By Daniel Skora
No composer/lyricist loomed larger on the Broadway stage during the latter half of the 20th century than Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s career began as lyricist for “West Side Story” in 1957 and “Gypsy” in 1959. From there, he went on to become both composer and lyricist for more than a dozen blockbuster Broadway shows. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, “Company”, “A Little Night Music”, “Sweeney Todd”, and “Into the Woods” were just some of the shows that bore his creative signature. The songs he composed are pure Broadway, and he has come to be known as the Father of the Modern Musical. In tribute to his contributions to the musical stage and in honor of his 80th birthday, songs from many of his shows were brought together in a 2010 musical revue entitled “Sondheim on Sondheim”. It’s that show that’s currently being presented by the Encore Musical Theatre.
Encore’s production follows the same format as the original, which was conceived and directed by Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. The set (design by Sarah Tanner) consists of a nicely appointed great room of a chic New York apartment. Framed photographs of Broadway stars and posters of legendary musicals cover the walls. A grand piano sits invitingly center stage and 6 foot tall models of New York skyscrapers stand guard at the corners. Two large screens dominate the background, and it’s from these that Sondheim reminisces about his life and career in videos taken over the years. The stories that he tells are both consequential and trivial. That he was mentored in his adolescence by Oscar Hammerstein II shares video space with him letting it be known that he composes lying on a sofa, writing with lead pencils on yellow pads while taking occasional sips of vodka.
The heart of the show is the eight cast members who deliver sensitive interpretations of songs from the Sondheim catalog. The group is a fashionably dressed ensemble of four males and four females who appear to be gathered at Sondheim’s apartment for an informal party. Sondheim’s songs are complex and sophisticated vocal expressions that test the talents of anyone brave enough to take them on. Encore’s capable cast includes Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A Helmer, Lauren Norris, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V. Schramm, Jim Walke, and Adam Woolsey. They proceed to sing their way through 40 or so Sondheim compositions, everyone in the cast getting at least one solo while other songs are sung in various combinations of the cast or by the group in toto. The songs in the show are a variety of some of Sondheim’s best along with some of his lesser known works. One new song has been penned expressly for the show entitled “God”, in which Sondheim comically pokes fun at his place in the pantheon of Broadway musicals.
Probably the lone song that would be recognizable to casual theatre goers would be “Send in the Clowns”. Sondheim says in the video that he was always surprised that the song became a popular hit. It appears twice in the revue, first as a montage of snippets from YouTube videos showing a variety of singers, from Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra to rank amateurs, performing their own interpretations of the song. Later in the show, the song is given its proper due in an impassioned vocal by Thalia Schramm.
Opening night for the show brought with it something that every theatre company lives in fear of happening. A last minute emergency for one of the cast members meant that the show was going to have to play one short of a full cast. But true to the old saying that the show must go on, the seven got together with director Daniel C. Cooney and were able to divvy up the missing member’s songs amongst themselves. With the help of some discreetly held cue cards and a lot of show biz moxie, the show went on without missing a beat.
Tyler Driskill continues to provide superb piano accompaniment for Encore Musical productions. Cast member Leah Fox also takes a turn at keyboard, displaying her own considerable talents.
“Sondheim on Sondheim” takes a provocative look at the life and music of a gifted musical composer while Encore’s production sparkles with affection and enthusiasm. The show runs through February 21st. Tickets and information are available by phone at 734.268.6200 and online at www.encoretheatre.org. The Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. Take I-94 west and exit at Baker Street.