Want to spend an intimate evening in iconic musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim’s living room, hearing stories and insights from the man himself?
That might be a tall order, but Encore Theatre aims to come close to giving you this experience by way of “Sondheim by Sondheim,” a show, conceived by James Lapine, that marries performances of several of Sondheim’s songs, spanning his long career, with video clips of the composer discussing his life and work.
“It’s like Sondheim is giving this master class on technique and process,” said director (and Encore Theatre co-founder) Dan Cooney. “ … I didn’t see this on Broadway, but I saw a production in Chicago, in this tiny, small space, … and I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t need to be a Broadway revue thing with big costumes and kicks and spins. It can just be a night with the man.”
“The man,” of course, is a Broadway legend, having written lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” plus both lyrics and music for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Follies,” “Assassins,” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” among others.
Songs from several of these shows will be performed in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” but don’t expect a lot of dramatic costume or scene changes to place you temporarily within each musical.
“It’s kind of the opposite of that,” Cooney said. “The songs aren’t actually connected to the shows beyond (Sondheim) saying, ‘This is why I wrote this moment of the show.’ My idea of this is, it’s opening night of a ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ production, and this is the after-party at Sondheim’s house.”
In fact, set designer Sarah Tanner has taken pains to replicate the look and feel of Sondheim’s home (and music director Tyler Driskill, as a stand-in for Sondheim, will play on a grand piano at center stage). This is not the usual backdrop for “Sondheim on Sondheim,” so while it adheres perfectly to Cooney’s creative vision, it also presents challenges.
“How do you make production numbers happen in a living room?” said Cooney. “We have these giant lanterns that are supposed to light up while everything else is as black as we can make it, so hopefully, this all just goes away, leaving a more grand, open space for numbers that require it.”
Yet revues, as a genre, can be a tough sell, because a showcase of songs simply doesn’t have the same pull as a well-told story.
“Sondheim himself has said that he deplores jukebox musicals not because they’re bad or wrong, but because it doesn’t move the artform forward,” said Cooney. “I think what they’ve done with this one to make it feel less like a revue is, it’s his story – beginning, middle, end. It talks about how he started, his struggles, and his fame, … and more personal things like, he really regrets not having kids.”
Audience members will watch film clips of Sondheim speaking, throughout the show, on two big screens that have been integrated into the show’s set, and the show’s cast includes Lauren Norris, Leah Fox, Peter Crist, Thalia Schramm, Adam Woolsey, Dan Helmer, Kelsey Pohl, and Jim Walke, with Matthew Brennan as choreographer.
“Because of this ‘master class’ element, I walked away from seeing this show and I felt like, ‘Oh, I can write a brilliant musical now,’” said Cooney. “But then you sit down with a piece of paper, and after failing miserably, you realize even more what a genius Sondheim is.”
Encore’s production of “Sondheim on Sondheim” runs February 4-21, 2016, and the theater is located at 3126 Broad St. in Dexter. For more information, call (734) 268-6200 or visit www.theencoretheatre.org.
Preview by Jenn McKee