Life After Sondheim: We Die But We Don’t

Stephen-Sondheim-in-1994-photo-by-Fred-R.-ConradStephen Sondheim’s repertoire with its memorable songs and musical scores, complex characters, philosophical musings, introspections on life and love has surged in the 12 months since his death on November 26, 2021.

The Sondheim carnival continues and is never-ending: Multiple productions of his musicals worldwide, tribute concerts, new recordings of his shows, albums by prominent singers, and a host of other commemorations honouring his legacy have taken place in 2022 and others are scheduled for 2023.

America Remembers
Sondheim was moved to tears when he viewed Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story in late 2021. At the same time the highly acclaimed production of Company was playing on Broadway and Sondheim attended a performance the week before he passed away. Of particular significance in that production was the change of the lead male character of ‘Bobby’ to a female role of ‘Bobbie.’

Throughout 2022 Into the Woods has played to sell-out audiences and critical acclaim on Broadway with numerous extensions, the latest until January 2023. The huge box office success of this production had led to a new cast recording of the show.

This production also generated wide fascination and praise at the presentation of Milky White – normally a prop in the shape of a cow, it has been transformed into a captivating puppet brilliantly manoeuvred on stage by Kennedy Kanagawa.

Sondheim was honoured at the 2022 Grammy Awards, the Tony Awards, the Oscars, and a host of other musical events. The year also included tribute albums by Betty Buckley and Liz Callaway but the most exciting development in new recordings of his songs is the talented newcomer, Eleri Ward.

She has managed to capture the magic of Sondheim for a new generation in her two all-Sondheim albums, Perfect Little Death in 2021 which Sondheim praised and her 2022 Keep A Tender Distance.

Eleri Ward singing Johanna (Reprise)

In these albums she reinterprets and reimagines Sondheim’s songs in an Indi-Folk context with her own minimalist acoustic arrangements. The result is a riveting and refreshing rendition of his songs. The New York Times described her as capturing the longing heart of Sondheim’s work. Her original and affecting reworking of his songs is generating a large following.

Eleri Ward sings Sunday

Australia Celebrates
In Australia the year started with the timely Watch This production of Into the Woods in Melbourne. This fine production, featuring accomplished performers John O’May, Jackie Rees and James Millar, was described as ‘a love letter to Sondheim’s legacy.’

Fiona Choi as the Baker’s Wife and Cherine Peck as the witch stood out in their respective roles. The performances were beautifully and intricately directed by Sonya Suares and Melanie Hillman.

Watch This is the only Sondheim repertory company in Australia and has amassed a quality track record of Sondheim shows. An announcement for their 2023  production and cast will be made soon.

The big disappointment of the year was the cancellation of StoreyBoard’s three city tour of the biographical review Sondheim on Sondheim due to floods and inclement weather conditions at the time.

But all should not be lost as this show is better suited to smaller and more intimate theatres than the large venues booked for the StoreyBoard production.

The 2022 concert highlight for Sondheim fans in Australia was the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s tribute concert, Moments In The Woods: Songs and Stories of Sondheim directed by Mitchell Butel and an impressive cast of leading Sondheim performers Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt, Josie Lane and Philip Quast.

In October the Hayes Theatre presented a Script-In-Hand season of Sondheim’s rarely performed Anyone Can Whistle by Michelle Guthrie’s Neglected Musicals group. Despite its lack of commercial success since it first premiered in 1964 this show is glittered with beautiful numbers such as, A Parade in Town and With So Little to Be Sure Of and was skilfully and economically directed by Tyran Parke with an exuberant and earnest cast.

For 2023, Sydney audiences will be looking forward to the Belvoir St and Hayes Theatre co-production of Into the Woods in March. Eamon Flack’s penetrating vision as a director, and a cast that will include Tamsin Carroll, Esther Hannaford and Justin Smith, promises to be a much sought-after show for the 2023 season.

The West Australian Opera has also announced a 2023 Australian staging of the acclaimed Northern Ireland Opera production of Into the Woods, which first premiered in Belfast in 2022, and scheduled for Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre in March.

It will be directed by Cameron Menzies, Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera, with an impressive Australian cast that includes Peter Coleman-Wright, Samantha Clarke, Maria Mercedes, Claire Lyon, Nicole Youl and exciting opera star Alexander Lewis (who excelled in the role of George in the 2013 Victorian Opera production of Sunday in the Park with George).

Europe Pays Tribute
Internationally, the biggest Sondheim event in May 2022 occurred in London where Cameron Mackintosh produced the Gala celebration concert Old Friends with a star-studded ensemble of theatre luminaries who have been associated with Sondheim’s work for many decades.

Bernadette Peters, Petula Clark, Judi Dench, Maria Friedman, Imelda Staunton, Elaine Paige and many others made it a memorable celebration. There is talk that the concert will be released on DVD and streaming outlets.

Far too little is mentioned of Sondheim’s performances in non-English speaking countries. In May Studio De L’Accord Parfait in Paris staged a concert celebrating his work.

Théâtre du Châtelet which had previously produced several of his musicals staged a tribute concert which included several French translations of his songs by the late distinguished French writer and composer Alain Marcel.

Such has been the Spanish engagement and success with Sondheim’s work that Concord Records have just released a dynamic and enthralling Spanish cast recording of Company with Antonio Banderas in the title role of Bobby.

In July, Barcelona Grec Festival presented A Sondheim Night Music. What was special about this concert was that most of Sondheim’s songs were sung in Spanish by Spanish and Catalan musical theatre stars.

Spanish being a more expressive, emotive, and intense language gave Sondheim songs a surprising heightened poetic intensity compared to English versions.

A Sondheim Night Music, Teatre Grec, Barcelona 2022

If you think Sondheim sounds great in Spanish then you must listen to the few video snippets available of the forthcoming Netherlands production of Sweeney Todd sung in Dutch and to be staged in April 2023 in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Dutch stars Simone Kleinsma as Mrs Lovett and Hans Peter Janssens as Sweeney Todd will be reprising the roles they performed 30 years ago. The Germanic overtones and timbre of the Dutch language give many of the songs an operatic depth and tonal resonance that is ideal for Sweeney Todd.

Preview of the 2023 Netherlands production of Sweeney Todd.

Japan’s Umeda Arts Theatre and the UK Menier Chocolate Factory are joining forces for a 2023 co-production of Pacific Overtures in Tokyo and Osaka before transferring it to London.

Umeda Arts Theatre is one of the most prestigious theatre companies in Japan and the collaboration promises to illuminate the story of Japan’s westernisation from a Japanese perspective.

Sondheim and Angela Lansbury will appear, posthumously in cameo roles, in the soon to be released Rian Johnson film Glass Onion, a sequel to the popular murder mystery Knives Out.

Sondheim was renowned for his generous spirit and support of aspiring artists. He was also a proficient and constant letter writer answering hundreds of letters from colleagues, scholars, and fans of all ages.

Since his death a new Instagram account @sondheimletters was established to chronicle the letters he exchanged with the public.  His replies were always courteous, gracious, and frank.

But some of the letters were bemusing to say the least. In reply to one persistent correspondent, a persevering Sondheim wrote, ‘As stated in my last five letters I did not write Cats’ and ended with Sondheim asking the letter writer not to write to him again.

When British comedian Jon Monie requested permission to use his work, Sondheim replied, ‘Dear Jon, No, you may not mash-up Send In the Clowns with Baby Shark for panto season.’

For many musical theatre fans, Sondheim, like no other musical theatre composer, provided the soundtrack for all our seasons. He took us to places that rarely any other musical had taken us.

His enduring influence has only surged since his death. His line ‘We die but we don’t’ from Into the Woods prophetically sums up the last 12 months.

Life After Sondheim: We Die But We Don’t by Peter Khoury
Peter Khoury is a freelance writer who has written extensively on the work of Stephen Sondheim.

Image: Stephen Sondheim in 1994 – photo by Fred R. Conrad