If you pay attention to theater on a regular basis, you surely know Stephen Sondheim’s name. He’s has been esteemed as the greatest creator of musical theater for more than 50 years. When he turned 80 in 2010, there were celebrations across the United States and around the world. Cincinnati has been fertile terrain for his work over the years, and in 2007 he was personally honored by the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts with its occasional Sachs Prize for individuals who have profoundly impacted our local arts scene. Sondheim came to town to receive the honor.
He’ll actually be in Cincinnati very briefly again this week for a quick visit to the Cincinnati Playhouse which is producing one of his musicals, Merrily We Roll Along, the ninth Sondheim show presented during Ed Stern’s artistic tenure. Sondheim will see a preview performance of Merrily, staged by Tony Award winning director John Doyle. In 2006, Doyle staged Sondheim’s Company here, a production that subsequently moved to Broadway and earned a Tony award.
Doyle knows his way around Sondheim shows, having staged many of them in England and more recently in the United States. He’s used an unusual approach, employing actors who are also musicians, to give an added layer of complexity and meaning to shows that are already laden with, well, complexity and meaning.
If you want to see a work by Sondheim that’s more of a classic, stop by the Aronoff Center. Earlier this week, the touring production of West Side Story opened a two-week run. That legendary musical features lyrics by Sondheim, who was just 26 when he collaborated with composer Leonard Bernstein for a story inspired by Romeo and Juliet in the context of modern gang warfare. Sondheim’s words, from the finger-snapping “Cool” and the yearning “Maria” to the lilting “I Feel Pretty” and the expectant “Tonight,” are musical theater standards today. The touring production, revived on Broadway three years ago, has been praised for its vitality. Although created in 1957, it’s still a vibrant piece of theater. (One of Sondheim’s collaborators, book writer Arthur Laurents, staged that revival at the age of 91; he passed away at the age of 92 in 2011.)
And there’s more: At UC’s College-Conservatory of Music through Sunday, you can see Into the Woods, Sondheim’s 1987 popular musical that weaves together fairy tales in a show about what constitutes happiness. (Look for my review on page 21.) UC Professor Aubrey Berg staged it at CCM 20 years ago to mark the establishment of an endowed chair in musical theater, and he’s given Into the Woods a new production two decades later because it’s become a classic. While delightfully entertaining, Berg says the work is full of common sense advice applicable to everyday life about raising children and living your life. “It shows the importance of giving up individuality and working for the common good to combat whatever giants you might encounter in your own neighborhood,” he adds.
The Sondheim avalanche continues here and beyond, especially for his most popular show, Into the Woods. A new production opens soon at Baltimore Centerstage featuring one of Berg’s recent CCM grads, Justin Scott Brown, as the slightly dense but big-hearted Jack (of beanstalk fame); it also features 1992 CCM grad Lauren Kennedy as the Baker’s practical-minded wife. Kennedy, Berg remembers, played Snow White, a tiny Into the Woods role, in his production two decades ago. He also mentions that Woods gets another high profile staging this summer when New York City’s Public Theater presents it outdoors in Central Park. One or more CCM grads will likely land in that version, too. Because Sondheim’s shows are presented so frequently, Berg says it’s important for students to experience these classic but complicated works.
If you were to see these three local productions without knowing the Sondheim connection, you might be surprised that they all derive from the same creator. In fact, each of Sondheim’s 18 major musicals (including Sweeney Todd, Assassins, A Little Night Music and Follies) is a work of singular imagination. In two recent volumes of in-depth analysis of his own lyrics, Sondheim advanced a principle: “Content dictates form.”
That’s true of each of these remarkable shows — jazzy gang dancers, humorous fairytale characters and unhappy showbiz creators — in which the words and music are servants to the story. The common thread is an artist of profound genius. Don’t miss seeing one or more Sondheim shows while you have the chance.
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