This week appears to be all about one of the world’s genius’ – Stephen Sondheim. Only this morning Mark Shenton (@shentonstage) posted about a dinner on Friday to celebrate SS being given the Critics’ Circle Annual Award for Distinguished Services to the Arts
Up in my old hunting ground of Leicester The Curve (@leicestercurve) are opening a new production of Gypsy (lyrics by Sondheim, dir by Paul Kerryson (@paulkerryson) and featuring Caroline O Connor), whilst in the West End Michael Ball and Immelda Staunton open in Sweeney Todd. Closer to home I’ll be going to the screening of Company from New York (odeon cinemas on Thursday) and the excellent Gallery Players are bringing their version of the Sondheim review Putting It Together to @Easternangles Sir John Mills Theatre.
If the tweets are to be believed the good folk of Leicester were queuing round Vinoly’s curves in droves – desperate to get into the open dress of Gypsy (1959) a show in which Sondheim says ‘he came of age’. Freed up by the success of Oklahoma (1943) Sondheim created a libretto which fizzes with character, depth and (dare one say it) story. The music (by Julie Styne) isn’t bad too! Given the amount of chatter about the show filling up my timeline looks as though Curve have a hit on their hands. Details here.
Eleven years later Company was the show where Sondheim found his true voice. There’s hardly any plot at all – it’s all about character -as Bobby re-asses his life by reviewing his relationships with his married friends and girl friends. After all what do you want to get married for? The recorded live screening (on 15 March) features a New York Philharmonic concert production (with Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Craig Berko, Christina Hendricks, Patti Lupone and Martha Plumpton) no doubt a far cry from the charming chamber version the Donmar staged in 2007(?). Still I’m very much looking forward to seeing it at Colchester Odeon. For more info see here
(As an aside – and slightly off topic – I spent a couple of hours in the company of this you tube video – the concert staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (which of course Sondheim contributed the occasional lyric too having worked with Bernstein on West Side Story). I just wish the camera had stayed fixed on bernstein throughout – his conducting is – unique!)
It’s usually Sweeney Todd (1979) that gets the opera treatment (begging the question when is a work a musical, music theatre or an opera – it’s all about the balance between words and music says director Ian Judge). Listening again there’s a hint of Sweeney in Company. In ‘someone is coming’ Robert calls out Joanne. Musically and lyrically it’s not a million miles away from Anthony’s desperate cry.
I first saw Sweeney Todd in a sports hall in Wales – in a production by Theatr Clywd [@clywdtweets] (which I think may have been directed by the New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe). Practically in the round I can still recall the extraordinary terror I felt as Todd’s horrific actions unfolded .Sondheim himself has said he wanted to write a musical like a horror movie and in that intimate (ok so it was a sports hall but still felt bloody intimate – there was no escape as the action happened in and around you!) setting it sure thrilled and scared the hell out of me! I’ve seen countless performances since but none (yet) have captured that claustrophobic fear. Perhaps Ball and Staunton (who are just about to open in the West End with the Chichester Festival Theatre production) are the ones to reverse the trend – mind I’m going to have to sacrifice an arm and a leg to find out….more info here
[another aside but talking of Clywd they stage Merrily we Roll along – directed by Nikolai Foster (@nikolaifoster) (whose Annie triumphantly occupied the West Yorkshire Playhouse over Christmas) -from 3 May – details here]
‘I stage it meticulously and in minute detail’
In Finishing the Hat Sondheim tells the story of how Arthur Laurents took him to see a session at The Actors Studio. He sat there shocked – an experience that was both invaluable and unsettling. ‘When it comes to writing a song, however, that’s my staging. I stage it meticulously and in minute detail… I learned this from Jerome Robbins…I played him ‘Maria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria and suddenly that name will never be the same to me – pause’ and he said ‘what do you want me to do in that pause?’ I said ‘well he just stands there’. He said ‘you try and stage that. Give me something to do. Stage it for me’. And I’ve taken that advice to heart ever since, and I stage everything, including pauses in songs, whether it’s just a cross or a look out to the audience… Anyone who’s watched any of Sondheim’s master classes will recognise this – the amount and level of detail he will take his students into is simply quite extraordinary.
Putting it Together
So I’m really looking forward to seeing Gallery Players step up to the challenge of Putting it Together – a 1992 revue or Sondheim best of first seen in Oxford (with a cast that included Diana Rigg, Clarke Peters (think Five Guys Named Moe) and Kit Hesketh Harvey of Kit and the Widow)
With songs from Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily we Roll Along and Follies (& more) it sounds like a perfect introduction to Sondheim’s undoubted (in my mind) genius – or for folks like me a wonderfully indulgent evening. Mind if you fall into the (not inconsiderable) camp of Sondheim detractors I say one thing – what the hell are you still reading this blog post for? The production opens Wednesday and runs until Saturday (but tickets are selling out fast – handful left for Wed and Sat now) – see here.
What makes for a good Sondheim production? Well one suspects all four productions will live or die by the great mans own rules – ‘content dictates form, less is more, god is in the details all of which is in the service of clarity without which nothing else matters’.