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A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse

A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s acerbic musical romance, is set to beguile audiences once more this summer as it makes a welcome return to the Leeds Playhouse stage.

Bringing together opera singers, musical theatre talent and the Chorus of Opera North, the show is heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure. A chance meeting between ex-lovers sparks a game of romantic musical chairs over a weekend in the country, as some hopelessly mismatched couples find themselves confronted by their own vanities and deceptions. Glittering with wit, Sondheim’s much-loved work features a host of musical treats including the poignant classic ‘Send in the Clowns’.

Leeds Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining returns to direct, having worked on the show previously, as well as directing the two Leeds-based companies’ celebrated 2016 production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods: “I think A Little Night Music is about making the most of our life, it’s about making the most of the people you care most about, it’s about making decisions that feel risky but are also the most rewarding. It’s moving, but it’s also really great fun.”

Another veteran of the piece is Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang who revisits the role of Fredrik Egerman: “Relationships are messy, but that’s what makes us human, and Sondheim is a genius at putting that onto the stage.” Singing Fredrik’s old flame Desiree Armfeldt will be Sandra Piques Eddy: A Little Night Music is brilliant, because it’s so light-hearted, but then you get socked in the gut, and it’s absolutely glorious.”

An Opera North favourite of even longer standing, Dame Josephine Barstow returns to cast a sardonic eye over proceedings as Madam Armfeldt. Corinne Cowling sings the ingénue bride Anne Egerman, while young tenor Sam Marston makes his Opera North debut as the callow Henrik Egerman. Other roles are taken by members of Opera North’s talented Chorus including Amy J Payne as the maidservant Petra, and Christopher Nairne and Helen Évora as Count and Countess Malcolm.

A specialist in American musical theatre whose Opera North credits include Carousel, Sweeney Todd, Kiss Me Kate, Into the Woods and Street Scene, the Company’s former Head of Music James Holmes conducts; and designer Madeleine Boyd (Opera North’s Don Giovanni, The Turn of the Screw and La Traviata) has Sondheim’s country house setting teetering between decadence and decay.

A Little Night Music opens at Leeds Playhouse on 1 July 2022. For more information, visit leedsplayhouse.org.uk or operanorth.co.uk.

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Stephen Sondheim was a genius – we shall not see his like again

I never thought Stephen Sondheim would die.

Oh, I know we all do eventually, but he carried with him such an aura of invincibility that if anyone could cheat the passage of time, I assumed it would be musical theatre’s God. (The New York Times even once ran a story on the phenomenon, asking if Sondheim and God had ever been seen in the same place).

Sondheim, the maestro who reinvented musical theatre has passed at his home in Connecticut suddenly at 91.

His attorney, F. Richard Pappas, also confirmed the composer’s death: “The day before, Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury,” Pappas said in a written statement. “And he spent all day Wednesday seeing the matinee and evening performances of Dana H and Is This a Room — doing what he most loved to do.”

West End theatres will dim their lights on Monday 29 November at 7.00pm for 2 minutes. This tradition is reserved for the industry’s most celebrated figures and last occurred over here in 2018, following the death of trailblazing choreographer Gillian Lynne.  

In truth, what mattered to Sondheim, widely considered the most influential composer-lyricist in the American musical theatre of the 20th century, was his art, in all its guises. His legacy is eternal.

Stephen Sondheim

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. 

He was born into a Jewish family in New York City, and his career began in the 1950s, a decade in which he wrote the lyrics for Broadway classics Gypsy and West Side Story. For his fans, his audience, this is a moment of infinite sorrow. 

Looking back, I finally got Sondheim musicals– there’s cynicism, endless philosophy, and pure emotion in his work – when I turned thirty.

Seeing Dominic Cooke’s Follies and Marianne Elliott’s gender flipped Company within months of each other, it’s fair to say, hit me during a life affirming period of reflection and recalibration. 

The West End company of Company
© Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Think of modern musicals like Hamilton and even Fun Home and you’ll find the composers owe their style, as well as the roof over their head and the food on the table, to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. 

All in all, losing Sondheim in 2021 is all the more surprising after he so joyously attended the current revival Company on Broadway earlier this month. A ripple of murmurs and a rapturous standing ovation greeted the masked nonagenarian as he emerged from a side entrance shortly before showtime, walking along the fifth row to his aisle seat. 

Stephen Sondheim attends Company on Broadway

He was a keen teacher and mentor and used his talent always to make a difference. Art isn’t easy.

I asked Robbie Rozelle, A&R Director at Broadway Records for a few words on Sondheim’s legacy and impact. He said: “Taking the foundation that Oscar Hammerstein laid for him, Sondheim proceeded to become the greatest architect of musicals. He was also an important teacher, who worked with people to stretch the form even further – Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, so many. He was the bridge between the Golden Age of musicals and the new form of musical, and what a beautiful bridge he was.”

Sondheim was also generous with his time, and with his encouragement, just very, very giving. 

An unsurpassed musical theatre super-hero. 

In short, he was an insightful, shrewd operator who could spot a contradiction at 50 paces. The irony of this, and the debt we all owe him, is not lost on me. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, whom he married in 2017.

“You have to work on something that makes you uncertain – something that makes you doubt yourself,” 

“If you know where you’re going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death,” Sondheim said in 2017.

I’d like to propose a toast. Stephen Joshua Sondheim, may peace be upon you.

Steve

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Look Ahead: Theatre Streaming in March

At last! A roadmap – the prime minister has announced a timeline for when theatres and other live events venues may be able to reopen.

All being well, indoor and outdoor theatres will be allowed to reopen with social distancing from May 17.

Hmmmmmmmmm.

Anyway, here are some of the best shows streaming online now or later in March.

Whatever you decide to stream this month – please check out Richard Blackwood in Soho Theatre’s breathless reimagining of the tragic final hours of Christopher Alder’s life: Typical is a terrific and powerful monologue that deserves another life when All This is over.

Richard Blackwood in Typical

Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Olivier Award winning Emilia will be streaming for all of March on a pay what you decide basis (from £1.00). A blazing take on Emilia Bassano, a 17th century poet who struggled to get her voice heard in a patriarchal world. Now you know.

Kiln Theatre is streaming a reading of new play Girl on the Altar by Marina Carr, streams for free on 5 March.

A new folk musical, by Robin Simões da Silva and Annabel Mutale Reed, Brother will be streamed live from Southwark Playhouse – the show follows a young transgender man finding his way in the world. Streaming live 5-6 March.

Recorded at the London Palladium and hosted by Sheridan Smith, Musicals: The Greatest Show featuredMichael Ball, Nicole Scherzinger and more belting West End classics with a couple of songs from recent British hits Six and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Not awful and still available on BBC iPlayer. 

Musicals: The Greatest Show – Layton Williams

The Barn Theatre in Cirencester’s latest digital offering is a multiple-choice cabaret featuring 14 musical performers. Conceived by Ryan Carter, The Secret Society of Leading Ladies is a clever concept; there are a possible 150 combinations in which to see a five-song concert. Available until 7 March.

The Old Vic has revealed two commissioned monologues created to mark International Women’s Day on March 8: Putting A Face On by Kiri Pritchard-McLean and Regina Taylor’s Aisha (the black album). Available on YouTube for free. 

Adam Kashmiry plays himself in excellent play Adam, the story of a transgender man who sought asylum in Scotland. Now, the BBC has teamed up with National Theatre Scotland for a specially crafted recording as part of the BBC Arts Lights Up for New Culture in Quarantine season. Following its BBC Four premiere, Adam will be available on BBC iPlayer.

The Whip, Juliet Gilkes’s resonant play about 19th-century slavery-abolition legislation, has had a new audio recording commissioned by the RSC. On YouTube until 16 March.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett and director by Tamara Harvey is a starry digital adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic with Gray depicted as an “influencer”. Streams 16-31 March.

Last year’s virtual celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim, Take Me To the World is still available on YouTube – why not watch it again on Steve’s birthday, Tuesday  22  March. I’ll drink to that!

By the way, the original 1980 Broadway production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin –  directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse  –is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

If you have a show streaming during the month of March or suggestions for my blog get in touch – this will be updated weekly. Cheers! E: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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Five Things You Should Know About Follies

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1.    Let’s cut to the chase: Follies contains some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a musical.

It features Stephen Sondheim veterans Philip Quast, Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee. Most incredible of all, the way this sparkly ensemble revisit their former lives from 30 years ago to when they first met while working as Follies dancers. The ghosts of the past send shivers up your spine. Also, Tracie Bennett in particular steals the show on a few occasions in a hall of mirrors for all shades of misery

2.    With a near 30-year history and a world-class reputation, Sondheim shows are no strangers to the National Theatre (Judi Dench appeared in ‘A Little Night Music’ in the Olivier, 1995 and Philip Quast in ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in the Lyttelton Theatre, 1990 etc, etc and so on).

It’s hard to avoid the fact that most of Follies’ action takes place on a stage revolve resembling a merry-go-round in West Side Story. The beauty of this show lies in the precision that draws the multi-layered elements together.

3.    There are incredibly few directors who could carry off at least three quarters of this show. Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre has kept the songs in the faithful style – the orchestra are sublime – but when Imelda delivers a refreshingly devastating low-key version of ‘Losing My Mind’, it’s the night’s highlight. A haunting exploration of character.

This is an inventively staged production with a cast and the arrangements are of a phenomenally high standard. As well as being expertly written the majority of these songs are also skilfully structured and only serve to reaffirm Sondheim’s Godlike genius.

 

4.    The choreography itself is beautiful, reflecting the sorrow, torment and human resilience in both the music and the performances. Everything slots perfectly into place in this magnificent evocation of showbiz. Sweeping across the stage are buckets of Swarovski crystals, sashes, sequined frocks and outfits that reel you in from start to finish.

This is the first time Dominic Cooke has directed a musical. Luckily, there’s a clarity of vision that’s practically unrivalled in the current musical theatre scene. Follies feels effortlessly enchanting.

5.    Vicky Mortimer’s show-making set and costume design uses a crumbling theatre on a revolving set to remind us how the characters’ lives are confined and ravaged by theatre; Bill Dreamer’s vivid choreography, deserves a mention again, his work with ‘Loveland’ pays hymn to the showbiz past; and the orchestra has a glorious, brassy ring.

The production’s centrepiece – to these eyes, anyway – is ‘I’m Still Here’, a track for which Apple Music single song repeat function could well have been invented. A dazzle to watch. 

But the show is not perfect and I can see people’s concerns about Imelda’s suitability as a ‘Showgirl’ or that her vocals may be underpowered. They are missing the point; these things add to the charm of the production. The no interval thing is a bit crap….

Nevertheless, nothing is left to chance here, folks.

I make that a considered, authoritative and concrete 9/10. Also: Looks like my work here is done. Time to go to the pub.

Follies runs in the Olivier Theatre at the National until 3 January.

‘FYI’ Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.