Wednesday, 01 June 2022

Stephen Sondheim and the Australian Connection to His Work

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By way of paying tribute to the late, great Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021 at the age of 91, PETER KHOURY takes a look at his contribution to the Australian stage and the many notable theatre practitioners and performers who have contributed to the success of his works in this country and abroad.

Order, Design, Composition, Tone, Form, Symmetry, Balance.

 Starting on a hat. Finishing a hat. Look I made a hat where there never was a hat.

White. A blank page or canvas ... So many possibilities.

Stephen SondheimStephen Sondheim

The above recurring motifs in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George illuminate the creative process in all its forms, challenges and aspirations. His work has been staged and performed by the cream of showbusiness. Many eminent singers, musicians, directors, designers, choreographers, production and theatre companies worldwide have combined, over a period of 70 years, to produce shows of the highest artistic standards.

Since his death in November 2021 there have been many tributes as well as reflections and reappraisals of his work and legacy. This article charts some of the notable directors and other theatre professionals who have staged his work in Australia and the most prominent artists who have performed and interpreted his musicals on the Australian stage.

West Side Story was the first Sondheim musical performed in Australia in October 1960 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne and ran for a three-month season. Produced by The Garnet H. Carroll Management Production Company and directed by American director Joe Calvan. Among the cast list was the name of 18-year-old newcomer Terence Donovan.

Staging Sondheim’s work often requires significant planning and resources in casting, set designs, orchestra numbers and other considerations. For example, Follies requires at least 20 principal performers as well as an ensemble of dancers, chorus girls and other performers. A Little Night Music requires a cast of 18 singers including a quintet that acts as a Greek chorus. Assassins requires a cast for 17 roles plus an ensemble. Into the Woods has roles for 16 to 20 performers, some of them overlapping.

Therefore, it is not surprising that opera and state theatre companies have been at the forefront of Australian productions of his work. The Sydney Theatre Company stands out as staging the most Australian professional premieres of his work: Company in 1986, Into the Woods in 1993 and Merrily We Roll Along in 1996.

Directing and Staging Sondheim’s Musicals

Some of the notable Australian directors who have staged Sondheim’s work include Wayne Harrison, who directed two Australian premieres of Sondheim musicals for the Sydney Theatre Company starting with his memorable and award winning 1993 production of Into the Woods at the Sydney Opera House which included theatre luminaries Judi Connelli, Philip Quast, Sharon Millerchip, Tony Sheldon and Geraldine Turner. Apart from winning several awards, this production is also remembered for its captivating set designs by John Senczuk which included the head of a larger-than-life giant falling onto the stage of the Drama Theatre at the end of the show.

Harrison also directed the first Australian professional performance of Merrily We Roll Along in 1996 at the Footbridge Theatre in Sydney featuring well-known performers Genevieve Lemon, Gina Riley, Tom Burlinson, Garry Scale, Tony Sheldon, Peta Toppano, Greg Stone and Angela Toohey. Harrison also directed A Little Night Music at the Sydney Opera House in 1990 which included Toni Collette, John Waters, Rachael Beck and Geraldine Turner.

Gale Edwards directed the first professional production of Sweeney Todd in Adelaide in 1987, a production that featured Lyndon Terracini as Sweeney and Nancye Hayes as Mrs Lovett. In 2002 she won a Helpmann award, also for Sweeney Todd, in Opera Australia’s 2001 production that starred Peter Coleman-Wright and Judi Connelli in the title roles. She directed Company for the Kookaburra Musical Theatre Company in 2007 and Gypsy in 2000 for The Production Company in Melbourne with Judi Connelli in her towering performance in the role of Rose.

Also, of note in the 2001 production of Sweeney Todd, is Peter England’s set designs. He won a Helpmann and Green Room award for his striking and symbolic set design which powerfully captured the alienated world of 19th century industrial London. Chris Boyd’s 2001 review in the Australian Financial Review noted, ‘It’s hard to imagine a more effective or impressive design. Peter England’s subterranean world of dank sewers and rusting Satanic Mills makes exceptional use of the Opera Theatre stage. (For once, claustrophobia is a design decision, not merely a limitation of the venue!)’

Roger Hodgman, has staged multiple acclaimed productions of Sondheim musicals across several companies and over a 35-year period starting with Sweeney Todd in Melbourne in 1987 until his most recent 2019 production of Assassins in Perth. He summed up the views of many, the day after Sondheim’s death, when he wrote on Facebook, that directing his musicals, ‘… has been the highlight of my creative life and watching and listening to other productions has given me some of my best experiences as an audience member. I have often said that directing Shakespeare was the only thing that came close to the experience of working on his musicals. … We have lost a great man who changed music theatre for ever and for the better.  But what a string of marvellous shows and countless extraordinary songs he has left the world—they will live on to enrich us and those that follow for ever.’

Simon Phillips, directed Company for the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2001. His other celebrated Sondheim achievement included the 2012 Melbourne production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring a stellar cast headed by Geoffrey Rush in the role of Pseudolus with Magda Szubanski, Gerry Connelly, Mitchell Butel and Hugh Sheridan. Sondheim flew to Australia to attend this production and made available to Phillips material previously not included in earlier productions.

Stuart Maunder successful Sondheim shows include Sunday in the Park with George (2013), Into the Woods (2014) and Sweeney Todd (2015) all with the Victorian Opera. He also enjoyed critical success for his intricate and idyllic direction and staging of A Little Night Music for Opera Australia in 2009 in Melbourne and 2010 at the Sydney Opera House. In the glorious ensemble sequence ‘A Weekend in the Country’ he powerfully created on stage a crescendo of anticipation from each character as they transitioned to and contemplated a weekend retreat at the Chateau of Madame Armfeldt.

The production was greatly enhanced by the set and costume designs by Roger Kirk and lighting designs by Trudy Dalgleish. In its 2010 review The Sondheim Review magazine noted, ‘The sets, lighting, costumes and direction combine to depict the external world of the characters as elegant, refined, and materially abundant which contrasts with their internal worlds as emotionally trapped, disappointed, mismatched, and afflicted with vanity, jealousy and infidelity—to name but a few of the human frailties on display. This paradox, captured as internal despair and external radiance infuses the production.’

The late Richard Wherrett directed the first Australian professional production of Company in 1986 at the Sydney Opera House. A production that featured John O'May as Bobby with a cast that included Geraldine Turner as Joanne, and Tony Sheldon, Simon Burke, Terence Donovan, Jodie Gillies, Karen Johnson and Barry Quin. Michael Tyack was Musical Director and Brian Thomson Set Designer.

Neil Armfield directed renowned opera star Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in 2000 for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. More recently, Dean Bryant has attracted much praise for his fine directions of Assassins (2017) and Merrily We Roll Along (2021), both for the Hayes Theatre Company.

Equally notable in Dean Bryant’s directing of Assassins were the costume and set designs that Alicia Clements created and thematically integrated into the production. On the very small stage of the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, she created a set of mirrored surfaces that reflected a smoke and mirrors distorted mindset of the characters. A colourful dreamlike ambience of flashing lights, fairground props, posters, merry-go-round and other carnival regalia depicting a surreal world into which the assassins can escape. A retreat from the real world!

Special mention should be made of Sondheim on Sondheim, a biographical musical revue of Sondheim’s life and work directed by Jay James-Moody in 2014 at the Seymour Centre in Sydney and produced by Squabbalogic Musical Theatre in a highly accomplished and beautifully presented production.

Sonya Suares is the founder, chair and director of Watch This, an Australian repertory company dedicated to the work of Stephen Sondheim. The company has developed a reputation for producing innovative, socially engaged and cutting-edge stagings of Sondheim musicals. It presented the first Australian professional production of the rarely performed Pacific Overtures in 2014. Other productions include Assassins (2013), Company (2015), Merrily We Roll Along (2017), A Little Night Music (2018), Sunday in the Park with George (2019) and Into the Woods (2022).

In a 2021 interview with Aussie Theatre magazine, Sonya Suares spoke of Sondheim’s work as being deeply humanist and lending itself to re-examination and re-exploration, and resonating with current social and political backdrops. ‘I’m not interested in putting on shows just because I like them or I feel like it would be fun. It’s always got to speak to the moment and a 21st century intersectional audience.’

Hence their recent production of Into the Woods, in the midst of a pandemic,a story about a motley collection of characters who must band together to confront an existential crisis in 2020’. They staged Company during the national marriage equality debate. Pacific Overtures was performed in an election year that is remembered for fear mongering campaigns about ‘stopping the boats’ and ‘national security’ and attacks on people seeking asylum and refuge. Their production of Assassins was performed at a time when alt-right and white-supremist marches were taking place in many major Australian cities.

The company has received many awards for its productions and performances and critical recognition for its policies of diversity and inclusion. The company is Melbourne based and ventures into regional Victoria for some performances. The challenge ahead (and a wish by many) is to expand their repertoire to other parts of the country. Comparisons are sometimes made with the Bell Shakespeare company which started as a Sydney based company and gradually expanded nationwide.

Notable Australian Performers

A star-studded alumni of performers have brought Sondheim’s work to life on the Australian stage. The most notable of these being Geraldine Turner, Anthony Warlow, Caroline O'Connor, Philip Quast, Judi Connelli and David Campbell.

Sondheim excelled as a wordsmith and his lyrics are renowned for their rhyming and wordplay qualities. Performing and staging his work is demanding at a number of levels. Vocally, singers must navigate across lyrics that are often tricky, with emphasis on timing, rhythm, memory and varied in scales and lyrical sequence. Many pieces have key changes within songs and sudden tempo shifts.

Equally challenging is the performance and acting expectations required in bringing to life the many complex and multi-layered characters in his shows. His musicals are character driven and demand an immersed dramatic emphasis from performers. Indeed, many of his songs are written in speech and conversational patterns partly not to deflect from the dramatic moment.

Geraldine Turner was the first artist worldwide to record an all-Sondheim album and the only artist to have recorded two such albums. Her 1986 breakthrough album, Old Friends, paved the way for solo all-Sondheim albums by many other eminent artists.

Turner’s name is synonymous with Australian showbusiness and in particular performing and promoting Sondheim’s work to a wider audience. Her first Sondheim role was as Petra in A Little Night Music in the original 1973 Australian production which was staged in the same year as its Broadway opening. She recalled, ‘Petra was a big break and that was the beginning of my musical theatre career.’ Critics described her performance as ‘electrifying’. Seventeen years later, she played the lead role of Desiree in the 1990 Sydney revival as well as performing the role in New Zealand.

She was cast as Joanne in the 1986 Australian premiere production of Company and won a Mo award for her role as Mrs Lovett in the 1987 production of Sweeney Todd. In 1993 she appeared as the Baker’s Wife in the Australian premiere production of Into the Woods. Turner has also performed in many other of his shows and in several productions of the revue Side By Side By Sondheim.

She recently recalled, ‘I first met Steve in 1977 and continued our acquaintance, recording two albums, and seeing him when in New York, enjoying a lively correspondence over the years. The last time I saw him was when he came to Australia to see Kookaburra’s Company at The Theatre Royal. I feel privileged to have known him and he has been a great influence on my career.’

When he gave a Q&A session: An Audience with Stephen Sondheim at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in 2007 she was invited to sing ‘Could I Leave You’ from Follies as an opening to the event. She also remembers Sondheim being impressed after a tour of the Sydney Opera House during his visit in 1977 and he was delighted by a didgeridoo that he had purchased that day.

Asked about performing Sondheim in an interview with the Everything Sondheim magazine in 2017, she reflected on the joys and challenges of performing his work, ‘I think you must be authentic with anything you do in the theatre or on stage. The essence of performing a Sondheim song is to stand there, be authentic, and follow the punctuation marks. He’s so brilliant, he’s done it all for you in the writing, and you just have to follow his intentions with the song and you’ll be fine. I think authenticity is the key.’

Anthony Warlow has described Sondheim as one of his favourite composers and this is reflected in the numerous Sondheim songs that he has recorded on several of his albums. His performances with Sigrid Thornton in Opera Australia’s 2010 production of A Little Night Music at the Sydney Opera House received considerable praise.

In 2019 Sydney and Melbourne audiences were treated to his well-researched and intensely delivered performances of Sweeney Todd with Gina Riley as Mrs Lovett and directed by Theresa Borg. Together they combined to deliver a commanding performance. Warlow was able to balance and humanise the murderous and revengeful character of Sweeney Todd with the grief and utter despair of a wounded father and husband. Vocally he soared in delivering a highly accomplished and affecting presentation of the role.

Caroline O'Connor is another distinguished performer of the Sondheim repertoire in the UK, USA, NZ and Australia. Her many international performances in West Side Story as Anita date back to 1983. She played the role of Rose in Gypsy in both Leicester (2012) and Melbourne (2013), the role of Sarah Jane Moore in Assassins for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (2012), the role of Phyllis in Follies for The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (2011), and The Witch in Into the Woods (1993) at the Forum Theatre in Manchester.

In May 2011 she starred as Mrs Lovett in the Théâtre du Châtelet production of Sweeney Todd in Paris. At very short notice she was asked to replace the scheduled artist and in an intense three-week period she had to learn the new role which contains many demanding lyrics, tempo and vocal variations. Stephen Sondheim flew to Paris to see opening night. Some of her brilliance in this role is captured on You Tube performing ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and other numbers from the show. Her delivery of those songs is a masterclass on timing and coordination. The influential French newspaper Le Monde noted, ‘Stephen Sondheim made no mistake and he didn't hesitate to let others know that she is the best Mrs Lovett he has ever heard.’

Philip Quast has performed many Sondheim’s roles across three continents. In 1991 he won his first Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical as Georges Seurat in the original London production of Sunday in the Park with George. In 2014 he performed as Judge Turpin, with Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at the Lincoln Centre in New York and at London's Royal Festival Hall.

In 1993 he appeared in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Into the Woods at the Sydney Opera House for which he won a Mo Award and a Sydney Critics Circle Award for Best Male Performer. His most recent Sondheim performance was as Benjamin Stone in the 2018 televised Royal National Theatre production of Follies and in the cast recording album of that production.

On hearing of Sondheim’s death, he wrote, ‘He taught me so much about the theatre, audiences and acting. He was a dramatist with an intricate understanding of all the complexities and flaws that make up human beings. I spent the weekend reading over my old diaries and notebooks and came across this—the best acting note and “human” note an actor can receive. “Philip don’t play self pity or petulance EVER-NEVER (unless it is in the text that you are). It’s the most unattractive of all human emotions … and it’s passive-aggressive.”’

The legendary cabaret and musical theatre performer Judi Connelli has appeared in seven Sondheim musicals and revues and has recorded over twenty Sondheim songs across five albums. With many appearances in New York and Australia she is regarded as one of the most powerful exponents and interpreters of his music. She has performed with distinction leading roles as The Witch in Into the Woods (1993), Phyllis in Follies (1998), Rose in Gypsy (2000), Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd (from 2001-2007), and Carlotta in Follies (2008).

She is renowned for not merely vocally delivering a song but unpacking its emotional subtext as well. Critics and audiences vividly remember her in the role of Rose in Gypsy where she gave a dramatic and affecting performance of a woman suspended between the quest for glory and the reality of disappointment and failure.

In an interview with The Sondheim Review in 2012 she praised Sondheim for the many powerful characters and complex roles he has written for women. Roles such as Fosca, Rose, Dot, Mrs Lovett, Maria, Desiree, Phyllis, and Sally. ‘Those roles are so well constructed. There is so much in what he says, the magic of what he can do, the way he can get into the psyche of a woman in songs like ‘Could I Leave You’ or ‘Rose's Turn’. Those roles are rich. You never forget the experience.’

She further reflected, ‘He’s a visionary. He knows so much about the workings of a human being, and I don’t know how he does. Maybe it’s the pain and darkness that he observes and studies—and then comes out with that magic that he gives the world.’

Sondheim wrote the musical Saturday Night when he was in his early twenties but it was shelved for many years after the death of its main producer. It was finally scheduled for its New York premiere in 2000. Sondheim chose a young David Campbell for the title role of Gene and for the cast recording of the show. In 2011 Campbell told The Sondheim Review magazine that he marvelled at the opportunity of having worked with Sondheim on that show and recalled that Sondheim was very specific about how he wanted each song performed.

Performing the role of Bobby in the 2007 Sydney production of Company was another opportunity for him to appear in a Sondheim musical. Sondheim travelled to Sydney to support the show. Campbell told The Sondheim Review, ‘It was great for me to reconnect with him. You don’t often get a chance to work with someone who has changed the shape of music as we know it.’ In 2017 Campbell continued his Sondheim trajectory with a powerful performance playing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, in the Hayes Theatre production of Assassins.

So Many Possibilities!

In reference to the Sondheim repertoire in Australia, future productions of his seminal works will continue to be staged by the larger production companies and by smaller, yet equally dedicated, entities such as Watch This. While there will undoubtedly be revivals of Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Into the Woods, and his other popular and commercially viable works, there remains hitherto a neglect of many of his other artistically significant works such as Pacific Overtures, Road Show and in particular Passion.

It might appear surprising to some but there has only been one professional production of Pacific Overtures in Australia by the Watch This company in 2014. It remains one of Sondheim’s least staged musicals and it contains his favourite song ‘Someone in A Tree’. A story of Japan’s westernisation (from the point of view of the Japanese) has many parallels and connections with other endeavours to tell the stories of colonialism and cultural appropriation in musical form - think of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific or Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae.

Road Show has yet to be staged in Australia yet it is a much-underrated musical. Unfortunately, it has been maligned by the many public reworkings and incarnations that it was given over a 14-year period as well as the different titles: Bounce, Wise Guys, and Gold. It was also often unfavourably compared to Sondheim’s more successful shows. In his book Look, I Made A Hat, Sondheim chronicles, in considerable detail, Road Show’s ‘tortuous evolution of a musical from promising to derailed to fulfilled.’

Road Show explores the American dream and entrepreneurial spirit through the story of the Mizner brothers and their quest for wealth and prosperity during the gold rush and real estate boom of the 1920s. In many respects it can be read as a parable on family ties, greed, human frailty and the ephemeral nature of the pursuit of wealth, celebrity and status.

It contains a number of impressive and noteworthy musical numbers such as ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’ and ‘Isn't He Something’. Moreover, there is the poignant and tender song ‘A Little House for Mama’ which was recorded as a bonus track on the Bounce album but cut from the cast album of Road Show. This song deserves to be reinstated in future productions.

Perhaps the most glaring neglect of a Sondheim musical in Australia has been Passion. It has only received three productions, one in 1997 at the Seymour Centre in Sydney directed by Maarten Sims and two other productions, 17 years later, in 2014. One production by the Life Like Company in Melbourne, directed by Neil Gooding with an impressive cast that included Kane Alexander, Theresa Borg, John O’May and Silvie Paladino. The other by Swell Productions in Adelaide at the State Opera Studio with Patrick Jeremy, Eleanor Blythman and Michaela Burger in the title roles.

Passion is a lyrically and musically profound work exploring the complexities and unpredictability of love, obsession and desire. It contains some of Sondheim’s most poignant and moving songs such as ‘Happiness’, ‘I Wish I Could Forget You’ and ‘Loving You’. It was written at a time when Sondheim had experienced fulfilment in his personal life.

Sondheim’s last musical Square One had received a number of workshops and readings before his death. He was hoping that it would be produced in 2022. It is based on Luis Buñuel’s films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Daniel Max from The New Yorker magazine reported in February 2022 on a series of interviews he conducted with Sondheim that were intended to be published and timed to the premiere of Square One. He explained to Max that it’s structured as a series of vignettes around a group of people trying to find a place to eat and become trapped literally and metaphorically.

Sondheim stated there are six main characters, a complete draft of the book was completed, that he had written seven songs for the new work and had a complete score for the first act and was working on the score of the second act. It is hoped that this work might be given, at the very least, a concert performance or presented as a concept album.

Finishing the Hat

Like all great artistic legacies from Verdi to Puccini, from Shakespeare to Chekhov and from Hammerstein to Sondheim, their performance histories remain unfinished and in perpetuity. They continue on in revised and revived forms, in reimagined settings and reinterpretations that speak to successive eras and to new generations who find meaning and resonance in their enduring continuation.

While this article has mainly focussed on directors and performers equal recognition might also be given, hopefully by future writers, to other theatre technicians such as set and dress designers, choreographers and those who have produced many memorable and innovative designs and stage installations of Sondheim’s work.

Lastly, the above list of artists is far from exhaustive. The Sondheim cannon in Australia is scattered with an endless list of luminary performers. Artists such as Gloria Dawn, Jill Perryman, Peter Carroll, Toni Lamond, Terence Donovan, John O’May, Nancye Hayes followed by the likes of Gina Riley, Tyran Parke and Anton Berezin are a testament to the engagement and performance history of Sondheim’s work in Australia.

 

Read 480 times Last modified on Thursday, 21 July 2022
Peter Khoury

Peter Khoury is a writer and academic. He has an Honours degree and a PhD in Sociology from the University of NSW and has spent many years as a senior researcher and lecturer at a number of Australian universities. Parallel to his academic career has been a lifelong engagement with music, theatre and opera - and in particular the work of Stephen Sondheim. He was a regular contributor to The Sondheim Review and Everything Sondheim magazines. His most recent piece, ‘The Legacy of Stephen Sondheim’ was published in the Australian Arts Review magazine in February 2022.