Photos courtesy of Suzanne Mapes.
International City Theatre (ICT) has brought the Los Angeles premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim directly to Long Beach with an intimate and telling portrait of the musical icon, a grand finale of a performance that concludes ICT's 30th anniversary season.
Stephen Sondheim, in his own words and music, gives attendees a deeper look into the life and mind of the award-winning composer and lyricist responsible for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and the lyrics for West Side Story, to name just a few creative accomplishments.
Conceived and originally directed by James Lapine as a tribute to Sondheim's 80th birthday, Roundabout Theatre Company premiered Sondheim on Sondheim at its Studio 54 venue on Broadway in 2010. The production is the American Theatre legend's latest major work and garnered a Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical venue and a Drama League Award for distinguished production of a musical.
DJ Gray directs and stages this premier of Lapine's award-winning Broadway hit, bolstering even further ICT's reputation for bringing a renowned production to the city. And with just three weeks to rehearse, caryn desai, ICT's artistic director and producer, had to know a thing or two about bringing the same quality of performance to the city's local stage.
"When I'm directing I have the whole three weeks scheduled," said desai. "I know exactly what I need to accomplish every day when I walk into the rehearsal room and that's how I know I'm going to get from the beginning to the end, that's my road map. And I'm looking for directors that are that organized and conscious of time."
This is Gray's first time working with ICT; she assisted Lapine on the Broadway production and says the Los Angeles premier has much more movement than the 2010 show, which had a dynamic, rotating set adorned with "about 60 televisions on it."
"So I'm creating that movement of the set with the people," she said.
Gray said Sondheim has had a subtle influence on her own career as a choreographer.
"His lyrics through storytelling and the actors that I've worked with and the experience of working with James Lapine have allowed me to work from a deeper place, to trust the subtleties and also work harder in your brain and in your emotions to connect that inner life," she said. "If there's one thing I've learned from his work it's not to hold onto anything too precious in your own work."
Kevin McMahon, one of the seven actors and singers tasked with bringing over two dozen Sondheim tunes to life, said Gray has brought a lot of insight into a challenging production, a show composed of many and varying new arrangements of Sondheim's work requiring many varying vocal ranges. McMahon said mastering the material was difficult, but also the reward.
"It's been a challenge for us all, but I think we've all risen to the occasion," he said. McMahon, Stephanie Fredricks, Barbara Carlton Heart, Shaina Knox, Jake Novak and Josh Wise under Gerald Sternbach's musical direction compose the hard working cast of ICT's Sondheim on Sondheim. "Sondheim is the go-to guy for any singing actor because there's so much depth in his material. I've been able to do multiple Sondheim shows throughout my career and it's always been the highlight of stuff that I've done. It's like working with a master, because he gives you so much in his text and in his writing that, even though it's challenging to do, it makes it easy once you master it."
Sondheim is the winner of an Academy Award and eight Tony Awards, more than any composer, including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre, as well as eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Laurence Olivier Award, according to ICT's original announcement.
His most revered and well known works as a composer and lyricist include those aforementioned and Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins. He also wrote the lyrics for Gypsy. Sondheim has also written film music, contributing Goodbye for Now to Warren Beatty's 1981 Red and five songs to 1990's Dick Tracy, including Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man) which was performed by Madonna and won the Academy Award for best song.
The lyrical genius was also president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981. On September 15, 2010, in honor of his 80th birthday, the former Henry Miller's Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, according to the release.
Many know his songs and lyrics intimately, but very few know the composer's thoughts, trials and tribulations. desai says she hopes audiences will take away a real appreciation for his musical genius and commitment to the art form of American Theatre.
"This particular piece intrigued me because so many of the songs talk to us about his clear understanding of human nature and relationships," she said. “People will recognize the songs and certainly recognize some of the shows and may not even realize he wrote them.”
She said it's just about "getting to know Stephen Sondheim a little bit more personally."
Gray knows Sondheim on Sondheim will affect all members of the audience in different ways and has truly enjoyed watching her actors blossom and feed off the energy of those in attendance.
"The characters are complicated and speak to people in different ways," said Gray. "But the audience will definitely go through quite a roller coaster of emotions with this particular story. Because it's Sondheim's life and he talks about his personal life and his creative life and his unapologetic failures, so you're really brought into why he writes, how he writes."
Remaining performances will take place Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00PM and Sundays at 2:00PM until November 8. Click here or call 562.436.4610 to purchase tickets.
International City Theatre is located at 300 East Ocean Boulevard at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.