Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gemignani
By Dennis Polkow
“You know, you should start thinking about symphonic suites from your shows because you’re going to need them someday,” conductor and longtime Stephen Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani recalls telling Sondheim early on. “He knew that we would need them, but he would not sit down and write them.”
Sondheim, whose initial success was as a lyricist with Leonard Bernstein in “West Side Story” and Jule Styne in “Gypsy,” composed his own music to go with his own lyrics in “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.” From that show on—with the exception of writing lyrics for Richard Rodgers’ “Do I Hear A Waltz?” after the death of Rodgers’ partner and Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II—Sondheim would be the composer and lyricist for a string of shows that managed to revolutionize the Broadway musical.
“He’s one of these people that comes along every so often, like a Gershwin or a Rodgers, someone you can learn a lot from if you’re a composer or if you’re a musician like me. And in this man’s case, not only is he a musician, but he’s a poet. That, to me, makes him very unique.”
Despite his reputation as a lyricist, Gemignani insists that Sondheim’s musical prowess is no less formidable. “I started out with him where people said, ‘He writes great lyrics, but he can’t write a melody.’ Are you kidding me? He is a dramatist who writes to character completely. If you listen to all these musicals he wrote, tell me that the same man wrote ‘Company’ that wrote ‘Into the Woods.’ Tell me that that same man who wrote ‘Follies’ wrote ‘Pacific Overtures.’ They don’t even sound alike. That is the most unique thing about him. It’s like he’s the Shakespeare of music. Read the rest of this entry »
(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena
Coming on the heels of their insightful production of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Porchlight Music Theatre provides just enough silly to make “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” work. To make up for the lack of memorable hit numbers (although “Comedy Tonight” will keep you humming the next day), director Michael Weber keeps the pace and antics high. Flourishes include a very funny amount of tragedy in the opening number (as if to prove this is indeed a comedy) as well as a decidedly “cheeky” Miles Blim (as Hero) at the beginning of the second act. These fresh ideas go a long way in ensuring that the redundancy of characters dressing in drag, dressing as each other, or dressing as each other in drag is funnier than it is stale. Read the rest of this entry »
Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Kristen Hoebermann
Brandon Jovanovich has played heroic tenor roles here and around the world but this month is revealing two other sides of himself: playing the role of Walter, a German diplomat and husband of a former Auschwitz guard in “The Passenger,” the rediscovered Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at Lyric Opera, and singing diverse material of his own choosing on Harris Theater’s final “Beyond the Aria” recital of the season with soprano Amber Wagner and Ryan Center baritone Will Liverman on March 10.
“It’s a heck of a piece,” says Jovanovich of “The Passenger” in his Lyric dressing room, with scores for oratorios he is also working on visible on the piano. “There is a lot of jazz in it, some swing, there’s some funk happening there. There is some dissonance but it is also transparent in a lot of spots. It’s important to let the music speak for itself and not work against it. Read the rest of this entry »
James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist
It is hard to imagine a theatrical world devoid of Sondheim’s immense talent. Over the past fifty years he has earned eight Tony awards, in large part due to elevating the expectations of what a musical can accomplish. Sondheim is a composer/lyricist who has always thought big. It is fitting then that James Lapine’s 2010 “Sondheim on Sondheim” (which had a limited run on Broadway) strives to be more than just a big number music revue. Through the careful placement of video interviews set amongst forty musical numbers (which include alternate endings and outtakes from some of his lesser-known shows) the production sets out not only to entertain but to allow the audience a window into Sondheim’s creative process as well as the backstory of his life.
Given their experience staging classic musicals in an intimate setting, Porchlight Music Theatre is the perfect vehicle for bringing this production to Chicago. Director Nick Bowling and choreographer Emily Ariel Rogers do a superb job of patching together all the fragmented numbers into one cohesive theme. The musical numbers are arresting when they should be, but more often complement the oversized projection of Sondheim telling bits of his story (done beautifully above the stage so that he is often overlooking the production). A perfect example of this is Sondheim interrupting Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” (sung masterfully by James Earl Jones II) to explain both the barber’s motivation as well as the menace he is poised to hurl at the audience. A Sondheim lecture deserves a careful listen. Read the rest of this entry »
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II/Photo: The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization
By Aaron Hunt
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s third stage production, fall of 1947’s “Allegro,” opened to mixed reviews, creating controversy rather than covenant. After a scrape between the director and the actor’s union and the proposed dismissal of members of the orchestra and chorus to recoup costs became public, the show just couldn’t catch a break, and was shuttered by the summer.
Generally accepted wisdom says that the second outing measures the success of an artist or creative team, be it book, album or musical. At the same time, it seems to be human nature to lie in wait for a defeat, to display the morbid curiosity that causes freeway gapers blocks. The team of Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist) ushered in “The Golden Age of Musicals” in the mid-1940s with the ground-breaking “Oklahoma!” which emphasized story, and used songs to continue the story’s arc, rather than riding on the back of an established Broadway star such as Ethel Merman. In addition, Agnes de Mille’s ballet sequence focused on furthering the storyline and fleshing out characterizations, rather than making pretty, cheesecake pictures; “Oklahoma!’ ran for an astronomical 2,212 performances. The duo followed this success with “Carousel.” As was the case for “Oklahoma!” the book of the musical was based on a successful play, with de Mille again supplying balletic storytelling. It ran for 890 performances, despite its dark theme and the unprecedented use of an anti-hero in a musical. It would seem that this second rousing success would have cemented an affection for Rodgers & Hammerstein, and that financially heathy, artfully progressive output would continue in perpetuity. Read the rest of this entry »
There are those who may grouse at the remounting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that paved the way for J.R. Brown, Guettel and Sondheim. But “South Pacific” won’t go away, no matter the amount of hair-washing. There will continue to be corn-filled, beautiful mornings, and a tinkley tune set in 3/4 time, slowly swelling in orchestration and tempo until we remember our first carousel ride is not disappearing any time soon.
And just why might that be, you Grumpy Gusses, longing for louder percussion and more overt hurt? Is it the melding of perhaps overly romantic lyric to hummable melody? I won’t pretend that has nothing to do with the equation; we do like to leave the theater humming, Jason, and be able to recite at least a phrase or two of the lyrics, Stephen. But let’s look for just a moment at the themes of the pieces these two giants wove, subtly, into their effervescent canon, in light of the times in which they lived. They chose material that, in lesser hands, might have been considered too subversive to survive at the box office. Read the rest of this entry »
Stephen Sondheim’s long, lauded, and continuing career in the lyric theater has given opportunity for discovery as to his compositional demons, and the fire he uses to bully them into delivering meticulously melded words, married to inseparable pitch and rhythm. The combination of his music and lyrics fall on the ear as surprisingly as a secret newly whispered, and then sear immediately into memory, poetry that is exactly right; leave out one word or one pitch, and everything is lessened. The necessities for success, from start to finish, sit profoundly on the page. We have no reason to disbelieve his sharing in interview and print of the haunted, solitary process that drives him to agonize over every shred of text and melody.
In Porchlight Music Theatre’s mounting of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” there is much honor paid to the immaculate compositional construction that continues to make the piece a favorite. Musical director Doug Peck’s chorus blasts and floats the intricate harmonies and transgressive changes of meter flawlessly, racing about the stage delivering full-voiced Greek-chorus commentary while hauling furniture, adjusting flats, spinning the staircases of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, and turned out in Bill Morey’s period-perfect costumes.
But an accent coach is sorely needed to provide accents that ground us to place and time-period. Read the rest of this entry »
Danni Smith and Peter Oyloe/Photo: Adam Veness
Stephen Sondheim has both refined and blurred the sloppy genre that is our current understanding of lyric theater. With patter mimicking actual speech, the blazing speed of variance in meter and key, and the cheek with which he ends the first act of his first non-opera “Sweeney Todd” with a Verdi-esque quartet, it seems that the only fault that can be laid at his feet is that he is another brilliant pedant. His critics may well ask where the nearly diabolical technique is tapped down to reveal the warmth, the heart-sound behind the mind.
In “Passion,” Sondheim answers all. A lonely child, “not quite beautiful,” brilliant of intellect but stymied of connection, gushing with talent yet grasping for self-worth, only the opening heart of that child grown to adulthood could have given us this second non-opera. With nowhere to applaud, so through-composed as to be completely seamless, “Passion” invites the audience to remember what it was like to love another person for exactly who they are, in exactly that moment. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Liz Lauren
In “Road Show,” now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman compress the story of minor American legends Wilson and Addison Mizner into a peripatetic fable. The Mizners lived big, meandering and literally beguiling lives. They crossed paths with, or just crossed, many notable Americans as they made their way. The real Wilson, a Promethean con man, first sought his fortune in Alaska, where he helped create Nome with a saloon and crooked card table. Between 1910 and 1933, he worked both on Broadway and in Hollywood, where he co-wrote sexualized dramas about ambition and cons. When streetcar magnate Charles T. Yerkes died, Wilson married his widow Mary Adelaide Moore Yerkes and moved into her 5th Avenue mansion, selling forgeries of her masters paintings. Wilson had a Johnsonian knack for quips. He presumably was the first to utter “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet the same people on your way down.” Wilson eventually sued the former Mrs. Yerkes for divorce. When his attorney reportedly asked his reasons, Wilson asked “Isn’t marriage enough?” Read the rest of this entry »
Louise Pitre and Jessica Rush/Photo: Liz Lauren
This production of “Gypsy,” now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, begins gorgeously before the first note, at the silent sight of the ornate gilded frame of a stage that promises showbiz is about to happen. Then, boom, it does. The production’s big brassy crackerjack orchestra delivers “Gypsy’”s spectacular overture. It would be a fine concert piece in itself, if it did not tease the musical’s rich set of great, now standard, Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim tunes. Like the kids in the show who are ordered to “Sing Out!” by Madame Rose, the tiger-stage-mother who commands them, this production commits. This must be one of the best-looking, best-acted and best instrumental stagings of “Gypsy” ever.
The show famously recounts the teen years of Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, as her family, headed by the domineering Rose, travels the 1920s Vaudeville circuit. They’re a kitschy young children’s act composed of aging kids. The show revolves mainly around Rose and how her two daughters and loyal lover deal with, and ultimately reject her machinations. At first, the kids are played by real children. Small Emily Leahy as Louise’s headlining sister Baby June is a singing, tapping baton-twirling wonder. Caroline Heffernan as the young Louise/future Gypsy movingly conveys how being a normal, shy, smart child estranged her from her mother yearning for the family’s stardom. Read the rest of this entry »