Stephen Sondheim is one of Broadway’s most influential and prolific musical playwrights, certainly of the twentieth century, and arguably of all time. Squabbalogic’s production of Sondheim on Sondheim is a celebration of the life and work of the proclaimed musical God. The revue features an eight-member cast performing a selection from many of Stephen Sondheim’s most famous musicals, as well as rare interview material and never-before-heard arrangements.
The live musical numbers are interspersed with video of the man himself reflecting on his influences, inspirations and the song-writing process, structured in a vaguely chronological order. The interview footage is often moving as Sondheim contemplates the emotional impacts that shaped his life, including the fractured relationship with his parents and the patronage of Oscar Hammerstein.
Sondheim elucidates the context and creation of his impressive body of work and discusses some of his proudest artistic accomplishments. For example, the ambitiousness of capturing the emotion at the heart of Sunday in the Park with George. There is also a handful of rarely heard numbers, such as Company’s alternate endings “Multitudes of Amys” and “Happily Ever After” – enough to please even the most die-hard Sondheim fans.
It is a long musical, clocking in at over two and half hours, and it showcases some of the finest musical theatre compositions of the last century. Highlights of Act I include Rob Johnson’s manic delivery of the show-stopper “Franklin Shepard, Inc” from Merrily We Roll Along and the equally electrifying “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd, a volatile number performed with dexterity by Phillip Lowe.
Stand-out solos from Act II include “Finishing the Hat”, an exploration of artistic expression that manages to convey much of the emotional depth of Sunday in Park With George, despite the lack of narrative exposition – a testament to Blake Erickson’s nuanced vocal delivery. Deborah Krizak’s “Send in the Clowns” is especially moving, and one of the few songs the entire audience seemed to be familiar with. The eight-member cast work cohesively together as a company, a fact that is particularly evident in ensemble numbers such as “Sunday” – the beautiful closing number of the first act – and the spectacular penultimate number “Company/Old Friends”.
James Lapine’s original production ran on Broadway in 2010 at the famous Studio 54; however, director Jay James-Moody successfully adapts the production to the intimate size of the Reginald Theatre. The staging is minimalist, utilising only a small selection of props and eight blocks, an ideal choice to focus the audience’s attention solely on the musical and lyrical strength of the material.
The set is decorated with streams of musical sheets strung from the ceiling and arranged around a central, projected screen. This also separates the space of the stage from the band, capably led by musical director Hayden Barltrop who does an impressive job with the complicated musical arrangements.
In a city where Sondheim shows are a rare treat for musical fans, this pastiche is a fantastic opportunity to see some of his greatest compositions performed live in Sydney. The high quality independent production also showcases the impressive talents of its versatile cast and creatives, offering an insightful look into the world of the veritable musical genius that is Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim on Sondheim is at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, until October 18.