic all at once — like the entire score, a brilliant tour de force. — Charles Troy, Chicago
I’m too young to have seen the original production of Follies, which I imagine I dream of the way that post-Boomer rock lovers do of Woodstock. Still, Matthew Warchus’s 2001 Broadway staging was my first Sondheim production, and the show has been my favorite musical since then. Critically assailed as that revival was, it seared moments into my memory: “The Mirror Song,” Sally’s crazed ardor in “Losing My Mind,” the ghost-parade, set to the ravishingly hypnotic music of the Prologue, with showgirls as pale and faded as porcelain dolls. As I’ve gotten older and more aware of roads not taken, my appreciation for Follies has only deepened. It’s a shattering and incredibly audacious show. Sondheim conjured the forms of musical theatre’s past with such loving detail and precision, even as he exposed their lyrics for beautiful lies, and their romantic utopias for nowheres. Nonetheless, hope pervades the bleakness. Exploding the tension between our modern cynicism and nostalgia for impossible Lovelands, Sondheim and Goldman also remind us how dreaming, when matched with survival instinct, can endure gracefully through the demolitions of life. To quote from another show whose original production I missed, I’ll drink to that. — Maya Cantu, New Haven, Conn.
I live in a town called Street, in Somerset in the southwest of the U.K. I have played in pit orchestras most of my adult life for what Americans call “community theatre.” Company was staged in 1985 by Strode Productions, an “enabling organization” that accepted proposals from directors keen to put on a particular show, then put up the cash, organized the production team and called an open audition. Company attracted the cream of our local talent, including an American couple who lived in the area and helped to coach the American accents. I declined the invitation to music direct the show because I didn’t think the cast could cope with the complexities of the score. Boy, was I proved wrong! I played in the orchestra and got such a kick out of the score. I remember thinking that Jonathan Tunick must have been a percussionist because he scored for percussion so brilliantly. But a bass player colleague thought he must have been a bass player for the same reason. — Ralph White, Street, Somerset, U.K.
The greatest production I’ve seen of a Sondheim show was the 2002 Royal Festival Hall production of Follies. The production had three outstanding principals: Louise Gold as Phyllis, Kathryn Evans as Sally and Henry Goodman as Buddy. A quarter of the cast had trained at the Arts Educational School, so they could sing and act, and their dancing was excellent. Sondheim shows usually need performers who excel as singers and actors, but for Follies, the girls must be able to tap-dance to a high standard for “Who’s That Woman?” and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Both numbers were terrific, but in the latter Gold was truly sensational. Phyllis requires an actress who can sing, dance and act. Gold did all three. — Emma Shane, London
The greatest production of a Sondheim show that I ever saw was the 1995 Sam Mendes Donmar Warehouse production of Company, my favorite Sondheim show. That show marked the movement of musical theatre into the cold cruel contemporary world, away from the saccharine storylines of other shows. It also played an important role in gaining a wider acceptance of Sondheim’s work with London audiences. Adrian Lester’s performance of “Being Alive” was one of the finest ever of a Sondheim song, captured for posterity with the rest of the show on CD and screen. It was also the professional introduction to Sondheim’s work of Anna Francolini, who went on to appear at the Bridewell Theatre as Helen Vogel in the world premiere of Saturday Night. — Mark Smithers, York, North Yorkshire, U.K.