The influential legacy of Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical theatre composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) will be saluted by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in a SuperPops collaboration with Wright State University’s School of Fine and Performing Arts on Friday, Jan. 20 and Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Schuster Center.
Opening with the hauntingly gorgeous overture from “Follies,” “An Evening of Sondheim” will feature over 15 numbers from his definitive, musically intricate repertoire. In addition to songs from his most familiar works such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” the program will also showcase his lesser known shows such as “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Saturday Night.” The evening will culminate with the glorious “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“This is a dream program for audiences because Stephen Sondheim was one of the most versatile and creative minds not just on Broadway but in music altogether,” said Patrick Reynolds, DPO associate conductor. “There’s so much variety of style. There’s so much humor, wit and wisdom. This is really a win-win program for everybody.”
“Sondheim’s works are deeply human and seem to be timeless,” added Joe Deer, artistic director of Wright State Theatre. “His works are durable, especially the core shows such as ‘A Little Night Music,’ ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sweeney Todd.’ He’s broadly popular because he’s universal.”
The art of making art
At the age of 27, Sondheim’s poetic, visceral lyrics for “West Side Story” catapulted his pedigree and mature proficiency of language, further propelled by his masterfully clever, Cole Porter-esque lyrics for “Gypsy.”
However, in 1970 he revolutionized Broadway with his groundbreaking, marital-centric “Company,” which finally gave him the freedom to reinvent the musical theatre landscape his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II helped invent 27 years prior. Many landmarks followed, guiding audiences onto sophisticated, thought-provoking paths exploring the human condition within a fascinating, unapologetic fabric. In particular, the disillusionment of the World War II generation (“Follies”), romantic complexities among the old and young in turn of the century Sweden (“A Little Night Music”), the culture clash opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”) and the vengeance of a Victorian England barber (“Sweeney Todd”).
When Sondheim parted ways with his chief directorial collaborator, Hal Prince, after “Merrily We Roll Along” flopped in 1981, he shifted toward exploring deeper, intellectual themes of the heart, mind and soul in his acclaimed collaborations with director/librettist James Lapine: “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion.” All three musicals are collectively woven within the framework of family, community, love and forgiveness heightened by the reality that one must cope with letting go and learn to move forward.
Putting it together
Wright State has produced numerous Sondheim works, including “A Little Night Music,” “Into the Woods” and the regional premiere of “Sondheim on Sondheim.”
“The quality of his writing is so spectacular,” said Deer. “For the last half century everybody else has been trying, on some level, to keep up with Sondheim in their own way, including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Everybody who writes for the musical theatre is in reference to Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and maybe Jerome Kern. Everybody else is going to be measured, on some level, by their ability to meet that mark. And in 2023, Sondheim is the measure of great writing.”
Credit: Morgan Paul and Barrett Hong
Credit: Morgan Paul and Barrett Hong
In addition to junior and senior acting/musical theatre majors, the concert will feature the Wright State Fine and Performing Arts Combined Chorale under the direction of Nathan Nagir, director of choral studies. Deer says the breadth and depth of Sondheim’s canon is an essential educational component for students in their professional development.
“Our students will naturally gravitate toward lots of other material so if we can train them to succeed with great material, they can help elevate material that might not be as strong or is just simply different,” Deer explained. “And they absolutely (grasp) Sondheim’s wit, which is smart and funny, and the profound humanity of his work. For the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance audience, particularly the Dayton Philharmonic subscribers, they will see a very talented young crop of performing artists.”
“It’s a real honor to work with Joe Deer and his amazing students,” added Reynolds. “From time to time I’m able to cross paths with these incredibly talented people at Wright State, especially in musical theatre. So this collaboration is very special.”
HOW TO GO
What: “An Evening of Sondheim”
Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton
When: Jan. 20-21; Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: 937-228-3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org