By its very nature, theater is an immensely personal experience. Unlike movies, where screens portray distant visions of filmed actors and far-off places, live theater places the action right in front of the audience, allowing viewers to connect on a much more personal level.
That connection is usually reserved between the audience and the actors onstage, but the Scottsdale Musical Theater Company's (SMTC) production of "Sondheim on Sondheim" that ran Oct. 29-31 at the
Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930 and produced his first musical when he was 15 years old. His love of writing continued through college and beyond, eventually garnering commercial success and critical acclaim. Now he is hailed as one of the best composer-lyricists of the century, with credit for successful musicals including "West Side Story," "Company," "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods."
"Sondheim on Sondheim" is part documentary, part human interest feature and part musical revue — combined, a tribute to the man, his work, and his impact on modern theater. Filmed interviews of Sondheim and a visual history of his life are displayed on a large screen, interspersed with a variety of songs performed onstage by a cast of eight actors and actresses. The show features many of his most popular hits, as well as obscure numbers that never made it to the Broadway stage.
The SMTC production marks the first time that the show has been performed in
The show's approach to showcasing Sondheim is ambitious and unique. However, the source script is not without its problems.
Quality trumps quantity in the theater, a concept that "Sondheim" doesn't quite seem to grasp. The revue included a total of 40 songs — and if that sounds like an unnaturally high number, well, it is. There were so many characters and plots, many of them without introduction, that those who were unfamiliar with Sondheim's work could easily get lost in the sheer number of songs. If anyone in the audience wasn't head-over-heels in love with musical theater, the three-hour show would seem like an eternity of somewhat repetitive, moderately-catchy show tunes.
Thankfully, the SMTC did its best to distinguish one song from another as much as possible. Each of the cast members alternated between leading the music, providing backup vocals, and sharing the stage in powerful group numbers. They brought the songs to life in spite of a nondescript set, fixed costumes and few props, relying on simple blocking and powerhouse vocals to transport the audience to Sondheim's different worlds. There were no weak performers, but Matt Newhard and Nicole Bond stood out in their performance of songs from "Sweeney Todd" and "Passion," respectively.
The most interesting parts of the revue were a few times when Sondheim explained his process of writing, and how certain songs evolved over time before (and sometimes after) the compositions hit the stage. After he gave an overview of the original song and what improvements had needed to be made, the cast performed both the original and updated versions — sometimes simultaneously, side-by-side. It provided a glimpse into the writing process that goes into great Broadway hits, something that most audiences never get to see.
Overall, the local production of "Sondheim on Sondheim" was a smart and catchy look into the composer's life and works. It celebrated what audiences love about musical theater and what keeps them coming back: relatable characters combined with compelling plots, set to a tune the audience can hum along with. Few have been as successful as Sondheim at bringing so many characters to life through music, and the SMTC production did justice to his career and his life.
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