Sondheim and The Arlington Players: A Love Affair Continued

The Arlington Players has had a love affair with Stephen Sondheim’s work for more than forty years, and it is as passionate as ever.  Starting with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1968 to this year’s A Little Night Music, TAP has produced 17 musicals for which Sondheim either provided the lyrics or both the lyrics and music. With these 17 stagings, TAP has revisited his work a number of times:  there have been four Forum’s, two mountings of Company, the ghosts of Follies have been at TAP two times, and the demon barber himself, Sweeney Todd, has been seen lurking around Thomas Jefferson Theatre twice.  And no other musical theater composer’s work has been produced at TAP as much as Mr. Sondheim.


Sounds like a love affair.


Why this fascination with all things Sondheim, especially in light of TAP’s sister theater in Arlington, Signature Theatre, with its national and international reputation for presenting professional Sondheim productions, being just down the street?


Well, you can’t stop love.


TAP’s affection for Sondheim is unbounded and shared by the TAP board, the membership and the artists who have presented this work for TAP.  Former TAP president John Segota noted, “Stephen Sondheim is arguably the American musical theater’s greatest living composer, and his works have stretched and redefined the musical theater art form. Since part of TAP’s mission is to present artistically challenging works, it is no surprise that there has been a long-time affiliation with Sondheim.”  TAP’s commitment to Sondheim is alive and well and has been a strong part of the artistic lifeblood of the organization.  Current TAP president Nikki Hoffpauir adds, “Sondheim is a challenge for any community theater to do because of the complexities in his themes, scores, and character interaction. When we choose a show, we know our volunteers treat a Sondheim production with a certain matter of pride, with everyone knowing that they’ll need to rise to their highest level of artistry and talent to do the work justice and bring the audience along on our journey. Each of his productions, for us, is a unique endeavor that brings out the best in TAP and allows us to continue to grow and innovate our theater experience.”


The artistic leadership has shared this regard.  Music director of 2004’s Saturday Night and a driving force to see TAP restage Sweeney Todd in 1997, Gary Mead noted, “It’s his ability at writing music with such vocal difficulty and wonderful ensemble sound.  As a musician, I enjoy the complexity of it and the chance to analyze and understand it. As for Sweeney, I’d been in love with it ever since I saw it on Broadway. The music and story captured me.”


Sweeney Todd, 1997

Signature Theatre artistic director and one of the finest interpreters of Sondheim (and director of TAP’s Sunday in the Park with George in 1989) Eric Schaeffer said, “I love directing Steve's work as he writes for the character not the situation.  It's two very different things.  Characters are in situations but he writes from their point of view rather than about the situation and commenting on it.  His music is challenging and his lyrics insightful.  He is really a terrific craftsman.”  And 2012’s A Little Night Music director Christopher Dykton agrees, “No musical theater composer creates a song for a character like Sondheim.  A character’s full range of emotion, struggles, and thoughts is never more fully expressed than in a Sondheim song.  Working now on A Little Night Music, I’m struck by how each character reveals his or her own anxiety, hope, memory, and expectation about life.”


Former TAP president Brenda Wesner – who also created such Sondheim roles at TAP as Amy in Company, Desiree in TAP’s 1987 A Little Night Music, and Old Lady/Blair Daniels in Sunday– not only agrees but offers insight as to why TAP feels this way from the actor’s point of view.   “Sondheim is exciting to perform. His music is thrilling.  His characters all have their shining moments, because all roles in his work are important and rich and integral.  There is intelligence to his work – actors can create such good characters. Conquering Sondheim’s music is an achievement.  It’s difficult music that demands skill and talent, and it’s music that challenges a person.  As an actress, I just love it.  Besides, if you can perform Sondheim, well, you can do almost anything.”


“I remember, when doing Sunday, the mood when singing ‘Beautiful.’  And when singing ‘Sunday’ at the close of the show, it felt like a religious experience – it touched you deep in the soul.” 


Ms. Wesner’s experience with Sondheim is extensive and her affection is clear.  Her experience goes beyond the stage – she sat on the TAP boards and committees that selected the 1980’s shows and directors, so she brings a unique perspective.  “TAP had such success with Sondheim that we were able to keep successfully producing his shows.  There were exciting roles to play and doing Sondheim generated an excitement for performers, designers, and staff members.  You would always feel like you were being part of something truly artistic.  It was intelligent and challenging and it created a spirit of teamwork.  It just kept growing and growing and growing.”


The late 1980’s saw the golden age of Sondheim and TAP, when major Sondheim works such as Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods received critically acclaimed and technically complex stagings.  Sweeney Todd, directed by Don Martin and winner of the Ruby Griffith Award for All-Round Production Excellence in 1986, was one of the first out of the gate. “To know that in this area my production was the first attempt at such difficult material for a community theater has stayed with me. There were several people in the show who have gone on to do bigger and better things. I knew technically it would be a nightmare, but I had the best that community theater could offer with the people and the theater support. I consider this production one of my crowning achievements. It also helps to remember something that won numerous awards.” 


One of those actors cast by Don was Donna Lillard Migliaccio. Donna played Mrs. Lovett in that first Sweeney Todd, for which she won the ACT Award as outstanding actress in a musical.  She went on to play the part again for Signature in its 1991 seminal production, for which she received the Helen Hayes Award as lead actress in a musical. 


TAP's Sondheim Productions

A Little Night Music2012 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum2008 
Saturday Night2004 
Sweeney Todd 1997 
Gypsy (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)1995 
Into the Woods1990 
Sunday in the Park with George1989 
West Side Story (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)1988 
A Little Night Music1987 
Sweeney Todd1985 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum1984 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum1979 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum1968 


TAP’s Sondheim’s musicals provided the creative ground for many future professional actors in the DC area.  Besides Ms. Migliaccio, it was during these productions that TAP audiences saw the work of Ann Johnson, Peter Gil, Michael Forrest, Buzz Mauro, Judy Walstram, Judy Simmons, the late Bart Whiteman, David Jourdan, Perry Payne, Kathy Fuller – all professional actors. Sondheim brings out the best on many levels for TAP and its artists.  Audiences have benefited as a result.


Production values grew from show to show at this time, to the point where a TAP board member and a young director named Eric Schaeffer helped oversee the purchase of the original Broadway set and its refitting for TJ, as well as rental of the Broadway costumes, for TAP’s staging of the DC area premiere of Sunday in the Park with George. Why Sunday?  Eric answered, “I am always drawn to theatrical pieces that deal with artists and their understanding of the world.  I thought Sunday was a brilliant piece for artists of yesterday and today.  Sondheim captures the challenges that they face in a wonderful enriching light.”


“I remember a lot of wonderful things about the TAP production of Sunday.  From storing the set in Ted Jenkins’ garage to my attic full of costumes, it was really pretty amazing what we pulled off.  The end of the first act always stays with me but perhaps the end of the second even moves me more.  I still cherish the techie version of the painting - with everyone in their positions but all in their blacks. It still makes me laugh to this day.”


Eric Schaeffer took his love of Sondheim into Signature, the Arlington theater company he started with Donna Lillard Migliaccio. He has gone on to direct Sunday twice again – once for Arena Stage in 1997 and for the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center in 2002.  He continued his Sondheim work with the 2011 Kennedy Center staging of Follies which he took to Broadway and has been nominated for the best revival of a musical in 2012.  TAP takes pride in Eric’s accomplishments, for it knows that it was the fertile ground where Sondheim and he took root in Arlington. 


The year before Sunday was its Follies, a show fondly remembered by many and it is the stuff of TAP legend.  Follies, like Sunday, showcased an unusual mass of talented people who made the 1980’s such a remarkable period for TAP and area community theater generally, and had a seminal role in fueling the explosion of professional theater that took place in the next decade in Arlington.


Follies, 1988

The American Century Theater’s artistic director Jack Marshall directed Follies with his long-time artistic collaborator, music director Tom Fuller.  Jack remembers, “Working with the designers and actors of Follies was wonderful.  Lighting designer David Walden was creative and thoughtful as always; Lou Stancari designed the ideal set. Tom Fuller’s work with the singers was extraordinary. Becky Christy’s make-up came very close to stealing the show. The cast was huge, diverse, and endlessly cooperative and enthusiastic. The four stars were all divas in their own ways, but always professional and responsive to direction, and all became and remain good friends of mine. Best of all was Gloria Dugan’s work as my assistant director: her attention to the details, especially the ghost staging, made it all work.  Of the more than 150 shows that I've been involved with, none has stayed with me more than Follies. I will always be grateful to TAP for giving me the opportunity to direct the show and the resources to do it justice.”


Follies, 2009

Long-time TAP member Joyce Weiser loved doing Follies.  “I did the ‘Rain on the Roof’ number and remember thinking that it was too high for me, but music director Tom Fuller said let him be the judge of that. It worked out very well. And I am so glad I did the show…. I love Sondheim characters.  His music is certainly not easy to sing, at least not for me, but his characters have a certain edge to them. I also did Company many years ago, in 1974, where I first met Brenda Wesner.”  They have been friends ever since.


Like Marshall, Christopher Dykton held a similar fascination with Follies when he approached TAP in 2007 to restage it in spring 2009.   “I think it was about time to stage this production again – nearly an entire generation has passed from its 1988 staging and I felt that it was time.  I was drawn to presenting its brutally honest presentation of broken lives at mid-age, and its fanciful presentation of the second ‘follies.’  Staging Follies for TAP was a wonderful and rich dramatic opportunity.”  Like the 1988 production, this Follies brought out the top-level talent in the area and garnered critical and artistic attention, capturing 12 WATCH nominations and winning three.


Lynn Neal, who played Phyllis in that production, reflects on her experience with Sondheim  and Follies.  “I had wanted to play Phyllis since I had heard ‘Could I Leave You?’  To me it was a perfect monologue in a song with all the nuances written in the music.  What I find so impressive about Sondheim's work is that there is always dissonance in the notes and the phrasing, which makes it difficult to learn. Yet once it is learned it shows you where "the beats" are, there is almost an ‘ah ha’ moment where the character is exposed to you. His music is a treasure map that once you put the time in, reveals itself to you.”


One common attraction to Sondheim for TAP and its directors is his examination of the darker side of life and human nature.  Jack Marshall was drawn to Follies’ theme of regret and its challenging, original, and expressive composition as both a play and a musical.  Christopher Dykton was fascinated by Saturday Night’s themes of pride and ambition sinking into depression and attempted suicide. Said Gary Mead of his love of Sweeney, “The music is so intense and the darkness of the story is what I enjoy.” 


But it is not like love is blind in TAP’s affection for Sondheim’s work.  Several of TAP’s directors, while admiring and cherishing Sondheim, are also critical of what his work is and is not.  “His work is either brilliant or it sucks,” says Don Martin, “Sweeney Todd was one of the brilliant ones.”  Jack Marshall notes, “I think Sondheim's work is complex, diverse, incredibly well crafted, and the highest evolutionary offshoot of the American musical.  It is also an artistic dead end, peculiar to him, that has hastened the demise of the musical comedy in America.”   Perhaps it’s only fair to Stephen that TAP has loved his art with such complex affection.  After all, it is a very adult type of love – rich yet emotionally mixed, full of thought and reflection and yet not without its criticism of a lover’s shortcomings.  Not unlike the multi-layered feelings that he has explored in his work.


Saturday Night, 2004

The 21st century has witnessed the continuation of the Sondheim tradition at TAP with the staging of four Sondheim works.  Dykton staged the “first” Sondheim, Saturday Night – the piece destined for the Broadway stage in 1953 that never made it there.  “I really enjoy the irony and subtlety of Sondheim – emotional, intellectual, musical.  It could be said that he presents the mindset of the ‘adult’ musical – a musical where shades of emotional grays are distinct and complicated, and life is not to be viewed simply.  Getting the chance to present his early work in Saturday Night for TAP audiences was a treat. It allowed us to see his beginning and understand where he would go artistically. Saturday Night’s serious scenes are almost all dialogue – in twenty years, Stephen Sondheim would have developed them into full-fledged, character-driven songs with haunting lyrics and music I suspect.  If he had written it later, I also think that the ending would not be one of classic musical comedy, but would have taken a dramatic tragic turn.”


After staging Follies in 2009, Dykton turned to Sondheim with A Little Night Music for staging at the Mead Center’s Kogod Cradle when the earthquake struck in August 2011, which forced TAP to find an alternative venue from the Thomas Jefferson Theater.  “With the change in place, I knew a new musical choice would need to limit the size of the chorus and dance – we were running out of prep time to get more than first draft of choreography on paper before rehearsals would start, and prep time for making sure a full-sized chorus was ready was intimidating to our shrinking schedule.  All this was wandering around my head while not knowing the space.  I did have one show coming to mind, but I kept deconstructing a previous artistic design in my mind and reconstructing it, knowing that my original envisioning needed to adjust to a coming new reality.  That show was A Little Night Music.  I adore the story and score to that musical. I was intrigued by Sondheim’s use of only ¾ time in this piece.  How could someone write an entire score, underlying such utter romanticism in a comedy full of sly witticisms, crackling dialogue, and situational misunderstanding?  It was a perfect choice for TAP in this new space.” 


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 2008

Presented between the productions of Saturday Night and Follies was Sondheim’s lighter musical and the leader on the list of shows that TAP has produced the most (four times):  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Ian Grossman and Kate Roehr, actors in this production who played, respectively, Hysterium and Philia, shared their thoughts on this production and just how much fun it was to be a part of it. 


Forum is easily one of the funniest musicals ever written,” says Grossman. “TAP’s production allowed me the opportunity to tackle Hysterium - a role I had not yet done. Though the script is regularly praised for being one of the funniest books of a musical, it is also to Sondheim's credit that he extended the hilarity to music and lyrics. Though modern musical comedies have songs as funny as the rest of the show, that was not the norm in the 1960’s. I was able to sing some of those Sondheim songs - "Calm" "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' and "Lovely" (dressed in drag). Playing Hysterium at TAP was extremely rewarding as even in a world of extreme characters who are surrounded by crazy antics, Hysterium is at many time the craziest - most "hysterical" - of all.”


Roehr, notes that, even in this most-lighthearted Sondheim piece, an actor is given lyrics and music that define its character.  “I actually wrote short thesis on Sondheim in undergrad and something that always drew me to this particular piece was the fact that it was his first foray in writing music AND lyrics. Forum captures Sondheim's academic wit with slapstick delivery.  I enjoyed playing Philia at TAP because it seems like your average ‘dumb blonde’ character but the writing/lyrics gives you so much more to work with and build from. I also truly enjoyed the specific TAP cast because everyone was so flexible and the small size allowed us to get close.”


Len Cariou, the original Sweeney Todd, shared a telling story about Stephen Sondheim.  “I was with Stephen in his apartment, and he played ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.’  He said, ‘Do you know the Mass of the Dead in the Catholic Church?’  I said, ‘Yes, I’m a Catholic.’  He played the first line of the Mass, and then the melody to ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…’ It was the notes of the Mass in reverse. That was a little conceit of Stephen’s. I’m sure nobody knows half of them. He has his own private humor.”


It is that kind of thought, intensity, emotional layering and continual theatrical surprise that moves TAP in this ongoing love affair with Sondheim.  Right now, A Little Night Music is being rehearsed and prepared for its opening on June 1 at the Mead Center’s Kogod Cradle.  Where will TAP go next with its passion for Stephen?  Will it be one of the few pieces that TAP has not done or will it restage one of the productions from the past with a new cast eager to tackle Sondheim once again?  Stay tuned – the love affair is sure to continue.


Reprinted from an essay by the director for the 2004 Saturday Night show program and updated in 2012.