Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3
In 1994, New York magazine ran a cover story about Stephen Sondheim, which asked “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” (Not in the headline as suggested here, apparently, but in the table of contents. No matter.)
Is he God? Hell yes. In musical theatre terms the man’s a genius.
Hence the self-deprecating, comic song God, which James Lapine coaxed him to write for Sondheim on Sondheim in which he pokes fun at being worshipped and at his (ill-deserved) reputation for writing art songs without heart or melodies.
Lapine conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the revered composer/lyricist. Originally produced on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, it combines specially recorded interviews with Sondheim and archival footage with live performances of numbers from many of his musicals, along with some songs that didn’t end up making the cut.
The show is now being staged in Sydney by independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic, whose growing reputation jumped to the next level recently with superb productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone.
No wonder expectations were high for this, their latest production.
Sondheim on Sondheim is a winning concept but it needs exceptional performers to really make it fly. Act I doesn’t quite cut it here but it comes good in Act II.
The interviews with Sondheim are a constant delight. It’s thrilling to hear him talk so articulately about why he likes to write for neurotic people, the difference between poetry and lyrics, why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through three different opening numbers, along with personal things like his fraught relationship with his mother, a touching admission he would love to have had children, and the fact that he didn’t have a committed relationship until he was 60.
Sondheim tragics will know most of it already but it’s fascinating stuff. And it’s intriguing to see not just the recent interviews but others from across six decades of his life.
Mind you, it sets up a real challenge for the performers. Rather than being presented chronologically or show by show, Sondheim on Sondheim jumps around, choosing songs in response to the interview clip (though the segues into the musical numbers aren’t always seamless). It’s hard to invest the songs with the same emotional depth when they’re performed out of context and the show moves at such pace that it’s doubly difficult for the performers to move between characters and emotional states convincingly.
On top of that, we have heard Sondheim’s material interpreted by any number of people at the very top of their game not only in the musicals but in countless cabaret shows and charity concerts. We know how extraordinary the songs can be.
Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a strong cast – Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – but the songs don’t always sit completely in the pocket for all of them vocally.
In Act I, they perform with great energy. The performances are solid but the songs rarely soar or touch you emotionally, while Sallé’s choreography feels over busy at times. But Act II fares better.
Highlights for me include Krizak’s Smile, Girls, in which she brings just the right razzle-dazzle to a number cut from Gypsy; Opening Doors about young, would-be songwriters at the start of their career from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Erickson, Johnson and Sallé; Franklin Shepherd Inc. also from Merrily given a suitably manic performance by Johnson; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd sung by Phillip Lowe; and Children Will Listen performed by the Company.
The set by James-Moody works a treat. Suspended strings of scrunched up manuscript paper, like rejected versions of songs, create a backdrop through which we glimpse the eight-piece orchestra led by Hayden Barltrop.
On stage, there are eight square black stools and tiny tables, which are moved around in different configurations. It’s simple but effective.
The show assumes, I think, that the audience will have at least some knowledge of and love for Sondheim. For those not familiar with his musicals it’s a lot to get your head around (it runs for over two-and-a-half hours) but it certainly showcases his dazzling versatility and the extraordinary wealth of his body of work.
There were a couple of clunky moments from the band on opening night and the sound mix was a bit loud at times but overall it’s impressive musically.
Sondheim on Sondheim takes time to ignite and the songs are always as spine-tinglingly moving or poignant as they can be but there’s much to enjoy in it. For a small indie company it’s quite an achievement. I’m not sure it plays to Squabbalogic’s strengths in the way that many of their previous shows have done but it’s still worth seeing.
Sondheim on Sondheim plays at the Seymour Centre until October 18. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944