While Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim's mentor, wrote about Iowa passions in the musical "State Fair," and Meredith Willson's The Music Man is also set there, Sondheim is best known for writing about more urban and urbane characters and settings. Think of Company and Follies and Sunday in the Park With George.
The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts is being built within the new convention center rising in arts-friendly Fairfield, IA. The complex's fall opening will be followed by a Sondheim Gala Concert Dec. 7-9 and a full production of Merrily We Roll Along in January 2008. A professional summer stock season of musicals and concerts is planned for 2008. A core troupe of 18 players plus a gaggle of interns is expected. A relationship is being formed with Actors' Equity Association's Chicago office; a guest artist contract is expected.
Under construction is a 520-seat proscenium theatre with an orchestra pit, complete rigging and a modern sound and lighting system. The lobby will house an art gallery.
How did this come about? A board was formed in 2000 to raise money for a convention center that would house an exhibition hall, meeting rooms, a formal board room, a museum pertaining to Parsons College, and art studio and gallery and a theatre.
A later business study indicated that a 520-seat theatre would not be big enough to lure major "A" tours (and audiences from nearby cities), so the idea of creating a resident musical theatre company — the only one in Iowa — was hatched. By 2006 Encore Players was formed by artistic director Randal K. West as an outreach arm of the planned center, and a tour of The Musical of Musicals! (The Musical!) set out to Iowa "feeder" cities to show audiences "the difference between community theatre and professional musical theatre."
The thinking was, people from neighboring towns an hour or more away might be willing to make a day of it for a show in Fairfield — if the work was special enough.
West's vision for the resident company at the Sondheim Center includes new works, revivals, concerts and training programs — including a Performing Arts Conservatory connected to a Summer Musical Theatre Company.
(Encores Players will remain an outreach effort rather than the center's resident theatre company, West told Playbill.com).
The theatre's naming committee asked West to approach Sondheim — the Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-honored songwriter of A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Passion, Gypsy and West Side Story, among others — to lend his name to the space. West, a Sondheim expert, had worked with Sondheim in the past, on a developmental production of a revision Merrily We Roll Along, so he made a pitch to the lifelong New Yorker.
"I'm honored and flattered that you would choose to name a building after me," Sondheim wrote. "What thrills me most is not the boost for my ego but the fact that I'm a part, no matter how distant, of your devotion to the development of professional musical theatre, especially as it contributes to the cultural landscape of the Midwest. Support for the arts on the East and West coasts is highly publicized, less so in your section of the country. I hope that the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts will prove to be a major contribution."
The Encores Players next touring show to Iowa cities will be a new revue of classic Sondheim songs. The troupe is billed as the cultural ambassador for the Sondheim Center.
"The Sondheim Center will showcase the very best of talent from Broadway and Hollywood mixed with the best professional talent in the Midwest and local talent to present well known pieces of musical theatre as well as brand-new pieces that are workshopping 'out of town' as they get ready to go back to Broadway," according to the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center announcement.
A summer 2008 season will be announced in the coming months.
The Sondheim Center mission statement goes like this: "The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts is a home for the creation and advancement of Musical Theatre as a living art form. The theatre will be committed to sharing the best in class in both the standard and contemporary Musical Theatre repertoire and exploring new works, which will be created and refined as part of the creative process. The Sondheim Center will strive to mix the very best in Broadway and Hollywood talent with the most gifted regional talent while training local talent.
"We will offer an environment where the individuals involved in creating new musical theatre productions can come develop and showcase that work in a creative, supportive and safe forum where the highest production standards are applied but the goal is always focused on the creative end-product not the financial bottom line.
"The Sondheim Conservatory will offer 'hands on' instruction and mentoring in both the performing and the technical arts helping to train the next generation of musical theatre professionals. As we strive to advance musical theatre as an art form, we will provide a service directly with our community and our region as we develop an engaged and responsive audience and provide access to the creative process through educational and outreach programs.
"The Sondheim Center Theatre will create funds through its self-produced events and these funds will be used to open the theatre to community organizations who wish to present programming that will benefit the local community at a reduced rental rate."