This was my first chat with Squabbalogic Director Jay James-Moody, who I’ve chatted to a few times now! Really down-to-earth guy, who directs the most incredible stuff. I always really look forward to Squabbalogic productions.
The review was originally posted on Arts on the AU.
Sondheim on Sondheim is an entirely unique production that presents the audience with, what the New York Times describes as, a ‘scrapbook’ of the life and times of the musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim. A ‘scrapbook’ that has been “personally annotated” by the man himself.
The AU Review caught up with Director Jay James-Moody one evening mid-rehearsal for Squabbalogic’s upcoming production of Sondheim on Sondheim to chat about his vision for the production, his cast and crew and the mystical musical theatre ‘God’ himself, Mr Sondheim.
What is your main vision or concept for this production of Sondheim on Sondheim as director?
The whole point of this show is for audiences who either love Sondheim or maybe aren’t familiar with Sondheim to actually get to know the man behind the music. I mean he’s almost this sort of mythical figure in musical theatre, some people call him the father of the modern musical, and this gives you an opportunity to really get to know him and hear his story in his own words. So in our show we have specially recorded video interviews from Sondheim where he explains his process and his relationships both personal and professional. He’s in his eighties now and he’s really just happy to talk about anything really, and you really get a fascinating insight into this person who’s created these amazing pieces.
How strictly is it adhering to the original concepts and design decisions of the production on Broadway in 2010?
I haven’t actually watched any of the footage or anything from the original production. I was actually brought on board a little bit later in the process, so I haven’t really been able to do a lot of the research and preparation that I usually do. But I don’t mind that, because it’s kind of giving me freedom. I haven’t seen any of the other material and I don’t even know the album and songs like the back of my hand like I do with other productions I work on. So it’s me sort of discovering things as they happen really, with the cast. I’m working very instinctively and very quickly. But I’m enjoying that side of things.
In terms of the actors being able to interpret the songs, there is a lot of freedom there. Sometimes the songs are presented in their original context of the show and it’s kind of like you’re watching and Sondheim explains something from that show, but it’s all live on stage. Other times the actors come out and they’re presenting a new interpretation of one of his famous songs that has been completely re-invented. Like ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story that he wrote the lyrics for has been completely rearranged in this beautiful four-part harmony of two guys and two girls, and it sounds stunning. It’s such a familiar song to people but they’ll never have heard it sound like this before.
I heard the video footage is delivered on an external hard drive, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right! It’s been provided to us on a hard drive and it’s up to us to figure out how it all will work.
There’s not a lot of stage direction or anything in the production, just because of its nature and structure, but it’s very bound by the video footage. The music is timed to the video and the video dictates a lot of stuff, so we’re going to be working a lot with that and that’s what really drives and shapes the show.
How does production for a ‘revue’ differ from any other show?
It’s really an interesting show, because it’s not really video song video song, they complement each other and they work together and it’s all interwoven. You’ll be in the middle of a song and the actors will stop singing and Sondheim will chime in and describe what’s happening and how he came to achieve this music, and then when he’s finished explaining the actors will start singing again. So it’s supposed to feel like Sondheim is in the room with the performers, and to a degree there’s even a level of interactivity between our performers and the videos.
So it is a revue, but I don’t like using that word because it’s so much more than that- it’s a real theatrical experience. It’s not these guys coming out and standing at microphones singing concert songs, we’ve staged all of these numbers and it’s kind of like a live musical documentary.
Would you agree with the New York Times description of the musical being a “scrapbook on the life, times and career” of Sondheim?
Yeah, that’s a really lovely way to put it. It’s more than just a scrapbook, it’s a scrapbook that’s been personally annotated by the man himself. It’s him taking you on a journey through that scrapbook, it’s not you just being given the scrapbook and having to piece it together yourself. You’re being lead by the person that it’s all about, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.
How does it feel trying to direct your live performing cast, and also this ‘Master’ Sondheim that is really a disembodied part of the cast?
At the moment I’m just trying to focus on each individual piece and each song or moment, and it won’t be till we’ve finished staging all of these pieces that we’ll get to see it as a whole and tie it all together. It’s quite complex, I haven’t worked with the AV side of things before. Most of our previous shows, in fact all of them, have been narrative driven so this is a different type of storytelling for me.
What is the highlight of the show to you?
I think moments like the rearranged ‘Something’s Coming’. I’m a huge fan of covers of songs that I like, especially if they’re really good. I love the White Stripes cover of ‘Jolene’ and Radiohead’s cover of ‘Nobody Does It Better’, so it’s kind of like a similar thing. It’s like a really cool cover of Sondheim. So even if you’re really familiar with his music, really there is new stuff in here as well. In fact Sondheim’s written some new material specifically for this show. He wrote a song about himself called ‘God’, a song that’s unique to this show and it’s fantastic- very self deprecating and very dry, and the actors have a lot of fun with it. And I think Sondheim had a lot of fun writing it as well.
What is the most challenging part to stage?
Well the actors are just so good, the cast is just so so good. They are just the right people to present Sondheim’s work. They are beautifully understated and internal actors as well as very accomplished singers with incredible voices. They really act the hell out of these. So that side of it is really easy!
I think the technical side of it is going to be the hard part because we don’t have a lot of money or a great deal of experience or a lot of time! Which are all the things that you would like.
But we have really great support and people are helping and advising us- we’re just looking at it like a new challenge!
What attracted you and Squabbalogic to produce the show in Australia?
Well we’ve always wanted to tackle Sondheim and there are a couple of his shows that haven’t been presented. Our criteria for programming for the most part has been new shows, shows that haven’t been done in Sydney before. We just didn’t feel that the shows of Sondheim that hadn’t been done here… we were a little bit worried about their potential for getting people to come and see them. This was us being able to have our cake and eat it too. We get to perform a whole bunch of Sondheim in a really imaginative and new way, and something a little bit more than just some revue. It’s a real fully formed in-depth exploration of one of the greatest artists in music theatre, if not the greatest artist in music theatre.
How does it compare to your previous productions?
It’s actually a little easier to work on something like this because you’re really able to compartmentalize all the pieces, whereas something like Carrie you are sorting of driving towards something specific. I’m enjoying the process because each song has it’s own journey and it’s own arc and you’re really focusing on that rather than the over arc of the show.
What should audiences expect from Sondheim on Sondheim? What kind of experience would you like them to have?
As someone who is an artist myself, and interested in other people’s processes and particularly people who have had the success and been able to create really wonderful pieces like Sondheim, just to be able to have a little peek behind the curtain and feel like you’ve gotten to know this very important person in the art personally. Even just reading the video transcription in our script off the page I feel like I have a personal connection with him and that he’s confided in me. Hopefully the audience has a similar experience.
All the anecdotes that he presents in the show are just fascinating, and they range from the really funny to some quite dark and sad stuff in there. Everyone has that light and dark shade in their life and with celebrities and artists you don’t really think of the shade because they’re always presented in the light. So that’s a fascinating angle that you get to explore in this piece.
And finally, what is your favourite Sondheim?
I have a really really obscure favourite show of Sondheim- my favourite is ‘The Frogs’ which is his adaptaption of Aristophanes comedy. I think it’s so witty and clever, but again there is some real moving stuff in there. I would LOVE to be able to present ‘Frogs’ one day. It’s very rarely performed and was one of the first pieces he wrote. Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver were in the original production that was presented at Yale University in their swimming pool. It was presented on Broadway I think around 2004 very briefly with Nathan Lane. It’s very clever and it’s just a really wonderful piece.