2014 is shaping up to be a banner year for Stephen Sondheim, the 83 year old composer of such classic works as Sweeney Todd, Follies, A Little Night Music and Company.
With countless revivals, reinventions, tributes and documentaries pouring in about the man who is idolized by many generations of musical theatre lovers, there has been no shortage of Sondheim in the last few months. And he will cap off the year seeing another big screen adapation of one of his works when Into the Woods hits the silver screen in December.
In Toronto, the long awaited Theatre 20 production of Company will debut in June of 2014, but first Tarragon Theatre is tackling ‘Marry Me a Little’, a show that takes lesser known Sondheim songs and puts them together to tell a story.
Marry Me A Little was recently revived in NYC, but this is the first time Canadians will get a chance to see the updated version of the story. In addition, the Sondheim Estate has given the production team permission to rearrange, add and remove songs, as well as use ‘Rainbows’ – the song that was written for the Into the Woods film and has not been heard by the vast majority of Sondheim fans.
I spoke with Director Adam Brazier and Musical Director Paul Sportelli about what it’s like to tackle Sondheim and what they think makes his music so incredibly satisfying:
What is it about Sondheim that makes you want to work on his material?
AB: From my standpoint, any chance to work on Sondheim is a thrill. I think it’s likely to be a lifelong passion and something that I will always be somewhat obsessed with and inspired by. What I like about this piece is that it in order to understand the full brevity of each song you need to understand the show it came from and where it was going to be within the show. It allows you to be very studious of his work and go back and re-examine shows you’ve seen in the past.
What has the process been like so far? How do you begin to tackle a show like this?
AB: One of the great things about this show is that we had permission from the Sondheim Estate to take some songs out and put others back in. By giving us that gift I was able to move things around and flex my own creative muscle and my Sondheim muscle to help us build our own version.
PS: It’s been great working with Adam as he’s a wonderful collaborator, and it was fun getting to choose the songs. We developed opinions about the piece and then found out what songs were at our disposal and discussed which ones we thought were most useful and which ones weren’t. We wanted to make sure we acknowledged that Marry Me a Little isn’t a show that Sondheim wrote, but rather a show assembled out of his ‘trunk songs’.
With that in mind we didn’t want to ascribe too much meaning to the piece, but conversely we also wanted to ascribe as much meaning as possible. So we wanted to pick and choose the songs that would tell the best possible story. Are we asking too much? Not enough? How far can we go without straining the material? Those were the questions we had to ask ourselves and eachother.
What is it about Sondheim that appeals to you and keeps you coming back?
AB: For me it’s the quality of the writing – I find his work incredibly gratifying and rewarding to do as a performing and I’ve enjoyed examining it as a director. Some of my favourite experiences as a performer have come from working on his material.
People often say that Sondheim is one of the hardest composers to tackle. Does that ring true with you?
AB: I find Sondheim easier than anything else. I find a good writer makes your job easy. It’s no different than Shakespeare in that regard, you can try and muscle your way around him or just let him guide you. I spend less time trying to think through the show and make sense of it and more time letting IT affect me and live it.
PS: Adrian (Marchuk) and Elodie (Gillett) are first rate singing actors so it wasn’t hard with them. They learned the material very quickly . Early on I was concerned about endurance and wanted them to check in with me, but as we got going I realized they were really on top of it. I do think Sondheim’s music is difficult but I don’t think it’s necessarily the ‘most’ difficult anymore. I think now that we’ve got composers such as Adam Guettel I might place Sondheim as ‘Tier 2′ in terms of difficulty.
Also, the songs are so well written and well constructed that people are naturally attracted to the material because they instinctively know that the songs do work. When they bring them to life it pays them back in spades because it feels so good to be involved with material that works so well.
Even when I’m playing the show, there are tricky parts, but you practice and work at the hardest bits and then it feels great to be doing it. To make the songs soar and take them off the page is incredible. It’s important to not just sing them in a reverential way, but to take the music as a blueprint and figure out the big ideas – that’s the final and most important step with Sondheim.
PS: There’s something in Sondheim that can make some interpreters approach it the way David Mamet says he wants people to interpret his work. ‘Do what’s on the page’. I don’t think Sondheim necessarily intended it to be that way, but I think his work brings that out sometimes. You can’t be over-awed by the well crafted-ness and the logic and the density. You have to say ‘yep, that’s all there but now we have to deliver the big message of the song.’ It just requires some attention and digging, but it’s very rewarding.
What about people who say they don’t ‘get’ Sondheim? Can they still come out and enjoy this show or do you have to be a ‘fan’?
AB: I think it stands alone – especially our production. Oftentimes this ends up being a memory piece, two people in separate apartments remembering times in their lives with the songs sung as soliloquies. We’ve made it active instead and have people singing to each other and engaged in the same scene.
PS: Sondheim isn’t to everyone’s taste but to fair, no composer is. There’s always going to be people who genuinely don’t response to the work. He has a very particular world view – I think he’s the guy who brought the complexity of the human psyche to musical theatre. There might be people who prefer musical theatre that doesn’t go there so much.
Basically, it’ll be an evening of rejects that is staggeringly beautiful.