I believe that Sondheim will be musical theater’s Shakespeare. In 400 years, they will still be mounting his productions everywhere, all over the world. There will be Sondheim Festivals. There will be music and drama classes dedicated just to the Sondheim canon. There will be jokes in sci fi movies about how “Sondheim is good in English, but you need to hear him in the original Klingon truly appreciate him.” And Andrew Lloyd Webber will be relegated to the Ben Jonson of his time – the occasional production here and there at the some National Theater when they need a 20th century nod but they’ve done too many Sweeney Todds in recent years.
You’ll notice that I just call Sondheim “Sondheim”. Is there any need for the Stephen? Is there any need for the “William” in front of Shakespeare?
And so in some ways, we’re lucky to live in a time where documenting what Sondheim has actually taught about performing his own pieces is so easily document-able. And, accessible.
In Fresno, there is an audition coming up for “A Little Night Music” at Stageworks Fresno (Sat the 9th). If you haven’t already come across them, and I hope many of you have, you should review the few little videos on YouTube where Sondheim teaches students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama using his own compositions.
These videos are remarkably instructive. Not so much for his direction vocally, but for his direction in how to phrase the work, how to “color” the words, how to listen to what the music is telling the performer about the language they’re delivering. Really, about how to act the pieces. Some of the students are quite adept at taking his direction. Some obviously frustrate him (the guy in “My Friends” is a classic case of “not getting it”). I love the look on his face, though, when he is delighted with how a student is performing his work.
I have a playlist of the videos on my YouTube Channel. But here is one (of 2) for my favorite song in the Sondheim rep: Send in the Clowns.
I’ve seen this song performed a number of ways, and while I love it when it is beautifully sung, the song gets me the most when it is beautifully acted. (Sondheim wrote the song for Glynis Johns, who had a nice voice, but not one that sustained notes or had a big range). You see, I had the privilege to see Judi Dench perform this song in the classic National Theater production in London in 1996. Dame Judi is not a consummate singer, either. But she is a brilliantly gifted actor and the deep sense of remorse restrained with ironic humor that she conveyed sitting on that bed was overwhelming. That entire season at the National went a long way toward rooting my theater preferences – even today. But that one performance knocked me on my ass because it illustrated that musical theater is as much about the acting as it is about the singing.
Take a gander and see if you don’t agree.