When he died at the end of 2021 at the age of 91, Stephen Sondheim left a remarkable legacy of musicals and songs. Sondheim’s ability to create brilliant musicals which explored dark contemporary themes and complicated emotions through words and music was unparalleled, and even in his lifetime he was celebrated as a master of the art of musical theatre.
Because the characters in his musicals often examine interior thoughts set to music, his songs demand acting skills as well as fine voices, and can stand alone as complete creations outside the musical for which they were written.
Since his death there has been a wave of shows around the world featuring Sondheim’s songs in revue format to pay tribute and celebrate his legacy. Among these A Sonnet for Sondheim is an interesting addition.
For A Sonnet for Sondheim, Lexi Sekuless, a driving force behind Lakespeare and Artistic Director of Canberra’s newly announced professional theatre company being created for the Mill Theatre, weaves sonnets by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Elisabeth Barrett Browning among songs from Sondheim musicals, among them, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle, Into The Woods, the little known Passion and Evening Primrose and West Side Story for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics only.
Surprisingly, because all the publicity images for the show, including the program images, featured glamorous costumes, the production was presented as a rather unruly rehearsal or audition, with the cast wearing decidedly unglamorous rehearsal gear. No design credits are given in the printed program so apart from Annette Sharp as choreographer, and Carl Rafferty’s, listed oddly as Pianist, rather than as accompanist or musical director, Sekuless was responsible for all other creative decisions as well as performing as a member of the cast.
But “Art isn’t easy” as Sondheim wrote in his song Putting It Together. Firstly it was never clear whether the audience was watching a rehearsal or an audition. At one point a singer finished her song with a testy “Is that what you want?” It was unclear whether she was directing her remark at the pianist or some unseen director. Another song finished with the singer looking out into the audience as if expecting some sort of confirmation of her performance from a director.
The five members of the cast which included Sekuless herself, together with Jay Cameron, Katerina Smalley, Martin Everett, and Tim Sekuless are all members of the new Mill Theatre company, and it was an interesting choice by Sekuless to use this production to introduce them to audiences. All come with excellent credentials and the format offered the opportunity to showcase them in a range of material.
However, the rehearsal setting did them no favours because it set up the thought that the performances they offered in the first half were tentative rather than fully rehearsed. It also set up an expectation that the performances in the second half would feature fully realised interpretations. These hopes were dashed when the show resumed after interval with no changes of costumes, setting or performance level. It may have been wiser to dispense with the interval.
Although all are competent singers, it was interesting to note that some seemed more comfortable with the spoken text, and the A Chorus Line style introductions in which they introduced themselves.
Sondheim wrote lyrics that demand attention and need no decoration from the performer. The interpretations that worked best in this show were by those in the show that understood that and let the lyrics work for them. Jay Cameron, Katerina Smalley and Martin Everett all understand this and each offered highlights, as did Sekuless herself in a beautifully restrained rendition of I Remember from Evening Primrose.
He also wrote songs which demand bravura performances. Tim Sekuless offered one of these with his madcap performance of Buddy’s Blues from Follies – a hideously difficult song that famously defeated Mandy Patinkin. Annette Sharp provided another highlight with her witty choreography for You Could Drive A Person Crazy from Company, which captured exactly the right tone for this song.
Although it seemed a good idea to include sonnets by other authors, it was not always clear as to their relevance to what Sondheim was saying with his songs. It was a mistake to follow the excellent finale choral arrangement of Sunday from Sunday in the Park with George with an encore of a choral arrangement of the introspective Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. Even though it was musically charming, this arrangement masked the lyrics, and detracted from the effect of Sunday which in any case at this performance was spoilt by bad sound balance.
While she added value with her performances as a member of the cast, Sekuless may have been wiser to concentrate on her directorial responsibilities because there were enough good moments in the show to indicate that if more directorial attention had been paid to the stage picture, sound balance, correcting the varying levels of performance among her excellent cast, the pacing of the show and even making better use of the excellent lighting facilities available in the Belco theatre, A Sonnet for Sondheim may have reached the professional level it strived for.
A Sonnet for Sondheim
Belconnen Arts Centre, 118 Emu Bank, Belconnen (ACT)
Performance: Thursday 30 June 2022
Season: 29 June – 2 July 2022 (ended)
Image: Martin Everett, Tim Sekuless, Jay Cameron and Katerina Smalley in A Sonnet for Sondheim (supplied)
Review: Bill Stephens OAM