Sondheim Blog

One year later, Steve’s still here

SINGER SONGWRITER ELERI WARD (Playbill.com)

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost a year since Stephen Sondheim passed away on Nov. 26, 2021 — unexpectedly to be sure, but without suffering, just not waking up on the day after a pleasant Thanksgiving following a week of theater attendance. We should all be so lucky.

While it’s still painful to imagine a world without him, he left such an expansive legacy that I expect his inspiration will continue for generations. Singer Eleri Ward is a perfect example: She’s released a pair of recordings of his songs, distilled and away from their original placement in a show. Her guitar and solo renditions are entrancing, and reveal Sondheim’s mastery in a wholly new way. For a taste, here’s a link to a video performance of her “mashup medley” of songs from Into the Woods.  

DISCOUNT NEWS: If you’re seeking a musical theater-themed holiday gift for a friend or family member, especially one who’s passionate about Sondheim’s shows. My publisher Rowman & Littlefield has launched a holiday sale (applicable through Jan. 6, 2023) means considerable savings: Go to the Sondheim Encyclopedia to place your order. Use this code, 22JOYSALE, for a 35 percent discount. That reduces the Encyclopedia’s price to $87.75.

I hope you and yours have had a musical 2022: It’s so satisfying to continue to see Sondheim’s shows getting new and successful Broadway revivals. It’s a good sign for the future.

Give Us More (Sondheim) to See!

2022 cast of INTO THE WOODS (photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy/Made)

I haven’t posted for a while, but a lot has been going on in the Sondheim universe. A couple of great pieces of news about the ongoing Broadway revival of Into the Woods that started as a well-reviewed New York City Center Encores! production then moved in July to the St. James Theatre for a limited run. It’s been extended several times, and announcements currently have it onstage until Jan. 8, 2023, so there are still chances to catch a performance. If you can’t find your way to New York yet — what with sporadic air travel challenges and some lingering COVID concerns about being in theaters — you should be cheered by the news that this production is getting a cast recording by Concord Theatricals/Craft Recordings (released digitally this week with a CD following on Dec. 2). It features Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, as well as Brian d’Arcy James (Baker), Patina Miller (Witch), Philippa Soo (Cinderella), Joshua Henry (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Gavin Creel (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince). Here’s a YouTube taste of Bareilles recording “Moments in the Woods.”

A limited-run revival of Merrily We Roll Along (Nov. 21, 2022-Jan. 21, 2023) staged by British actor and director Maria Friedman at the 199-seat New York Theatre Workshop is likely going to be a tough ticket this fall. Daniel Radcliffe plays Charley Kringas, Jonathan Groff will be Franklin Shepard, and Lindsay Mendes is Mary Flynn. Tickets go on sale to the public as of Oct. 3.

More good news in the offing: Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford will become Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett on Broadway in a new production of Sweeney Todd scheduled to open on March 26, 2023, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. (Previews begin on Feb. 26.) Groban loves the show so much he named his dog “Sweeney.” He calls this role “cerebral and gritty and interesting — and baritone” and says it’s one “I could really sink my teeth into.” Ashford, who played opposite Groban in the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park with George, said, “This role is one of the finest ladies of the American musical theater canon. She does a terrible thing, and she is a monster, but I’ve always seen her as a woman who is trying to find love and trying to be loved.” The production will be directed by Thomas Kail, the Tony-winning director of Hamilton.

If recordings of Sondheim’s songs are your thing, I suspect you’ve heard about singer/songwriter Eleri Ward, who has now issued a pair of albums featuring her insightful, introspective solo performances, which she accompanies on guitar. A Perfect Little Death came out in 2021; Keep a Tender Distance was released earlier this month. Writing for The New York Times, Rob Weinert-Kendt said, “Ward plumbs this deep well in a way that feels so intuitively right, it’s remarkable no one has done it before: She has fused this emo Sondheim register with a familiar coffee house sound, adding delicate fingerpicking guitar accompaniment to support he limber, expressive soprano. In her hands, it’s not hard to imagine these songs as the creation of an especially gifted — if occasionally bloody-minded — indie singer-songwriter.” Here’s Ward in an evocative YouTube performance of “No One Is Alone.” Who knew Sondheim could be reincarnated in this manner — and remain so profoundly moving?

Congratulations to Len Cariou, the actor who originated two memorable Sondheim roles — the refined but reticent Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music and the rampaging serial-killer barber Sweeney Todd. He was this year’s recipient of the Stratford Festival’s Legacy Award on Sept. 12. He performed there in the early 1960s and returned in the early 1980s playing roles as varied as Prospero in The Tempest, Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Cariou has also appeared in several memorable television series, ranging from Star Trek: Voyager to The West Wing, and since 2010 he has portrayed Henry Reagan opposite Tom Selleck in the CBS hit series Blue Bloods.

Finally, here’s news of an opportunity to learn more about “What Makes Sondheim Great.” My friend and Sondheim enthusiast Gail Leondar is offering “Act II” of her ongoing exploration of Sondheim’s genius. She will include numerous performance videos and interview clips, but this is not a once-over-lightly survey of Sondheim’s musicals. Rather, Gail will lead participants in the parsing of songs from West Side StoryA Little Night MusicInto the WoodsPacific Overtures, and Merrily We Roll Along, trying to understand why Sondheim made the choices he did. (It’s not necessary to have attended “What Makes Sondheim Great (Act I)” to fully enjoy and appreciate this series.) Gail’s class will meet via Zoom on six Sunday evenings, from 7-8:30 pm ET, starting Nov. 6, and ending Dec. 18 (skipping Nov. 27.) It will be recorded for those who must miss a session. You can register here. The cost is $65.28 (which includes Eventbrite’s fee.)  I’ve been in numerous fascinating conversations with Gail about Sondheim’s works, and I can assure you this will be a stimulating experience for all who sign up.

As always, the Sondheim Encyclopedia remains available through this website’s link to my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. If you know of a Sondheim fan, this is the perfect holiday gift for him or her!

At a Library Near You?

Sondheim Encyclopedia, bottom row, center

The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia was published in April 2021. It’s been wonderful to hear from Sondheim enthusiasts who have acquired a personal copy and found it both useful and entertaining. But it’s an expensive volume, so I’m glad to see libraries including it in their collections. A young friend who’s a student at a small liberal arts college in Ohio sent me this photo of a display of books recently added to its shelves – including the Encyclopedia. If you frequent a university, college or public library, you might check to see whether a copy is available. If not, please alert the reference librarian that this resource would be welcomed by fans of musical theater as well as students pursuing careers in theater. You might share my website with them.

I contributed a chapter to another recent volume, Fifty Key Stage Musicals, edited by Robert W. Schneider and Shannon Agnew and published by Routledge. My essay takes a look at some of the innovations in the art form that were first used in Sondheim’s Company. Robert and I recently recorded a conversation that you can listen to via the Broadway Podcast Network, where he offers conversations with each of his contributors.

In early May in London, producer Cameron Mackintosh presented Sondheim’s Old Friends, a glorious memorial concert featuring 41 songs by an illustrious cast of 38 that included Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton and more. The benefit for the Stephen Sondheim Foundation was presented at London’s Sondheim Theatre (and live-streamed to an overflow audience at the Prince Edward Theatre) Here’s a link to the full report by WhatsOnStage; and here’s a review from The Guardian.

And if you care to hear some remarks by Sondheim himself (introduced by Liza Minnelli), check out this clip from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, a 1992 benefit concert conducted by Paul Gemignani. It winds up with a lovely rendition of the choral “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, introduced by Bernadette Peters and sung with emotional intensity by the Carnegie Hall Chorus.

If you have questions or comments about The Sondheim Encyclopedia, please send them my way!

One year, 1,000 copies!

This week I’m celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. Since April 2021 Sondheim fans have purchased more than 1,000 copies. I’m very grateful, and I hope you’re among them. But if not, I want to remind you that copies can be ordered for yourself (or for a friend who loves musical theater) at a significant discount via my website. Look for the coupon code at the top of the landing page, and then proceed to Rowman & Littlefield’s website. The coupon reduces the volume’s $135 list price by 30 percent, but the offer only good through the end of April 2022. A note: Several Encyclopedia entries have been updated to reflect Sondheim’s passing on Nov. 26, 2021.

I continue my podcast conversations with Stuart Brown, producer of Sounds of Broadway, a streaming radio station offering 24/7 programming of music from the Off-Broadway, Broadway and London stages. This month the fifth episode of “The Complete Stephen Sondheim” focuses on A Little Night Music. You can listen by checking out the On Broadway Podcast. In addition to our hour-long discussion of the show, you’ll hear some of the glorious melodies from the original cast recording: “Now/Soon/Later,” “Liaisons,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and — of course, “Send in the Clowns.”

Neil Patrick Harris has stepped into the role of Into the Woods’ Baker (replacing Christian Borle) in New York City Center’s Encores! production, set for May 4-15. Also in the cast are Heather Headley as the Witch, Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Denée Benton as Cinderella, Gavin Creel as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and Annie Golden as Cinderella’s Mother, Grandmother and the Giant’s Wife. Interestingly, Golden originated the role of “Squeaky” Fromme in the first production of Assassins at Playwrights Horizons in 1991.

March 22 would have been Stephen Sondheim’s 92nd birthday. Across the U.S. there were dozens of tribute events. It was my pleasure to attend one a few blocks from my home in downtown Cincinnati at the historic Mercantile Library (founded in 1835). It featured students from the renowned musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The performance of 18 Sondheim songs was live-streamed, and a video is now available. It’s shot from a single fixed camera, and there’s nothing fancy about the two-hour recording (fast-forward to the 17-minute point where the performance begins), but the young singers are very talented. The program was assembled by pianist Ian Axness.

Thanks for your ongoing interest in the works of Stephen Sondheim!

Speaking of Sondheim…

I hope you’ve taken the time to tune in to Sounds of Broadway, the online radio station that presents show tunes around the clock. Every month I join host Stuart Brown for our podcast, “The Complete Stephen Sondheim.” Our most recent conversation was about Pacific Overtures. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

I’m deeply indebted to musical theater expert Bill Rudman for producing a four, hour-long programs for SiriusXM in 2021 during which we talked about Sondheim and listened to 41 songs from his many shows. If you missed those programs last April/May or late in 2021 after Sondheim passed away, you’ll find them now uploaded part of Footlight Parade: Sounds of the American Musical on the Public Radio Exchange. Here are links to each program: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Back in February, writer D.T. Max authored an in-depth essay for The New Yorker, “Stephen Sondheim’s Lesson for Every Artist,” based on several conversations they had over the last five years of Sondheim’s life. They discussed ideas for shows Sondheim had abandoned, details of his writing process, and the musical he was working on based on films by Luis Buñuel. It’s well worth reading.

If you’re in Chicago this spring, you should circle Monday, May 23, 7pm for Chicago Sings Stephen Sondheim presented by Porchlight Music Theatre at  the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago Ave.) It’s the live return of the popular “Chicago Sings” fundraising concert performed by an array of performers representing the who’s-who of the Windy City’s music theater and cabaret favorites. Tickets and more information.

The TV game show Jeopardy recently featured “Remembering Stephen Sondheim” as a category for contestants to respond with questions. Here’s a link if you want to play along, although I suspect you will know most of the answers. But if you need to look something up, please be reminded that THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ENCYCLOPEDIA is a great resource. Through the end of April, you can use the coupon code on my website, www.RickPenderWrites.com, for a 30% discount. If you already have your copy, perhaps you’ll share this link with a friend who’s a Sondheim fan.

Have a question about Sondheim? Send it my way!

– Rick Pender