Craig Glenday writes… Brush Up Your Sondheim was a two-day Sondheim seminar organised by the Stephen Sondheim Society at the Royal Academy of Music. The event served up a smorgasbord of academic research, recitals, workshops and chat in celebration of Broadway’s greatest living composer/lyricist.
Is it possible to spend two whole days discussing the work of Stephen Sondheim? Perhaps, if you’re a Sondheim nerd or, like me, a member of the 700-strong UK-based Stephen Sondheim Society, but what if you’re just a fan or an aspiring performer interested in learning more? Can you really fill two days? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’, if the reaction to the second Brush Up Your Sondheim (BUYS) event was anything to go by.
The study weekend was the second such event presented by the Sondheim Society and trustee Peter Auker, having first been staged at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in 2012. This year had a whole new line-up of experts, plus the added thrill of a live Q&A with Sondheim from his home in Turtle Bay, New York, so it was no surprise that the lecture room at RAM was packed out.
Starting with the keynote address from Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre artistic director Tim Sheader – the mastermind of the award-winning Into the Woods (2010) – BUYS was a series of lectures, workshops and round table discussions exploring Sondheim and his techniques, his influence – and own influences – and his importance to musical theatre and drama in general.
Particular highlights included:
• A fascinating and inspiring glimpse at the work of the Sondheim Professor of Musical Theatre Vocal Studies at RAM, Mary Hammond, as she led students – and RAM associate Fra Fee – in a vocal masterclass (or workshop, as she insisted on calling it; “I hate the word masterclass!”).
• Producer and casting director Danielle Tarento chaired a panel discussion between Rebecca Caine, Alex Young (the 2010 winner of The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award), Emily Carewe-Jeffries, Ben Stott and MD Theo Jamieson on aspects of singing and acting Sondheim, and shared their advice on, among other things, selecting a Sondheim song for auditions.
• From behind the piano, musical director Alex Parker gave a heartfelt address on conducting and MD-ing Sondheim, illustrated with recordings – the good and the bad! – of his own shows, plus some behind-the-scenes gossip from his most recent productions.
• Dr Dominic McHugh of Sheffield University shed light on the early (and never produced) Sondheim show Climb High – a piece of juvenilia that exists only in fragments – with the added bonus of rarely heard songs performed by Alex Young and Lawrence Broomfield.
• Sondheim Society trustee David Lardi presented various numbers cut from Into the Woods and outlined the reason for their removal, followed by fellow Society member Ben Francis with his thesis on the use of disenchantment in the show.
• Professor Millie Taylor of Winchester University explored tragedy and melodrama in Sweeney Todd, arguing that the musical has a structure that is both classic Victorian melodrama and modern film noir.
On the Sunday, those interested in the performance aspect of Sondheim – mostly students of musical theatre – separated off and spent an entire day with Michael Strassen (whose wonderful Pacific Overtures is in its last week at the Union Theatre) for a raw and emotional search to find authenticity in the performer and their performances.
In addition, Lucy Williamson was on hand in the afternoon to work on the vocal requirements of an audition. There were tears and much soul searching, but chatting with the actors afterwards, their reactions to the day were extremely positive. “I’ve learned more in this one day with Michael and Lucy than I’ve learned all year at college,” said one.
The biggest draw of the weekend, of course, was Sondheim himself, who – after a few technical issues – made an appearance via Skype. The living legend graciously and patiently took questions from the floor, only occasionally distracted by his two poodles, Addie and Willy. (Rather amusingly, anyone asking a question had to kneel before their ‘god’ to get their face seen on the webcam!)
Sondheim spoke of his current project with the dramatist David Ives (they’re working on a show that mashes together two films, he divulged, but didn’t reveal which), his enthusiasm for the forthcoming Into the Woods movie, his reluctance to allow a workshop of the aforementioned Climb High, and his ever-shifting favourite song (‘Someone in a Tree’ from Pacific Overtures or ‘Sunday’ from the end of Act I, Sunday in the Park with George). Despite the unbearable heat in the cramped studio (“it’s hot up here!”), the delegates were enthralled to hear the great man speak.
It was such a full-on weekend crammed with variety and insight – musical performance, banter, anecdote and gossip – that it felt like it could have filled an entire week – such is Sondheim’s contribution to musical theatre.
A ticket for the whole weekend cost the price of a single seat in a West End theatre – indeed, the performance students paid a mere £20 for the two days – so it was a remarkable bargain. Let’s hope we see more of this kind of event from the Sondheim Society soon.