Sondheim on Sondheim

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

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.

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

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.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson. Photo:  Michael Francis

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson in Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Michael Francis

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

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Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, April 2

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters is Broadway royalty – and she showed why with this thrilling concert at the start of her Australian tour.

Peters is now 66 but – as we’ve been saying for years – she looks decades younger. In a sparkly, figure-hugging, lavender gown split up the front, her face framed by those trademark russet curls, she looked a million dollars and has a scintillating stage presence to match.

Her distinctive voice, which moves from a gorgeous husky rasp to soaring, bell-like clarity, is also in great shape. Keeping her patter fairly tight, she let the songs do most of the talking, while still maintaining a warm rapport with the audience.

Accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra led by longtime musical director Marvin Laird, she opened with a somewhat tentative version of “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy but with her second number, “No One Is Alone” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, she took flight, undoing us emotionally in an instant.

As one of Sondheim’s foremost interpreters, her career has been closely associated with his so it wasn’t surprising that his music dominated the night, with numbers that she has performed in his shows, and others that she hasn’t.

Not that it was all Sondheim by any means. She gave us a handful of songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein: a playful, sassy version of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” that showed off her sure sense of comedy and a beautiful rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” both from South Pacific, as well as a cute “(When I Marry) Mr Snow” from Carousel.

Non-Broadway material included an amusingly sexy version of “Fever”, sung draped over the piano, which she has added to her repertoire relatively recently (“it’s my first time, so please be gentle with me”) and Disney’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”.

But it was with the Sondheim that she really shone in numbers including “Being Alive” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle and “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.

The highlights for me (though I loved it all) were heart-stopping renditions of Sally’s two numbers, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”, from Follies, the last Broadway show she did in 2011. She also sang a moving version of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which she performed when she played Desiree in the 2010 Broadway revival. It’s a song that rarely has the same impact when performed out of context but Peters brought it to fresh life.

What makes Peters so incredibly special is the way she tells a story with a song, connecting to each and every word so truthfully that it sends shivers down the spine. Sondheim’s inspired lyrics and haunting melodies seem to shimmer with extra emotion in her caressing care. Performing these three numbers in character, she broke your heart without overplaying them in any way.

She ended the night with two Peter Allen songs, “If You Were Wondering” and “I Honestly Love You” and a lullaby she wrote herself called “Kramer’s Song” to go with a children’s book she penned about her dog. As a composer/lyricist she’s no Sondheim but it was a sweet, heartfelt way to end a magical night.

Peters is Broadway royalty for a reason. Anyone who loves musical theatre should try to catch her while she’s here.

Scroll down to read my interview with Bernadette Peters about the concert tour

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne April 7 – 8, bookings www.ticketek.com.au

Bernadette Peters interview

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

You might imagine that having originated the role of the Witch quite brilliantly in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods on Broadway, Bernadette Peters might be at least just a teensy bit miffed that Meryl Streep has been cast in the 2014 film.

But if she is disappointed Peters isn’t showing it. “I didn’t ever think I was going to be cast,” she says.

“It’s a funny feeling. I actually feel proud that my role is being done by Meryl Streep. She’s great. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. If it’s not me, it might as well be one of the best actresses there are.”

One of Broadway’s brightest stars, it’s hard to believe that Peters has just turned 66, so fabulous is she looking. In fact, she never seems to age. Her unmistakable voice at the end of the phone from New York also sounds as warm, youthful and excitable as ever.

“We have really good genes in our family,” she says. “We all look pretty good. I’m Italian (born in New York). I take good care to exercise and I eat really healthy.”

A performer since childhood, Peters’ credits range from musicals including Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Song and Dance, and Sunday in the Park With George to TV shows like Smash, Will & Grace and Ugly Betty.

In 2011, she played the melancholic Sally in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Follies – her 15th show on the Great White Way. This followed A Little Night Music in 2010 in which she took over the role of Desiree from Catherine Zeta-Jones at Sondheim’s suggestion.

In recent years, she has also become a regular on the concert stage and tours Australia in April with her latest concert show. Such has been the demand for tickets that she has added a third performance in Sydney.

It’s her third trip Down Under. “The thing about Australia and why I love coming is they are the most wonderful audiences (and) the most appreciative. They are ready for it and I want to give them my all,” she says.

“I love concerts because I’m the boss. I get to choose what I want to sing. There’s no fourth wall (between me and the audience). I’m not one character (as in a musical), though I’m doing two songs from Follies – that’s the last show I did on Broadway – and those I’ll probably do in character.”

She will also sing “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music – a song she has vowed in the past she would never perform in concert. Since appearing in the musical, however, she has changed her mind.

“I was in a revival of A Little Night Music and I thought, ‘I’m never going to sing that song again (elsewhere). It’s perfect where it is in the show. It’s written for it.’ And then I had to sing something special for Steve and I thought, ‘you know what, now that I have all this information about the song, I’ll do it,'” she says.

Happy with how it went, it will be one of several Sondheim numbers on her song list for Australia along with some Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I guess it’s predominantly Broadway songs but there are all kinds,” she says. “I’ll also sing “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which is a beautiful song. I sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever” lying on the piano and I’m doing some Peter Allen.

“I loved him. We did a summer tour together (in 1989). He was so lovely and kind. You could see on stage what a giving performer he was and that’s what he was like in person.”

Peters has been performing for over 60 years now. “The thing about this job is it’s always changing,” she says. “Every time there is a new project or a new show it’s different and you keep learning and wanting to learn. How do I get to the reality of this character? How truthful can I make it? That’s what drives me: to keep learning and sharing.”

Asked about her career highlights she nominates Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy.

“That’s an amazing role. It’s like the King Lear of musical comedy for women. I love a great role where you can keep playing it night after night and get deeper and deeper into it and find out more and more. I’m very fortunate to have had (several) roles like that: Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Desiree in A Little Night Music. That’s a fabulous role.”

Sondheim, who wrote many of the shows dearest to her, has played a major part in her career and is now a friend.

He has said of Peters, “Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned” – and the admiration is mutual.

“I thank him all the time for giving me things to sing about,” she says. “In my show I sing a lot of Sondheim because he writes about real things, interesting and important things. The sentiments in some of the songs (are something) I like to remind myself about: “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods), “With So Little To Be Sure Of” (from Anyone Can Whistle).

“The great thing is he’s there to ask him a question. It’s like having Shakespeare there and saying, ‘now what did you mean?’ It is a great gift.”

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, April 7 – 8, bookings www.ticketek.com.au

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 16

Adam Guettel in Concert: review

Slide Cabaret, June 6

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

Tony Award-winning Broadway composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is currently in Australia for the first time for a series of performances and masterclasses.

Soon to appear at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and Melbourne Cabaret Festival, he did a one-off performance at Sydney’s Slide cabaret lounge this week.

The grandson of legendary musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers, Guettel has been compared to Stephen Sondheim, while Sondheim himself has described his music as “dazzling”.

I must confess that I didn’t know a great deal of his music before seeing him perform at Slide. I have a cast recording of his musical Floyd Collins (which Kookaburra was going to perform a few years ago but then cancelled) but only a passing acquaintance with his other shows – so the chance to hear his music, performed by the man himself, was special and very welcome (thanks to producer Jeremy Youett of Your Enterprises).

Accompanied on piano by his longtime musical director Kimberly Grigsby (musical director of Spider-Man on Broadway), Guettel performed songs from Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza (for which he won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations) and his song cycle Myths and Hymns.

He also sang a few numbers from several new musicals he is currently writing including Days of Wine and Roses based on the 1962 film about an American couple who succumb to alcoholism, and Millions based on Danny Boyle’s 2004 film about two young brothers whose mother dies and who find millions in stolen cash – a musical Guettel described as being “about saints and cherubs” and how the boys “un-break their hearts”.

For several of the numbers he was joined by Haley Bond, a vocalist with a beautiful, pure voice, who he revealed to be his fiancée. As you’d expect there was an easy, intuitive rapport between the three of them.

Guettel has a great deal of charm, displaying a nice, self-deprecating, laid back sense of humour. He kept talk fairly tight, telling us mainly about the songs, but there was a lovely honesty to the way he engaged with the audience.

He played guitar for a couple of numbers, explaining amusingly how he is self-taught on the instrument so has to retune it when he wants to change key, as he did between two numbers here.

You can see why he is compared to Sondheim (though for my money he doesn’t rival Sondheim – but then who does?). His music is often complex with shimmering textures and emotional intensity. Many of the songs had a melancholic, yearning beauty but there were none you’d describe as showstoppers and for a cabaret show it could have done with a bit more variety musically, more changes of mood, and more light and shade.

Perhaps Guettel sensed that because at one he said that next time he came to Australia he’d bring some perkier songs.

Perhaps too, the songs didn’t have quite the same power performed out of context that they would have in the shows they come from.

Nonetheless, it was a treat to hear him perform his own music, much of which is undeniably beautiful, and especially to hear the new material, including a song called Something That We Know, which he said had never been heard publicly before. Fans of his will be very happy – and doubtless the show will win him more.

Adam Guettel performs at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 22 and the Melbourne Cabaret Festival on June 29 & 30.