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Canberra Today 18°/19° | Monday, January 24, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

A local salute to the genius of Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim.

“CityNews” musical theatre reviewer BILL STEPHENS was for some years the Australian correspondent for the American magazine, “Everything Sondheim”.

SINCE the world heard of the death of Stephen Sondheim last week, social media has been awash with the recollections of people who have met him, been in a production of one of his shows, or even just sung his songs.

Such was the influence of the composer who during his long life, he was 91 when he died, single-handedly changed the direction of musical theatre.

Rarely were his shows embraced at first hearing. Intensely intellectual, Sondheim invented his own genre and wrote to the beat of his own drum. It often took audiences years to catch up with him.

I remember experiencing my first Sondheim show in the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in 1960. It was the original Australian production of “West Side Story”. At interval, as sat in my seat, shattered by first act finale when the bodies of Riff and Bernardo lie motionless on the stage as the curtain slowly descends, the lady next to me turned to her companion and remarked: “It’s very loud isn’t it”.

Years later, in Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, in 1973, I can remember leaving the theatre with a headache brought on by concentrating so intensely on the brilliance of the lyrics in the original Australian production of “A Little Night Music”.  At the time it felt like the most difficult musical I had ever experienced. Now when I listen to a recording of this glorious show, I wonder why I thought it was so hard.

Over the years I’ve seen professional productions of just about all the Sondheim shows presented in Australia, and a great many amateur productions.  “Gypsy”, “West Side Story”, “A Little Night Music”, Merrily We Roll Along”, “Assassins”, “Follies”, “Company”, “Sweeney Todd”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, “Into the Woods” and compilations “Side By Side By Sondheim” and “Putting It Together”.

There are still a few to catch up.  “Passion”, “Roadshow”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Do I Hear a Waltz”, “The Frogs”, “Pacific Overtures” among them. Sondheim was said to be working on a new musical at the time of his death and, interestingly, Steven Spielberg’s filmic interpretation of Sondheim’s classic “West Side Story” will open in cinemas around the nation on Boxing Day.

I never actually met the man, but in 2007 I paid $100 to sit in the same theatre as him one afternoon in the nosebleed section of the Theatre Royal in Sydney. The occasion was “An Audience with Stephen Sondheim” when Jonathan Biggins interviewed Sondheim between items by some of Australia’s  most celebrated Sondheim exponents, including Geraldine Turner and Peter Coleman-Wright. You can still find it on YouTube.

Sondheim in his heyday

That night I sat in the audience for the premiere of the Kookaburra Musical Theatre production of Sondheim’s “Company”, which starred David Campbell. Sondheim was also in the audience, along with about 1000 or so others, and from where I was sitting I was able to focus on him, and wondered what he was thinking of the production, knowing that all eyes were on him. Later I attended the post-performance party hoping there might be an opportunity to speak to the man, but it was not to be.

I wanted to tell him how much pleasure his songs had given us and our audiences, during the years we ran  The School of Arts Café where many of the stars who had appeared in those stage  productions performed his songs, which had now become cabaret classics and almost de rigueur in cabaret programs. The fascination of Sondheim’s songs was how cleverly they commented on the human condition and how interestingly they responded to endless interpretation.

Established stars such as Jill Perryman, Nancye Hayes, Toni Lamond, Geraldine Turner, Bruce Barry and John O’May offered thoughtful individual interpretations of his songs when they performed at the café, while local performers enthusiastically mined the Sondheim songbook in the hope of uncovering an undiscovered Sondheim treasure to include in their program.

Queenie Van De Zandt, Peter J Casey and Mark Fuller opened their show, “Three’s Company” with a clever medley, arranged by Peter, of “Our Time”, “Being Alive” and “Something’s Coming”. Local musical theatre leading ladies, Kate Peters and Bronwyn Sullivan were masterful interpreters of Sondheim’s songs, while Doug Williams stunned audiences with his powerful, gender-bending interpretation of “Could I Leave You”.

But perhaps the day Sondheim came closest to The School of Arts Cafe was when David Campbell was performing one of his seasons there and received a fax (yes, it was that long ago) from Stephen Sondheim’s New York office. David, of course, had been personally directed by Stephen Sondheim when he starred in a revival in New York of Sondheim’s early musical “Saturday Night”.

It’s been a privilege to have lived through the whole of Sondheim’s remarkable career and while it is hard to avoid a sense of loss at his passing, so vast is his musical legacy, there is consolation in knowing that there is still much more to discover and relish for artists the world over to explore and interpret for future audiences.

 

 

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Ian Meikle, editor

Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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