It’s a difficult task for a writer to pen a memorable eulogy for another writer, especially one with a reputation as a genius. Ben Jonson may be the only one to have managed it well, when he wrote of William Shakespeare: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
That quality of timelessness was not always discerned by critics in the work of Stephen Sondheim, the musical theatre icon who died on Friday at age 91.
Following his collaborations as a lyricist with other composers on classics such as West Side Story and Gypsy, Sondheim went his own way as a composer/lyricist.
Shows like Company and A Little Night Music earned him his early reputation as an idiosyncratic talent, so urbane and so New York (and perhaps so 1970s) – it seemed as if maybe his highbrow lyrics and character-driven songwriting might be a niche taste.
There was a sense that his Sorry-Grateful view of the world and ambivalence about love could eventually go out of style like the answering services Marta sings about in the song Another Hundred People.
I think the pandemic has put that old argument to rest for good.
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which streamed on YouTube in April, 2020, was one of the first online events that truly brought joy and connection to theatre lovers around the world in a future no one had predicted.
Bernadette Peters’ simple, straight-to-the-camera version of No One is Alone from Into the Woods was the comforting lullaby needed by viewers adjusting to concepts like “social distancing.” The newfound subtext of the song didn’t need to be underlined – it was just there.
My family, briefly displaced at the start of this whole mess due to poorly timed renovations, sat on an unfamiliar couch laughing at Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald’s riotous version of Ladies Who Lunch from Company – and crying during Melissa Errico’s poignant version of Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George. (Ah, that perfect lyric: “The child is so sweet / And the girls are so rapturous / Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?”)
Flash forward to August of this year and Talk is Free, the indispensable theatre company based in Barrie, Ont., put on a semi-staged production of Into the Woods in the actual woods of Spring Water Provincial Park.
I’d seen the Broadway legends on screen do Sondheim at the start of this pandemic; now, as theatre trickled back to live and in-person, I was moved again by this full production of his best musical with professional actors backed by a chorus of seven teens in director Michael Torontow’s production.
Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale about what we tell children – and how those stories shape them and the future – hit in a new way after a year of trauma, both public and private.
“When are things going to return to normal?” is a question posed in Into the Woods’ second act, which is the most powerfully emotional in Sondheim’s oeuvre (and yet folks are always wanting to “fix” it).
The answer came in the lyric left hanging by Cinderella at the very end of the show: “I wish…” That’s as weighty an ellipsis as any ever found in Pinter or Beckett. Sondheim’s wisdom-filled works are as of this strange age as any.
If I had to name my favourite Canadian production of a Sondheim musical, it would be Talk is Free Theatre and Toronto’s Birdland Theatre 2010/2011 co-production of Assassins – which was directed by Adam Brazier and featured a cast of actor/musicians.
The concept of having the performers also play the music was no doubt inspired from the British director John Doyle. But Brazier’s execution of it was as sublimely unsettling as Doyle’s celebrated Sweeney Todd that played on Broadway in 2005 (which I had the great fortune to see in person).
I asked about the most memorable Canadian renditions of Sondheim musicals on Twitter and Facebook this week – and a number of followers and friends cited either Brazier’s production of Assassins or the original Canadian production of the same musical directed by Jordan Merkur (Eclectic Theatre and Grassy Knoll Productions in association with Canadian Stage) in 1994. It starred, among others, the late, great Richard McMillan and ended up on then Globe and Mail critic H.J Kirchhoff’s top 10 of the year.
Director Peter Hinton’s production of Into the Woods at the Stratford Festival in 2005 was championed a number of times (see Kamal Al-Solaylee’s review here) as was Alisa Palmer’s production of Sunday in the Park with George at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (my review here).
Playwright/director Morris Panych’s two productions of Sweeney Todd starring George Masswohl (most recently seen in Come from Away in Toronto) were cited. Panych took on the murderous musical for Vancouver’s Arts Club in 1999 (with Corrine Koslo as Mrs. Lovett) and for Canadian Stage in 2003 (with Fiona Reid in the same role). Here’s then-critic Kate Taylor’s rave review of the latter.
James MacDonald, artistic director of Western Canada Theatre, cited a “small but mighty” production of the notorious Merrily We Roll Along by Leave it to Jane Theatre in Edmonton in the 1990s with (current Shaw Festival star) Damien Atkins in the cast. I’m sure I’ve missed many – e-mail me with your favourite.
Sondheim shared a March 22 birthday, believe it or not, with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
A touring production of ALW’s Jesus Christ Superstar has had a little problem with its Judas, you may have heard, but forgotten during the outpouring of grief over Sondheim’s passing. The actor playing the part was arrested last week for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
That tour is in Toronto now and will be presented by Mirvish Productions until Jan. 2 – and there’s still (as of writing this) no word who will take the stage in this production as the world’s most famous traitor. I hear there is someone in town ready to take it on, but the paperwork seems to be still being worked out.
Previews of JSC start tonight at the Princess of Wales, so if you go, let me know who’s playing Judas! The media night has been pushed back from Thursday to Sunday – look for my review of the show on Monday.