Loved this show. Had some of my favourite Sydney musical theatre peeps- Rob Johnson, Debora Krizak and Blake Erickson!
The musical itself is a really unique look into the working mind of one of the world’s greatest musical composers, Stephen Sondheim.
The review was originally posted on Arts on the AU.
Something’s coming… as the stage starts to black out and the overture begins! Sondheim returns from a very long absence on Sydney’s stage with Squabbalogic’s fantastic production of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM this October.
“We offer you song and dance!”. There is no doubt that Stephen Sondheim is one of the most celebrated musical geniuses of our time, with his music and lyrics having paid a significant contribution to the modern musical stage, including the likes of Sweeny Todd, Company and West Side Story.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a celebration of this musical “god”, and it brings us as close to the man as we could possibly get (apart from obviously being lucky enough to meet him in person). The show is more than a collection of Sondheim’s work, it’s a scrapbook of his work and life- carefully curated, explained and narrated by Sondheim himself through accompanying video interview. It’s a fascinating look at how some of his decisions were reached- why were certain pieces omitted from particular musicals? Why did he go through so many iterations with other pieces? Is he proud of all his work?
Sondheim explains and answers all these questions, and he’s incredibly witty and self deprecating as he does. The man is not afraid to be his biggest critic. It’s really a very honest walk through of Sondheim’s life and works. And it’s really really fascinating- making you even more engaged with the pieces being performed. The pieces themselves are very carefully selected and provide a well-balanced collection of Sondheim’s work. Occasionally we are presented with a completely reimagined version of a well-known piece, or a medley of a couple of pieces from a musical, or we start a new song only to be interrupted by Sondheim. It’s really amusing and keeps the audiences attention locked on what to expect next.
The Squabbalogic production is incredibly professional. I have only listened to a recording previously, but I was completely won over by the production. The casting is very strong, and the smaller area of the stage only seeks to bring the audience closer to the performers. The band is incredibly close, and the music and sound is wonderful. The screen is front and centre of the staging but I didn’t feel like it was ever detracting my attention from the actual performers. Their interaction with the screen is very unique- particularly when they settle themselves in front of the screen to listen raptly to Mr Sondheim.
Act One begins with one of Sondheim’s very first pieces- ‘I’ll Meet You At The Donut’ from By George. Sondheim quickly interrupts though and suggests that we “skip around”.
So we skip to a story about A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and quite the funny thing did indeed happen on the way. Sondheim originally wrote ‘Forget War’ as the opening to The Forum but the Director could not hum it so out it went! The next opening he wrote was called ‘Love Is In The Air’, but this was also soon scrapped when he realized that the song misled the audience’s perception of the show. It needed to be more obviously a comedy show! So Sondheim wrote ‘Comedy Tonight’, which really could not be more obvious- “something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone- a comedy tonight!”. I guess even geniuses need to rewrite and state their meanings with absolute clarity!
Soon we are treated to a beautifully adapted version of ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story. This version has been beautifully rewritten for a quartet, and the two boys and two girls harmonize their voices in this surprising rendition of such a well-known piece.
Occasionally the video switches to an older interview with Sondheim. In one particular instance Sondheim is asked why so many of his characters tend to exhibit traits of neurosis. “I like neurotic people” says Sondheim. Everybody is troubled, he goes on to explain, and nobody goes through life unscathed without problems. But when you write about this, then you begin to touch people.
The cast of eight really brings the production to life- all their voices are of the highest caliber of Australian musical theatre, and they are really able to capture the strength and emotion in Sondheim’s work. Not only are all the lyrics are beautifully sung, but there is also such a fantastic amount of expression in their representation.
There is one particularly intense example during ‘Franklin Shepherd Inc’, where an incredibly expressive Rob Johnson mutters, buzzes and sings and “bring brings” and leaps to his feet and contorts his face till it turns red. It’s just one of those moments when you think, wow.
Although it’s hard to pick any stand out from the strong cast, Debora Krizak’s on stage presence is really mesmerizing. She works her way through a whole host of characters with a super sexy ‘Ah, But Underneath’ to a hilarious ‘Smile Girls’ to an incredibly emotive ‘Send In The Clowns’. Her vocal flexibility and command of the stage draw your eyes to her whenever she appears. It may also have something to do with her incredibly long legs though…
The highlights from Passion is another scene that is incredibly captivating. As Sondheim explains, Fosca’s obsessive destructive love is hard to understand making it difficult for the audience to associate with her behavior. Sondheim explains that this was something that he needed to address so he wrote a solo for Fosca that let the audience get a little bit closer to Fosca, towards understanding that although her love is misguided it is still strong and true. As the audience to this current production, through this explanation we are given insight into one step further towards understanding the characters feelings and how we are supposed to associate with her.
It’s not only the choices Sondheim has needed to make in his musicals that we are given insight into, but Sondheim’s own methods of working. His strong attachment to his yellow notepads is particularly endearing, as he fondly describes the exact line spacing and other such features of his important work item. He also describes the difficulties he encounters with his work. The hardest thing is getting started, Sondheim says. You have to lose your inhibitions so you can write and amend, because it’s in the reworking that makes it.
Of course a highlight of the show is Sweeny Todd and his ‘Epiphany’, or as Sondheim describes, us watching a mans mind crack as he descends into madness. What’s particularly interesting in this production of ours though, is how Sondheim describes Sweeny’s character through his music. He sits at a piano playing the different Sweeny motifs and talking us through their purpose, from the shifting moods to the insane violence. He also explains when he decided to write Sweeny as a musical. Originally having seen a production of the play he immediately decided this was something he needed tp write as a musical. He loved the sense of revenge that Sweeny was given in this particular production, and he emphasizes this in his writing. Epiphany is performed by Phillip Lowe and he really brings Sweeny to life. The madness sweeps into his performance and he jumps out at the crowd. “YOU!” I would love to see him perform as Sweeny in a full production.
Sondheim describes himself as a very independent type of person. He enjoys being alone, and explains how he got in the habit of it until he met someone who managed to break it. This segues into our rewritten endings of Company, a show that attempts to depict married life. Dean Vincent closes off the piece with the strong ‘Being Alive’, a song that describes an eventual realization of the importance of love, of being with someone, to living.
Act Two commences with ‘God’, a self-deprecating piece that was written especially for the production and it is absolutely fabulous. This is almost a duet with the cast and Sondheim himself, as we are taken through the virtues and talents of our musical “god”. He’s really not afraid to make fun of himself, and it makes you appreciate this genius even more. He even goes so far as to call some of his works “unnecessary musicals”, they’re ok he says, but they don’t improve the original content.
God is Sondheim’s only song that directly references himself. There is one more piece that Sondheim calls autobiographical however, and that is ‘Opening Doors’ from Merrily We Roll Along. The song describes the hardships of breaking into the industry through the multitude of doors that need to be knocked. It’s really well portrayed by the trio of Blake Erikson, Rob Johnson and the charismatic Monique Salle, who are also soon joined by the beautiful voice of Christy Sullivan.
Perhaps my favorite piece of the musical though, is one that Sondheim himself says is closest to his heart, and that is Sunday In The Park With George. Blake Erickson does such a fantastic job at bringing out the pure emotion in ‘Finishing The Hat’ and ‘Beautiful’. His stunning voice breaks through the silent crowd and reaches in to the point where I was almost crying. His interactions with his mother, played by the talented Louise Kelly, is harmonious and touching. The musical and portrayal is just perfect and beautiful.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is truly a glimpse into the heart and mind of this genius of musical theatre. The uniqueness of this show, with the smooth interlacing (and it really is incredibly smooth) of theatre and audiovisual is captivating- Squabbalogic and Jay James-Moody have done such a fabulous job with this production. It really pulls you in to the songs being performed, bringing you closer to the meaning of the pieces and the decision-making behind them. The entire show is really engaging- it’s well written, well paced and very very amusing. Anything Sondheim is wonderful of course, but with two instances of Sondheim in the title- this is just something even better. Go see it. And maybe buy some yellow pads to take your notes on.