The six works by Stephen Sondheim being celebrated in the Kennedy Center's "The Sondheim Celebration" in repertory in 2002 will be staged by four of contemporary theatre's most active directors — Christopher Ashley, Mark Brokaw, Sean Mathias and Eric Schaeffer.
The Kennedy Center's $10 million festival of six productions at the Washington, DC, nonprofit's Eisenhower Theatre plays May-August 2002. The directors were announced in Manhattan June 7. Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said it had been a longtime dream of his to gather together the works of composer-lyricist Sondheim and create a kind of "museum retrospective" where audiences could explore a large chunk of a writer's output. It wasn't until Kaiser (former executive director of London's Royal Opera House) came to the Kennedy Center, which had to appropriate mission and facilities, that he could realize his dream.
Seeking an artistic director for the project, Kaiser approached Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, who has staged eight works by Sondheim, and directed the Broadway revue of Sondheim's work, Putting It Together.
Schaeffer, Sondheim and Kaiser discussed directors, and Ashley (The Rocky Horror Show), Brokaw (As Bees in Honey Drown, Lobby Hero), Mathias (the Judi Dench A Little Night Music in London and Broadway's Indiscretions) were invited. Ashley will stage the 1994 rewrite of 1981's Merrily We Roll Along and the ghoulish Sweeney Todd (1979), Brokaw will helm A Little Night Music (1973), Mathias will stage Company (1970) and Schaeffer will direct later Sondheim works, Passion (1994) and Sunday in the Park With George (1984)
No new songs or material will be written by Sondheim for the revivals, but, Schaeffer said, the composer expressed a willingness to have the directors explore cut songs if they chose. The celebration is being produced with the full cooperation and input of Sondheim. The shows will be presented in repertory, allowing patrons to the chance to see three different shows in one weekend, when scheduled. A four-week rehearsal period for each show will be followed by one week of "tech" and 16-18 performances (94 shows in all), scattered over 15 weeks. Kay Cameron is musical director. The productions will be fully staged and designed and have full orchestras — a cast of 24 and orchestra of 25 for Sweeney Todd, for example.
Mathias is the sole foreign director — he's British but has lived and worked in South Africa. In fall 2001, he will stage Richard Greenberg's adaptation of Strindberg's Dance of Death on Broadway, with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. He told Playbill On-Line that he's thinking about keeping Company in the period it first played — 1970, but no firm decisions have been made. The landmark concept musical with a libretto by George Furth concerns the loveless New York, bachelor, Bobby, who is surrounded by his disappointed ex-girlfriends and married friends — couples in various states of anxiety, bliss or unhappiness.
The directors are still in preliminary stages in terms of approaching their works. There will be some crossover in the acting company, Schaeffer said, and the pool of talent will be drawn from the nation and from the Washington, DC, theatre community. Schaeffer is sure to rely on the performers who have made his Helen Hayes Award-winning Sondheim revivals hits at his tiny Signature in Arlington.
Performances will play May 10, 2002-August 25, 2002 at the proscenium-style Eisenhower Theatre within the Kennedy Center, the multi-venue temple to the performing arts overlooking the Potomac River. The Kennedy Center is putting up $7 million for the project, with $3 million coming from outside sponsors who love the arts. New Yorkers Theodore and Carol Chen, who are Sondheim fans and arts supporters, read about the celebration in the paper and asked how they could help. Support comes from The HRH Foundation, the Chens, Ambassador Elisabeth F. Bagley and Mr. Smith Bagley and James Johnson and Maxine Issacs.
In addition to the six full shows, the Kennedy Center hosts a Japanese-language production of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures by the New National Theatre of Tokyo, a Barbara Cook concert of (mostly) Sondheim songs, and a one act version of Into the Woods performed by DC area schoolkids.
For information, visit the Kennedy Center's special website, kennedy center.org/sondheim.
Sunday in the Park With George is Sondheim and librettist James Lapine's rumination on the artist and artistic temperament and process, seen through world of painter George Seurat and his (fictional) great grandson; Passion is Sondheim and Lapine's character study of unconditional, unrelenting and obsessive love, drawn from the film "Passion D'Amore"; Merrily We Roll Along is Sondheim and George Furth's rewrite of the 1934 Kaufman-Hart play about show folk (this time, musical comedy writers), told backward from the present (1981-1955); Sweeney Todd is the gruesome Grand Guignol-style work by Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (drawn from the Christopher Bond play) about a wronged London barber who gets his revenge on the pillars of society.
Significantly absent are full stagings are 1987's Into the Woods, which will have a major revival in the coming year in California (with an eye toward New York), and 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an early hit for Sondheim that was revived on Broadway in 1996. Sondheim's Assassins (a 1991 cultural revue about people who killed or tried to kill U.S. presidents, first seen Off Broadway) will be produced on Broadway in fall 2002, and Follies (1971) will end a brief Broadway revival run July 14, 2001.
— By Kenneth Jones