Sondheim Blog

Book Signing in NYC on Sept. 25!

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK FOR $55

Pardon me for a moment of self-promotion: On Monday, Sept. 25, at 7:30pm, I have a book signing at the Drama Book Shop (266 W. 39th St. in New York City). The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia comes out in a new paperback edition in September, and this is your chance to get an autographed copy. It’s free to attend, but to gain admission, you need to purchase a copy of the book from the shop. The good news is that this version is just $55, considerably less expensive than the hardbound edition released in April 2021 (priced at $135). If you’re in New York City or nearby, please drop by! Perhaps you know a Sondheim fan who would like a copy but found its previous price a tad steep. Consider this edition as a perfect — and affordable — gift opportunity. It also contains a few updates, especially mention of Sondheim’s passing in November 2021.

If you’re not living in New York City these days and you want to buy an extra-special home, perhaps you’ll consider a 5,700-foot townhouse at 246 E. 49th Street … the longtime home of Sondheim himself, located in the Turtle Bay Gardens where his neighbors over the years included movie star Katharine Hepburn, New Yorker writer E. B. White, and venerable editor Robert Gottlieb. It’s not for everyone, of course, priced at $7 million. Whether you’re in the market or not, you might want to give a look to the place via this real estate video. Purchased in 1960 with some residuals from the film version of Gypsy, Sondheim called it home for the rest of his life. Seven bedrooms, three-and-a- half baths, it has a 30-foot terrace overlooking a garden area with a fountain, multiple fireplaces, stained glass, and many more wonderful details. (Of course, Sondheim’s books, games and other décor are not part of the deal).

If I might brag for one more moment, please check out the photo above of a bookcase close to Sondheim’s desk in his Manhattan home. In the red circle are boxes of The Sondheim Review, the magazine I edited from 2004 to 2015. I had many memorable — often spirited — exchanges with him about reviews and features we published.

Although his former home is for sale, Sondheim’s presence can still be felt in New York City. The Tony-nominated revival of Sweeney Todd continues its run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 W. 46th St.), and the production of Merrily We Roll Along that evolved from an Encores! production to an off-Broadway hit starts Broadway previews at Hudson Theatre (141 W. 44th St) on Sept. 19.

The beat goes on elsewhere. The tour of the recent, much-loved Broadway revival of Into the Woods is presently onstage in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre. It continues through July 30. Here’s a review by Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times. It will be venturing to other American cities soon.

To demonstrate Sondheim’s international appeal, I will mention two productions. In London, a limited West End run of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends is set for the Gielgud Theatre, Sept. 16 to Jan. 6, 2024. This is an extended version of the tribute concert that Cameron Mackintosh presented on May 3, 2022. Bernadette Peters will again star, joined by another Broadway regular, Lea Salonga, and an array of top-notch British musical theater stars. Here’s the trailer.

The second production is a rendition of Sweeney Todd in Australia. It comes from the Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera to the Sydney Opera House (through Aug. 27). The cast includes Ben Mingay (above), who has played Sweeney since 2019, and Antoinette Halloran, reprising her performance as Mrs. Lovett. Here’s what Ebony Bott, head of contemporary performance at the Sydney Opera House, had to say: “Sweeney Todd is such a compelling and complex work of the musical theatre canon, and exceptional performances are required of everyone on-stage. Seeing this impeccable group of performers come together in the rehearsal room has been a genuine delight. Our audiences are in for a true thrill this month when we welcome this excellent cast at the Sydney Opera House.”

For another set of insights regarding Sondheim’s impact on musicals, give a listen to Episode 111 of David Armstrong’s Broadway Nation: “Careful the Spell You Cast: How Stephen Sondheim Extended the Range of the American Musical” with author Ben Francis. It’s a very informative 36-minute conversation.

You can pre-order your paperback copy of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia right now — again at $55 —directly from Rowman and Littlefield. Here’s the link.

God, That’s Good!

Sweeney Todd is held by many Sondheim fans to be his greatest work. There’s plenty of evidence of that these days with the current Broadway production, which earned eight Tony nominations. As Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford were nominees in the lead acting categories, and the production was a candidate for best revival. No winners this time around, but it was a remarkable year with six more nominations for the revival of Into the Woods (which closed in January).

A lot of attention was paid to the lush accompaniment for this Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd — using Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestration for 26 musicians, including strings, woodwinds, brass, harp and percussion. Conducted by Tony Award winner (for Hamilton) Alex Lacamoire, this could be a sign that some shows have realized they can attract audiences with big orchestras. Here’s a link to Jeff Lunden’s National Public Radio feature that suggests this could be a trend. For a taste of Jeff Groban singing “Epiphany” with this gorgeous accompaniment, use this link for a sample from the upcoming cast recording, .

Good news for Sweeney Todd fans across the U.S. — the current Broadway production will spawn a national tour in 2025. Casting, dates and cities haven’t been announced yet. But let’s hope that the success of the Broadway production might mean more substantial orchestral accompaniment for the tour.

Sondheim fans in the Twin Cities are surely heading to the renowned Guthrie Theatre for its production of Into the Woods that opened recently and will run until August 13. Staged by Sarna Lapine (James Lapine’s niece), it features Broadway veteran Lisa Howard as the Witch. Lapine is building her Sondheim resume: She recently staged Sweeney Todd for for Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre, one of the most prolific producers of shows by Sondheim.

If you’re seeking a straightforward overview of Sondheim’s shows, I recommend this lecture by Sean Hartley, the director of the musical theater division of the Kaufman Music Center in New York City. Over the course of nearly two hours, he performs songs and talks about each show.

Did you watch the delightful musical theater send-up, Schmigadoon!, on Apple TV? The first season about a young couple who wander into a magical town where everyone bursts into songs at the drop of a straw hat. Its six episodes — performed by casts of numerous Broadway stars — have lots of fun with parodies of songs inspired by Rodgers & Hammerstein and others and from the Golden Age of Broadway by Chris Willis.

 He’s also the composer who put together the numbers for the second season, Schmicago!, which has lots to enjoy with echoes of Sondheim fans, since its six episodes draw upon on shows from the late 1960s and 1970s — especially Sweeney Todd, with Alan Cummings and Kristen Chenoweth doing their own renditions of characters inspired by Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. The second season also offers tunes inspired by Kander & Ebb’s Chicago, as well as Hair.

Finally, I want to share the good news that my reference book, The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia, is coming out in paperback in September at a much more affordable price ($55). It’s available for pre-order via this link.

Thanks as always for reading this monthly blog. I’m always on the lookout for news of interest to Sondheim fans! If you know someone who might like to receive these notices, please point them to www.RickPenderWrites.com

COMING SOON: The Sondheim Encyclopedia in paperback … and other news

I’m excited to share the news that The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in a paperback edition in mid-September. It will still have 650 pages and all the entries found in the hardback, but instead of the $135 price tag, this version will cost $55. I hope many more Sondheim fans will be able to afford adding this extensive reference volume to their musical theater bookshelf. I’ll send ordering information (and a discount code) when it’s available.

Stephen Sondheim passed away a year-and-a-half ago, but that hasn’t diminished the theater world’s appetite for productions of his shows. There’s plenty of evidence in New York City. At the upcoming Tony Awards on June 11, productions of Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd are both nominated for recognition as the season’s best musical revivals. Into the Woods, which evolved from an Encores! concert staging into a fully (if modestly) produced production at the St. James Theatre, ran from September to January 2023. Its noteworthy cast — including Patina Miller as the Witch, Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker, Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, and Phillipa Soo as  Cinderella — made a much praised cast recording, released by Concord Theatricals/Craft Recordings last September. (Here’s a YouTube video of Bareilles recording “Moment’s in the Woods.”) Still onstage at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (at least until January 2024) is the Sweeney Todd revival, featuring Josh Groban as the murderous barber, and Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett; both are Tony nominated for their performances, and the cast recording of their production was released digitally by Arts Music and Reprise Records on May 8. Here’s a link to a snippet of “The Tale of Sweeney Todd:”

New York isn’t the only place where audiences have been flocking to outstanding productions of Sondheim shows. The Pasadena Playhouse, California’s officially designated “State Theater,” has just completed a six-month festival of Sondheim shows. Artistic director Danny Feldman decided to break the usual mold of a regional theater of producing five or six shows a year. “What if we asked our community to do something longer than one night together? What if we explored an idea, a theme, a person? That’s where the Sondheim festival idea came from.” Productions during Playhouse’s 2022-2023 season included Sunday in the Park with George and a diversely cast staging of A Little Night Music. (Here’s a link to an interview with Jodi Long who played Madame Armfeldt). The Playhouse also virtual seminars about Sondheim and coordinated productions of other shows by local schools (Into the Woods) and universities (Sondheim on Sondheim at USC). Feldman’s adventurous decision surely played a part in the Pasadena Playhouse being honored with the 2023 Regional Theatre Tony Award, a recognition that’s accompanied by a $25,000 grant.

The farmhouse where young Stephen Sondheim was mentored in the craft of musical theater by Oscar Hammerstein II will become a museum dedicated to the legendary lyricist, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Miranda Family Fund.

Actor Barbara Bryne (below) must have known a lot about motherhood. She was Georges Seurat’s mom in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George in 1984 and Jack’s mother in Into the Woods’ debut in 1987. She also played Madame Armfeldt in the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration staging of A Little Night Music in 2002. Born in London, Bryne trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and then moved to Canada where she was in more than 30 productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Also a regular performer at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (she played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1999), she died on May 2, 2023, at the age of 94.

Barbara Byrne in Sunday in the Park with George

Since you are certainly someone who takes Stephen Sondheim’s work seriously, I urge you to consider signing up for a series of virtual classes, What Makes Sondheim Great (Act II Reprise). Sondheim enthusiast and scholar Gail Leondar will share her insights starting later in June and continuing into July. Each of five sessions starts with a lively presentation, full of things to listen to, watch and think about. Gail always makes time for conversation as well. Available on Tuesday nights, June 20 to July 25 (7pm ET/6pm CT/5 pm MT/4 pm PT), will be sessions digging into West Side Story, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, and Into the Woods. This is a repeat of a class Gail offered in Winter 2022. REGISTER HERE. The fee is $60, but if you’re interested and can’t afford that, Gail invites personal inquiries at glpr@aol.com. “We’ll figure out something that feels comfortable to you.”

More & More (and More!) Sondheim shows …

Annaleigh Ashford & Josh Groban, starring in Sweeney Todd on Broadway
Photos by Franz Szony

Lots of news this month about the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd starring Josh Groban. Listen to his April 10 interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. It’s your chance to hear Groban and Annaleigh Ashford in the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, singing a snatch of “A Little Priest” as well as some other songs featuring Groban. For a bit more fun, here’s a link to the sassy Ashford talking with Seth Meyers in a “Late Night” segment about blood and other things in Sweeney Todd. Just before this production’s New York opening, NPR also aired a group interview with Groban and three other baritones who played Sweeney in the past: George Hearn (who replaced Len Cariou, the originator of the role and appears on the DVD), Michael Cerveris (who played the demon barber in John Doyle’s 2005 Broadway revival) and Norm Lewis (who starred in the recent off-Broadway Barrow Street revival, imagined in a tiny pie shop). To check out critical response to this production, here’s a roundup.

Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures is not so frequently revived, not because it’s not an impressive work but because it’s a big challenge in many American cities to assemble an Asian cast. The Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has been the most frequent producer of Sondheim’s works in the U.S., and it recently took on Pacific Overtures. In late March, Weidman traveled to the theater for a conversation about the show. If you’d like to hear more discussion about this unusual show, link to this YouTube recording from 1976 of a much younger Weidman talking about the song, “Someone in a Tree.” And for more about this important number — one Sondheim often called his favorite — here’s are links to part 1 and part 2 of an “Anatomy of a Song” YouTube recording featuring the composer himself.

The Broadway transfer of the much admired off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop’s limited run of Merrily We Roll Along, directed by Maria Friedman, begins previews on September 19, 2023, at the Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street, tickets. The production, a New York Times “Critic’s Pick” and described by the Washington Post as “a revelatory and intoxicating revival” of the show that was deemed a 16-performance flop in 1981, is set to run for 18 weeks into January 2024. The production’s central roles continue to be performed by Jonathan Groff (Franklin Shepard), Daniel Radcliffe (Charley Kringas) and Lindsay Mendez (Mary Flynn). Also in the cast are Katie Rose Clarke (Beth Shepard), Reg Rogers (Joe Josephson) and Krystal Joy Brown (Gussie Carnegie).

As if there wasn’t enough good news about Sondheim shows in New York City, here’s a flashh that surprised many of us: Here We Are, Sondheim’s last stage musical, an adaptation of two surrealist films by Spaniard Luis Buñuel, will have an off-Broadway staging in New York later this year. The films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), are both odd tales about dinner parties. (Here’s a link to a feature I published about Buñuel and this collaboration via my former Everything Sondheim website back in 2018.) A collaboration with playwright David Ives and once titled Square One, the show will be presented at The Shed’s Griffin Theater (545 West 30th Street in New York City, ). Now called Here We Are it will be staged by Tony Award-winner Joe Mantello, who directed the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins. Square One had a workshop in 2016, but stalled for several years. Sondheim and Ives resumed work on it in 2021, but it was not finished when Sondheim died in November 2021. Specific dates in September have not been announced. Go to theshed.org for updates.

With all this going on, perhaps you are or know a Sondheim fan who would love to dig deeper via my 650-page reference volume, The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. It’s available through www.RickPenderWrites.com where there’s a link to order it directly from the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield. Use the code RLFANDF30, for a 30% discount.

Please drop me a line about Sondheim happenings that you think might be of interest to other fans. And if you have friend who is a Sondheim fan, let them know about this blog! Thanks.

Did you come here for a pie, Sir?

In a revival of Sweeney Todd, Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford will open on Broadway on March 26.

Time again for my occasional blog about happenings in the Sondheim universe. First, a bit of self-promotion: I learned recently that the publisher Rowman & Littlefield continues to offer a 30% discount on The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. It’s list price is $135; use the code RLFANDF30 when you order at rowman.com, and your price will be reduced to $94.50. If that’s still a tad pricey for your budget, here’s another update from Rowman & Littlefield: My 650-page Sondheim Encyclopedia will be republished in paperback later this year at a more affordable price, likely $55. I’ll spread the news when that happens.

Broadway is buzzing this month in anticipation of the revival of Sweeney Todd, featuring pop star Josh Groban as the Demon Barber and stage and screen actor Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett. It’s in previews now and opens on March 26 at New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Here’s a teaser. For a few Instagram words from Groban, check out his thoughts while strolling through the empty theater.

Six theater professionalsJohn Weidman (book writer of Pacific Overtures, Assassins and Road Show), Thomas Kail (Tony Award-winning director of In the Heights and Hamilton and currently staging Sweeney Todd on Broadway), Montego Glover (Tony nominee who played Into the Woods’ Witch on Broadway), Jon Kalbfleisch (resident music director at Signature Theatre), actress Chani Wereley, and Ethan Heard (currently staging Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre) — were assembled by Washington Post writer Thomas Floyd to dig into Sondheim’s mystique. What exactly made him so great? Floyd’s feature, “Decoding the Genius of Sondheim,” was published earlier this month.

Coming soon — April 3, 2023, to be precise — at Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theater is the annual presentation of the Stephen Sondheim Award. In its 12th iteration, this year’s honoree is Chita Rivera, best known for her first foray on the Broadway stage when she originated the role of Anita in West Side Story in 1956. This award honors individuals who have made important contributions to the American musical theatre. The black-tie gala benefit is held annually at the Embassy of Italy in Washington, DC. Previous recipients have included Angela Lansbury (2010), Bernadette Peters (2011), Patti LuPone (2012), Hal Prince (2013), Jonathan Tunick (2014), James Lapine (2015), John Weidman (2016), Sir Cameron Mackintosh (2017), John Kander (2018), Audra McDonald (2019) and Carol Burnett (2022).

When my Sondheim Encyclopedia was published in April 2021, I was privileged to be interviewed by several podcasters, bloggers and public radio producers. Here’s a link to one of my conversations, this one with Joe Donahue, host of the “Commonwealth Club” on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio. It’s about 23 minutes long if you care to listen.

I had the opportunity to hear Broadway performer and folk singer Eleri Ward in person here in Cincinnati recently when she performed a solo concert of her unique, often haunting arrangements of songs by Stephen Sondheim. She explained how social media helped launch for her burgeoning career. Using her iPhone, she recorded an acoustic indie-folk rendition of “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music and posted it on Instagram. It was her first step toward a recording contract. Last summer she toured with Josh Groban as his opening act. She has now released two recordings of Sondheim covers, and several of her recordings have expanded her fame via TikTok. Her youthful audience at her Cincinnati appearance suggests that she’s reaching a whole new generation of Sondheim fans!

Need a flash from the past? Here’s a fascinating video clip from Company’s original cast recording session featuring Donna McKechnie, Pamela Myers and Susan Browning singing several takes of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” It’s great fun to hear the women perform and take instructions from Sondheim, but also to hear remarks by Thomas Z. Shepard, who produced the recording.

I wonder if you’ve found your way to some of my recorded conversations with Stuart Brown on his online radio station, SoundsofBroadway.com. He posts our periodic chats, “The Complete Stephen Sondheim,” via his “On Broadway” bi-weekly podcast. So far, we’ve discussed and played music from a dozen of Sondheim’s major shows. Stuart’s podcast, posted every other Friday, features lots of other folks from the world of musical theater. The programs have approximately 13,000 monthly downloads. Stuart tells me our Sondheim discussions have proved to be his most popular offering. Since Sweeney Todd is about to be revived on Broadway, you might want to check out Episode 6 (June 17, 2022] about the show. It’s already been downloaded 1,600 times!

Feel free to drop me a line about Sondheim happenings you think might be of interest to others. And if you have friend who is a Sondheim fan, let them know about this blog! Thanks.

So Many Possibilities

Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the most prolific producers of Sondheim shows anywhere. It’s in the midst of a season-long Sondheim tribute, offering multiple productions. Into the Woods is just concluding a rendition set in a long-forgotten nursery of a once grand Victorian house “in the woods” (closing January 29). Up next Signature will present one of Sondheim’s most ambitious — and rarely produced — musicals, Pacific Overtures (March 7-April 9). It’s an exploration of tradition and transformation based on historical events. In 1853, after 200 years of stability, Japan faced an American expedition determined to open the “floating kingdom” to trade. The isolationist island’s reckoning with the unwelcome Western influence is brilliantly illuminated through a kaleidoscope of stories about sailors, samurai, “someone in a tree,” and two friends who choose radically different paths. The season will wrap up with perhaps Sondheim’s greatest work, Sweeney Todd (May 16-July 9).

On April 3, 2023, Signature theatre will bestow its annual Stephen Sondheim Award on Chita Rivera, who in 1957 originated the role of West Side Story’s Anita on Broadway. She joins a distinguished group of honorees who have received the award since 2010 when Sondheim himself was recognized. Since then Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Hal Prince, Jonathan Tunick, James Lapine, John Weidman, Cameron Mackintosh, John Kander, Audra McDonald, and Carol Burnett have been honored for their contributions to the works of Sondheim and the canon of American Musical Theatre.

Pasadena Playhouse in California is also marking Sondheim’s career in a self-described “ambitious and momentous celebration featuring dazzling, full-scale productions, special events, and unforgettable performances.” Sunday in the Park with George will be presented February 13-March 12, followed by A Little Night Music, April 25-May 21. Special events include a presentation of Sondheim on Sondheim (April 20-26), James Lapine’s filmed portrait of the composer in his own words with live musical performances, a pair of live concerts by Bernadette Peters on June 10-11, and several other events.

In The New York Times, critic Jesse Green praised the new cast recording of Into the Woods , which concluded its Broadway run on January 8. He wrote, “After several revivals and the 2014 movie, this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical could almost seem too familiar, yet the stripped-down version directed by Lear deBessonet restored its warmth, humor and strangeness. Not all of that survives in the cast recording, especially in complicated ensemble numbers that mix dialogue and song at top speed. Yet in solos and duets — like the alternately hilarious and gorgeous ‘Agony,’ sung by Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, the score shines anew.”

The recent Broadway revival of Sondheim and Furth’s Company begins a 25-city national tour in October. The gender-switched production directed by Marianne Elliott, won the 2022 Tony for the season’s best revival. Stops for the national tour so far are set for Detroit’s Fisher Theatre (Oct. 17-29, 2023), Denver’s Buell Theatre (May 22-June 2, 2024) and Seattle’s Paramount Theatre (July 23-28, 2024). Additional stops, casting and on sale dates for tickets have yet to be announced.

If you’re intrigued about Sondheim and his shows, the best one-stop shopping to satisfy your curiosity is The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. Follow this link to order your own copy!

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