This past month, I had the opportunity to invite a few friends to see David Arisco’s latest directorial turn at Actors’ Playhouse. Fresh off the smash success of West Side Story, Arisco has taken a deeper dive into the world of Stephen Sondheim, the musical theater genius who many of us have known and admired for more than a half century.
The show is a mash-up of some of Sondheim’s most memorable works — Send in the Clowns being my favorite, followed by Comedy Tonight — and his more obscure ones, such as songs from the show Passion (recently debuted at the Arsht Center’s Zoetic Stage in a sell-out run) as sung by eight actors representative of different periods of time in their (and Sondheim’s) lives.
As an added bonus, Sondheim does his own star-turn, appearing larger than life via projection screens hung over the main stage, floating in and out of the show at just the right time to give us the most salient details and private gossip. His free-flowing interviews are part catharsis, part storytelling, but in either case you feel connected to him and his talent and better understand the origins of his songs and their impetus. Sondheim is often regarded as “quite possibly the greatest lyricist that ever lived.”
Growing up, I remember singing or humming many of the songs penned by Sondheim, often without knowing what musical they helped anchor or the story behind their inclusion in the work. They were just great tunes — not just show tunes. But, as it turns out, Sondheim used this little humming exercise to determine whether the song was the right fit for the play, or opening number, something he learned from his many collaborators, including Hal Prince and James Lapine. It was his litmus test, his bellweather, his belief that it helped to better tell the story through music and lyrics.
Mentored from a young age by Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim endured a turbulent relationship with his mother that lasted until her death upon which she had sent a letter to her only son sharing that she often wished he had never been born. Yearning for parental affection, young Stephen hungered for Hammerstein’s coaching, who in turn molded the young talent by having him write four musicals as a homework assignment. None of those works have ever been produced and one about Mary Poppins was unfinished.
In West Side Story, Sondheim took a back seat to Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the famous music for the beloved and timeliness play, while Sondheim initially, reluctantly penned the lyrics. This relationship early in his career paved the way for a lifetime of collaboration and compromise. You see that in every one of his most successfully staged works.
Even A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (produced in a year where all the best plays had really, really long titles) had three different opening numbers before Comedy Tonight landed the starring role on opening night — because, of course, you could hum it.
Today, Sondheim continues to work, even as he turns 86, telling and retelling the stories of his career to a whole new generation of musical theater aspirants and professionals. We are equally blessed that his works find the spotlight of the local stages here in our community like Actors’ Playhouse and Zoetic Stage, among others.
Many of the stories are timeless reminders of the most pressing issues that continue to fill our conversations and challenge our communities: love, race, loss, class and finding the will and the power to overcome. Not only is Sondheim the greatest lyricist ever; it is our good fortune that he is an even greater storyteller