CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- During a performance of the current Actors Playhouse's splendid production, a thespian was interrupted soon after he began singing one of the musical's songs.
But nobody was perturbed, or even slightly bothered. In fact, some audience members chuckled.
That's because the musical is unlike many others you'll encounter, and the interrupter in this case is a master and legend. No disrespect to the cast (which is top-notch, by the way, along with the crew,) but somebody like Stephen Sondheim has earned the right to speak -- even if it's over the singing voice of an actor (again, no disrespect meant by this critic, or Sondheim himself).
The interruption is built into the script of "Sondheim On Sondheim," the insightful, humorous and touching plunge into Sondheim -- the man, his music, his method and his background.
This original musical, which is on the Actors Playhouse's mainstage through April 3, features not just singing actors but multimedia technology. It allows Sondheim himself to provide commentary and anecdotes about his life and songs, before and in between musical numbers so that we gain a deeper understanding of, among other things, what he wrote, why he wrote it and the challenges he encountered along the way. The production's visual elements include video screens on which Sondheim appears, talking about his process and flashbacks to interviews he's conducted.
The video segments, obviously, aren't live (they show Sondheim during different points in his life, including pictures of him as a boy) but no one in their right mind would complain that this is live theater and Sondheim needs to appear live, as though via skype. After all, how often do you get the chance to hear, from his own mouth no less, somebody like Sondheim, who actor Mandy Patinkin called "The Shakespeare of the musical theater world." Sondheim, whose precise, witty, sophisticated, character defining lyrics and complex, tuneful music (despite criticisms that Sondheim's songs are not hummable) have revolutionized musical theater, has also been rightfully called "The Father of the Modern Musical" and "The Master." In a parodic moment in the show, we're even treated to a song called "God" Sondheim wrote just for this musical. It showcases his wit and his special way with a rhyme.
I mean the man’s a god!
Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd with a nod to De Sade
Well, he’s odd
Well, he’s God!
The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart
It has heart?
Well in part…
Let’s not start!
Call it art.
Self-deprecation aside, the man's human and this revue, which features two-dozen of Sondheim's well-known, and perhaps some not as known, songs. They're mostly arranged themeatically to tell Sondheim's story, rather than a "And then he wrote..." revue format.
Some of the lyrics, while written for specific shows, also assume new contexts when applied to Sondheim's life.
Take "Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods." In "Sondheim on Sondheim," the birthday boy (he turns 86 on Tuesday), tells us his parents divorced during his childhood and his mother once wrote a letter to him stating the following: Her only regret in life was giving birth to him. The song "Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods" follows and some of its lyrics are: "Careful the things you say, children will listen."
It's a kind of warning song to adults to set a positive example for their children for their future. Fortunately, Sondheim had a strong support system with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and his family, who lived nearby. It's the same Hammerstein who teamed with composer Richard Rodgers to create countless classics we've grown to love. Hammerstein, Sondheim tells us, taught him everything he knows about lyric writing. Clarity and simplicity are among the qualities Sondheim strives for in his writing, he adds.
But Hammerstein was more than Sondheim's teacher; he was a dear friend, as we learn.
You'll want, no, NEED to have your hankie handy, because, toward the end of the musical, Sondheim reveals a heartfelt, tear-inducing moment between the two men as Hammerstein was dying of cancer. Tears welled in my eyes and also had Sondheim choking back emotion.
While Sondheim explains that some of his songs didn't work in the opinion of directors and he's had to complete a song once its shape has completelychanged (from an octet to a duet in "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from "Follies), "Assassins" is a musical he feels needs no changes. One of the songs from the show about presidential killers vividly contrasts the complexity of making a gun with how simple it is to inflict permanent, life-changing damage.
"All you have to do is crook your little finger, hook your little finger 'round...It took a little finger, no time to change the world."
Sondheim's never shied away from tackling dark, disturbing issues and perhaps that's why some theaters might be hesitant to stage his works. We, as audience members, have a tendency to cling to comfort and prefer not be challenged or provoked, which is a mistake; theater and all the other arts reflect life, which is hardly always pretty. Not to rant, but it's time for much more Sondheim and others who pen thought-provoking, uncomfortable works that make us reconsider ourselves, how we live and how we can work to bring about change for the better.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," about a vengeful barber longing to reclaim his kidnapped daughter in 19th century London, is one of Sondheim's darker, more violent works. Sondheim notes that some of the music features short, staccato notes, reinforcing a sense of violence. It's almost as if Todd, by singing these quick, sudden, sharp notes, is repeatedly "stabbing" or "shooting" the listener.
The song "Epiphany," from "Sweeney," requires the actor to switch seamlessly from acting hell-bent on revenge to conveying vulnerablity and worry at the prospect of never seeing his daughter again.
In solo and ensemble numbers, there are plenty of strong scenes delivered by the cast of eight, which features Wayne LeGette, Lourelene Snedeker, Margot Moreland, Don Juan Seward II, Lindsey Corey, Christopher A. Kent, Marilyn Caserta and Alexander Zenoz.
Cast members deftly match their characters' thoughts and lyrics with appropriate gestures. They bring an infectious enthusiasm to "Comedy Tonight," the opening song from "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum," a deadly serious demeanor to "The Gun Song" from "Assassins" and an anxious, anticipatory aura to "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story." That musical, by the way, preceded "Sondheim by Sondheim at the Actors Playhouse, which gave it a heartfelt, tough and ultimately heart-shattering production. Another musical featured in "Sondheim on Sondheim," "Passion" received an exemplary production recently by Miami's Zoetic Stage.
Sondheim's songs, which can be difficult to sing due to their complexity, including intricate harmonies and tounge-twisting rhymes, require a performer to act as well as sing; his musical numbers are sort of mini-plays unto themselves.The performers sing the songs with ease and confidence. And there's no shortage of honest, emotional portrayals from these talented performers with gorgeous, rangy, expressive voices -- voices accompanied by a lush sounding chamber orchestra, under the direction of musical director David Nagy.
Director David Arisco's sensitive, detailed direction includes telling, striking stage pictures. No one performer upstages the others, which is a credit to Arisco.
Sondheim will turn 86 tomorrow and the visually appealing set design by Tim Bennett could appear to be a uniquely-designed birthday cake. The set comprises blown-up sheet music from Sondheim's songs surrounding a black piano, mounted on a white and brown (icing on the cake?) staircase. There are also the video screens, of course, which feature not only images of the birthday boy but depictions of Broadway's theaters.
Eric Nelson's lighting design, featuring colors such as pink, blue and red, creates a festive, jovial atmosphere for upbeat numbers, and darker lighting for the somber numbers.
Ellis Tillman's costumes are appropriate for a Sondheim show - they're formal and feature a sophisticated look.
Sondheim's sophisticated, but on the taped video segments, he never comes across as arrogant or conceited. He is, at turns, relaxed, thoughtful, passionate and even God-like in the song "God." He looks as though he's deep in thought, serious and about to render a severe judgement.
If he were to attend this production, judging for himself -- and Sondheim has proven to be one tough judge when it comes to meeting his standards -- he'd be enjoying one happy, satisfying anniversary of his birth.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Sondheim on Sondheim"
WHEN: Through April 3.
WHERE: Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
For ticket information, visit www.actorsplayhouse.org or call (305) 444-9293.