Sondheim Blog

Book ’em, Steve-O!

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!

The Encyclopedia for less, but so much more Sondheim!

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!

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!

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