Video: Director Hedy Weiss and Gary Griffin discuss Stephen Sondheim. (Directed by Marc Vitali)
Since the death of musical theater master Stephen Sondheim on Friday at the age of 91, the most frequently asked question has been: “What was your favorite musical?”
I can not give you an answer. With nearly 20 musicals to his name, and with stories that span a remarkable range, I can only make the most drastically abridged list of unforgettable memories, from the moment I first saw the version. cinematic of “West Side Story” and I was completely captivated by Rita Moreno dancing in a storm as she sang “America”.
Growing up in New York City, then moving to Chicago, returning frequently to this city to attend Broadway productions, my memories of Sondheim span decades. I will never forget the original Broadway production “A Little Night Music”, starring Glynis Johns and Len Cariou, or “Sweeney Todd”, with Cariou in the title role and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, or “Sunday in the Park With George ”, with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.
But over the years, Chicago’s theater companies – large and small – have made Sondheim one of their own, with director Gary Griffin and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater often leading the way. Why, you might ask, was a Shakespeare theater so devoted to Sondheim? Well, consider this: Sondheim’s first two hit hits: “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959) are musicals for which he wrote only the lyrics. He became both songwriter and lyricist for all the shows that followed, starting with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1962 – the catchy comedy with Zero Mostel. And while his music was invariably as deep as his lyrics, his fluency in the language, his razor-sharp mind, and his intention to never let music change the true rhythm of words, could easily open him to a comparison with Shakespeare.
So here’s the quickest look at unforgettable Chicago productions and Sondheim musical performances:
– “Pacific Overtures”, a work rarely repeated on a Japanese reminiscent of the arrival and “westernization” of his country by the American commodore Matthew C. Perry during his childhood. Griffin directed, and his 2001 production was then moved to London. I can’t get the song “Someone in a Tree” out of my head.
– “Follies,” also Chicago Shakespeare, was a big show, with an invaluable cameo from Mike Nussbaum as the Ziegfeld-style Broadway impresario.
– “Passion” the story of a strange and obsessive love story between Fosca, a very sick woman (superbly interpreted by Danni Smith), and a sensitive young soldier received a staging of exceptional power in the intimacy of Théo Ubique Cabaret Theater.
– “Sunday in the Park With George”, another Chicago Shakespeare Theater production directed by Griffin, had remarkable power for many reasons, not least because it brought Seurat’s masterpiece to life so close by. from the Art Institute of Chicago.
– ‘Sweeney Todd’, the brilliantly imagined Victorian horror story that was staged here both on a large scale (at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, directed by Jim Corti and starring Paul-Jordan Jansen and Bri Sudia ), and on the most intimate scale (by Theo Ubique) has worked its magic both ways.
– “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”, a Porchlight Music Theater production directed by Michael Weber, starring Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle as the funniest Roman slaves imaginable.
– “Gypsy,” a 2018 Porchlight production, starring E. Faye Butler, and she brought him out of the park as Mama Rose, the relentless stage gate mom who wanted more than anything to be a star herself.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic