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.
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 professionals — John 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.
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!
Did you get or give someone a Sondheim-related book during the holidays? As I mentioned last month, there are several good ones out there. Here’s another rundown with a few more items and some comments:
Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George by James Lapine. This wonderful book is full of insights from Sondheim’s collaborator who both write the book and staged its original Broadway production. Lapine interviewed numerous performers, designers and others who were involved. The book also includes the full text of the show about pointillist artist Georges Seurat and his (imaginary) descendent.
Lord Knows, At Least I Was There: Working with Stephen Sondheim by Paul Ford. Anecdotes from the rehearsal pianist who worked on many of Sondheim’s productions in the 1970s and ’80s. This one is a memoir, and Ford is a many of strong, sometimes sour, opinions. But it’s intriguing to hear his take on the world of musical theater. He closely collaborated with Mandy Patinkin for many of his solo recordings and acts.
Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius by Paul Salsini. The founding editor of The Sondheim Review recalls and reproduces lots of his correspondence and conversation in conjunction with his decade of managing the magazine. (Paul was my predecessor as TSR’s editor; I took over when he retired in 2004.) I had some interesting exchanges of my own with Sondheim, but not nearly so many — or so colorfully — as Paul.
Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D. T. Max. The New Yorker writer had a series of conversations with Sondheim near the end of the composer’s life. Max’s book is about 90 percent transcriptions of their chats (one also features Meryl Streep and another conductor Paul Gemignani and his actor/conductor son Andrew), as well as thoughtful framing remarks. Max was rather casual in their exchanges, and Sondheim was sometimes grumpy when he had to fill his interviewer in on topics familiar to many of us. But they did discuss his musical with David Ives, tentatively titled Square One, based on two Luis Buñuel films. It’s the most in-depth set of remarks on that subject that I’ve read.
SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green. This volume, in the voice of Richard Rodgers’s opinionated and often contrary daughter with amusing and informative footnotes by Green (now the New York Times chief theater critic), is truly dishy and only incidentally about Sondheim. But he’s the subject of some of the best dish about their decades-long friendship, which began during their teenage years hanging out at Oscar Hammerstein II’s home. Even knowing that Sondheim was gay, Rodgers had a lifelong crush on him which led to some interesting experimentation. She also shared her thoughts about marriage (she had two of them) when he was writing Company.
One last-minute reminder about my book, The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia, published by Rowman & Littlefield. If you still don’t have your own copy, you can purchase it at a significant 35% discount by applying the code 22JOYSALE at rowman.com. But do so quickly: The last day for this sale is Friday, January 6.
Have you watched The Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Rian Johnson’s hilarious tale of murder and intrigue on Netflix? In the film’s early moments, you will see the dejected detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) yearning to overcome his boredom while sitting in his bathtub and playing an online game with some familiar characters with murder mystery credentials — particularly Angela Lansbury and Sondheim. Their appearances mark their final film performances prior to their passing, Sondheim in November 2021 and Lansbury in October 2022. If you like complicated whodunits, this is the movie for you but watch carefully for Steve and Angela: Their sequence takes just a few minutes.
I’ve been recording a series of podcasts with Stuart Brown, the producer of Sounds of Broadway, a 24/7 online radio station playing the music of Broadway, Off-Broadway, the London stage and more . Each of our sessions (nine so far) in a series he calls “The Complete Stephen Sondheim,” focuses on a specific show with a handful of music selections. Our most recent discussion focused on Sunday in the Park with George. These podcasts, each about an hour long, are archived on the website under the Podcast menu. Please give it a listen.
Best wishes for a musically satisfying 2023!
If you’re down to the end of your holiday shopping list but you need one memorable gift for that friend or family member who’s a musical theater fan, please be reminded that there’s a significant discount available on the price of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. Go to the Rowman & Littlefield website and use the coupon code 22JOYSALE to reduce the cost of this expansive, 650-page reference volume by 35 percent, to under $90! (The code is good through Jan. 6, 2023) Despite Sondheim’s passing a year ago — maybe even, in part, due to it — there is more interest than ever in his shows, which are being repeatedly revived with strong audience response. The Encyclopedia is a comprehensive way to get up to speed with any and all of his 18 major shows. It’s a useful took to well informed before going to a production, perhaps with a new concept.
Speaking of the reviews, those for Maria Friedman’s off-Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along have been glowing. (Here’s an example from The Guardian). Her London staging at the Menier Chocolate Factory back in 2013 was an award winner, and this limited-run production at the New York Theatre Workshop featuring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez seems destined for a longer life. The current engagement is nearly sold out, but it will surely be extended and possibly even moved to Broadway. In addition, the much-praised staging of Into the Woods, originally intended for an eight-week run, has been extended several times with a now-firm closing on January 8. If you’re in New York City for the holidays, these productions are not to be missed.
Need more tips for books that Sondheim fans will value? Here are three recommendations:
• How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George by James Lapine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), containing interviews with most of the show’s key performers and creative contributors, especially Sondheim. It also includes the musical’s full libretto.
• Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers, the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, expansively and often amusingly annotated and clarified by New York Times theater critic Jesse Green (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). Her candid narrative about her life in the musical theater and beyond offers many previously unknown details about her lifelong friendship with Sondheim.
• Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D. T. Max (HarperCollins, 2022), containing transcripts of exchanges between the New Yorker staff writer and Sondheim between 2016 and 2019 as well as narrative observations about interviewing Sondheim at home.
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has been America’s most prolific producer of shows by Sondheim since the early 1990s. For its 2022-2023 season, Signature (SigTheatre.org/Sondheim) has been celebrating Sondheim with productions (Into the Woods is currently onstage through Jan. 29, 2023) and a season-long tribute, So Many Possibilities, a series of free video events. Here’s a quick item that outlines all that’s being offered, including an endeavor to sing every one of Sondheim’s songs! Catch a free episode of The Signature Show, released on the first anniversary of his passing. You’ll hear great renditions of “Live Alone and Like It” from the film Dick Tracy and the bossa nova inspired “Love, I Hear” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum —as well as a tough trivia guessing game, “Sondheim or Someone Else?”
When I edited The Sondheim Review, I often turned to Peter Khoury for reports about productions of Sondheim shows in Australia. He recently published an article in the Australian Arts Review that explores the surge of interest in Sondheim’s work down under — and beyond — since his death. Here’s a link to “Life After Sondheim: We Die But We Don’t.” Be sure to follow some of the video links Khoury has used to illustrate his topic. It’s a great reminder that Sondheim’s genius lives on.
I send my best wishes to each and every Sondheim fan for 2023!
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.