Musical Theatre Notebook: Sondheim Abounds

By Caldwell Titcomb

Who stands at the top of the American musical theatre? Many people will at once cite Rodgers & Hammerstein. They were indeed illustrious collaborators, and produced eleven works for the stage starting in 1943. But only four of these are top-notch: “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “The King and I.”

The master of musical theatre in action

The correct answer to the question is composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Of his oeuvre at least ten shows are masterly achievements, extending from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962) to “Passion” (1994).

Not many are familiar with his first music-and-words effort, “Saturday Night,” written when he was 23. It was to have been his Broadway debut in the 1954-55 season, but producer Lemuel Ayers suddenly died and the project was shelved. It remained for the plucky little (133-seat) Bridewell Theatre in London, established in 1994, to mount the world premiere in December of 1997 (a cast recording was released) . The company also staged five or six other Sondheim works. The first American production took place in Chicago in 1999, and off-Broadway presented it in 2000.

The book of “Saturday Night” was written by the twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, based on their unproduced play “Front Porch in Flatbush” (their triumph was the screenplay for “Casablanca”). The slender plot is laid in the 1920s, and finds a bunch of buddies looking for weekend dates on skimpy funds.

The show is no masterpiece, but Sondheim’s perky score is remarkable for a youngster. It is just the sort of work that colleges should be mounting. And that is exactly what the Brandeis Theater Company did this fall under the direction of Professor Eric Hill and Katie Nadworny. With an orchestra of six players, the cast of 15 did admirably. Especially outstanding were the lovely songs “So Many People” and “All for You,” and Hannah King’s choreography included a dazzlingly tap-danced “One Wonderful Day.”

Autumn also brought us, courtesy of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, “Follies,” one of Sondheim’s great musicals. With its small stage, the troupe managed to find room for a cast of 27 plus an orchestra of eight. Directed by Spiro Veloudos, the production had the virtue of bringing together our area’s leading singing actresses – Leigh Barrett, Kerry Dowling, Jacqui Parker, Deb Poppel, Bobbie Steinbach, Kathy St. George, and Maryann Zschau.

Not to be outdone, the Boston Conservatory Theater a few days later offered its own take on “Follies.” Over the years these talented students repeatedly have put on musicals of professional quality – such as Bernstein’s “Candide,” “West Side Story” (with Sondheim lyrics), and “Mass,” and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” This year was no exception. Director Neil Donohoe (returning to “Follies” after having staged it 15 years earlier), elicited a stunning show with a cast of 34 and a full orchestra of 27 conducted by Reuben Reynolds III. Special praise goes to Haley Stelmon for her “Broadway Baby,” Lauren Lukacek for “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind,” and Lindsey Larson for “I’m Still Here.” Since the theatre has no orchestra pit, the singers used some amplification; but the Conservatory president has announced plans for a more suitable venue.

During the “Follies” run Sondheim himself came to town to participate in a public conversation with Sean Patrick Flahaven. This event, held in Northeastern University’s large Blackman Auditorium, completely sold out in advance. Sondheim has scheduled two further conversations, this time with former chief drama critic of the New York Times, Frank Rich – at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on January 18, and Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on February 21. (Incidentally it was Rich and his newspaper that kept campaigning in behalf of Sondheim’s pioneering “Sunday in the Park with George,” which ran for 604 performances and copped the Pulitzer Prize.)

With Sondheim’s participation, there has recently been issued a four-CD box entitled “Stephen Sondheim: The Story So Far…,” accompanied by a 77-page book with data, commentary, annotations by the composer, and a generous selection of photographs. All his works are represented (even a 1948 show he wrote as a junior in college), including incidental music for plays, and contributions to movies and television. On occasion Sondheim plays and sings. There are a few numbers that were rejected. Nine songs have not been previously released, and the lyrics for these are printed at the end of the book.

Director Hal Prince contributed an introduction, and Mark Eden Horowitz, senior musical specialist at the Library of Congress, provided a 16-page essay on Sondheim’s output. Scattered throughout are short comments by artists who have been involved in Sondheim productions – among them Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Victor Garber, Patti LuPone, and Dame Judi Dench. For anyone seriously interested in musical theatre, this is an essential acquisition.

If you want something really heavy, you might dip into the just-published “The Theatre of the Real: Yeats, Beckett, and Sondheim” by Gina Masucci MacKenzie (Ohio State University Press). Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytical thought, this book explores expressions of the simultaneous experience of pleasure and pain.


  1. Thomas A. Underwood on December 21, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Another superb piece by Caldwell Titcomb!

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