The University of Tulsa’s Department of Theater recently performed “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a musical revue featuring the works of Stephen Sondheim. As a composer and lyricist Sondheim has gained unparalleled praise from contemporary critics. “Sondheim on Sondheim,” as a self-described docu-musical, manages to capture his creative spontaneity, spotlight his personal influences, and — to my pleasant surprise — avoids what I thought to be an inevitable tinge of narcissism about the man.
This being a musical revue, there’s not really a plot per se. Audiences are instead treated to upwards of forty musical numbers which, despite a few exceptions, are largely unrelated in every detail except for the man that wrote them. Machele Dill, who directed TU’s performance of the revue, said that one of the most frequently asked questions regarding the show concerns the apparent absence of a plot. “What is the plot of life,” she asks. “You see how hard of a question that is to answer.”
This isn’t to say anyone interested in learning more about the renowned lyricist will feel cheated of any insight into his life. He talks much of his parent’s divorce and his consequently spiteful mother, who wrote him a note before a life-risking surgery informing him that his birth was her only regret. He speaks highly of Oscar Hammerstein, who became a surrogate brother of his in his lonely childhood. According to Sondheim, he was always destined to follow Oscar into whatever career he chose, whether that be a construction worker, a politician or a theatre enthusiast.
Video clips from past TV appearances and recent interviews of Sondheim are intercut throughout the show and occasionally even ‘interact with’ the songs being performed live. Perhaps my favorite example of this phenomena occurs during “Do I Hear A Waltz,” in which the musical number is performed by an uppity, cheerful singer — in this case, student Madison McAllister — before it is interrupted by footage of Sondheim himself, who explains why the song “doesn’t really work” and was eventually cut. Turning back to the audience, the girl shrugs and finishes the piece.
Something similar happens during “God,” a piece Sondheim wrote about himself. While the on-stage cast sings his high praises, turning upwards to him as if he were absolutely divine, Sondheim can be lightly heard describing his pencil-sharpening habits and other odd quirks, all the while staring down at a notepad with a lethargic appearance that struck me as delightfully frog-like.
When asked if he considers his work to be a kind of poetry, Sondheim denied it, claiming his lyrics lacked the denseness of poetry. This, he says, is intentional. A poem can be read over and over again in order to grasp its meaning, while a live audience can only hear a lyric once.
The man seems surprisingly grounded, especially for someone so aware of their own importance in the musical world. He talks of his disdain for beginning a piece and his methods of procrastination, whether that be working on his back so he can nap or drinking from shot glasses so he can return to his kitchen incessantly. Alcohol, after all, helps to clear his inhibitions before he writes.
Director Machele Dill also said of Sondheim that he writes for actors who happen to be able to sing. This is a statement true of the entire cast of TU’s production. Ryan Box is terrific as the blood-crazed Sweeney Todd in his performance of “Epiphany,” Austen Naron is limbered in his frenzied performance of “Frank Shepard, Inc.” and Kaylin Rogers’ penultimate singing of “Send in the Clowns” is sentimental without feeling corny. Every actor has an opportunity to shine in “Sondheim on Sondheim” and they nearly universally succeed in doing so.
On a final note, Machele added that the original actors who performed “Sondheim on Sondheim” ranged in age from 20 to 80 years old. “Obviously college students can’t relate to 80 something. So they are approaching the characters from where they are. They are using their own life experiences to relate to the songs. And that’s the thing about Sondheim. He writes relatable music.”