Stephen Sondheim is the biggest name in musical theatre, yet he's getting one of the smallest celebrations in the 13-year history of the Master Playwright Festival.
When SondheimFest opens tonight with only two productions, it is not out of disrespect, disinterest or general lack of enthusiasm for the composer/lyricist who revolutionized his art form over the last half century. Local theatre artists are discovering just how challenging it is to dip into the acclaimed Sondheim canon.
"There are a lot of people cursing Sondheim in the city this month because the music is so complex," says Kami Desilets, the director of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which Sondheim wrote music and lyrics. "It's hard to do justice to it."
SondheimFest 2013 features only five of the musical titan's works -- Forum, Follies, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George -- along with a stage adaptation of his co-written 1973 movie The Last of Sheila. The Jan. 16-Feb. 3 festival is rounded out with original works -- Dear Mama and What's Love Got to Do With It -- inspired by Sondheim along with Sondheim karaoke, Sondheim improv, Sondheim sketch comedy, Sondheim dinner theatre, Sondheim films and a Sondheim cabaret by the sweet-singing former Winnipegger Thom Allison.
There are few people who wouldn't agree that Sondheim -- the dominant voice of post-Second World War generation composers -- is a worthy of a master playwright salute. This is the first time that the festival has focused on musical theatre, so it was a no-brainer to make Sondheim the first honoree.
His shows have a fiendish following and have earned lavish critical praise. For his 80th birthday in 2010 he had a Broadway theatre named after him and he is the only living composer who has a quarterly, The Sondheim Review, dedicated to works that have won eight Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and a Grammy.
Every musical theatre producer in the city wants to get in on SondheimFest but few can marshal the actors, sets, costumes, musicians and cash for royalties. The average cast of one of his shows is huge by contemporary, not-for-profit standards. The festival's production of Follies boasts 19 actors, 14 for both Into the Woods and Sunday and 13 for Assassins and Forum. Local companies have been competing hard to fill out their lineups from the limited pool of musical performers.
"The change this year is that a lot of the community theatres that aren't used to doing musicals weren't able to take on SondheimFest," says festival producer Chuck McEwen. "In straight play years companies would do eight or 10 performances. This year because of costs, companies are doing four, five, six. The attendance will likely be down because there are less performances."
The University of Manitoba's Black Hole Theatre has participated in all 12 previous master playwright festivals but opted out this year because the available musicals did not fit the school's expertise or teaching mandate.
"We didn't want to do it badly," says U of M drama professor Chris Johnson. "It's pretty tricky music. It's not straightforward and melodic with constant time schemes. It jumps around a lot. It asks a lot of singers.
"I think it's very difficult for amateurs to do it well."
Sondheim has been a game-changer in both the form and subject matter of musical theatre. No one but Sondheim would push the musical into new territory such as a murderous barber (Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), the forced Westernization of Japan (Pacific Overtures) and presidential hitmen (Assassins).
His work has been deeply felt by Winnipeggers who owe Sondheim much.
One-time St. Boniface boy-soprano Len Cariou is Winnipeg's only Tony Award-winner and he won it in 1979 for his work in the title role of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. The two had collaborated six years earlier in A Little Night Music, for which Cariou came away with his first Tony nomination.
"The guy is the genius composer of our time," says Cariou, who hosted and performed the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's pop series presentation The Music of Stephen Sondheim last November. "In the last 50 years he is number one."
In 1982, Donna Fletcher was a 17-year-old singer who saw her future after listening to a recording of Sweeney Todd. That enduring affection for Sondheim underpinned her singing career and inspired her to co-found in 2000, with Reid Harrison, Dry Cold Productions, which was literally born to play Sondheim. The company debuted in 2001 with A Little Night Music and followed that up with Into the Woods. Six of its productions were penned by Sondheim.
"That's the reason we started Dry Cold because we wanted to some day do Sweeney Todd," says Fletcher, who fulfilled her personal dream when her troupe staged Sweeney Todd in 2011. "Sweeney Todd changed my life."
Thom Allison, a Transcona musical theatre product, also has a history with Sondheim starting as a young wannabe in the chorus of Rainbow Stage's 1991 revival of Forum. He has performed Sondheim many times since then, including for Sondheim himself for World Leaders: A Festival of Creative Genius in Toronto in 2001.
"I sang Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park and there he was in the front row," recalls Allison, who made his Broadway debut in 2011 in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. "I got to speak to him afterwards, one of the highlights of my entire life.
"Sondheim is a musical Shakespeare. The depth of emotion he can display in two lines of lyrics couldn't be explained in 80 pages of a novel. He's the best."
For more information on the shows and how to purchase tickets visit http://www.masterplaywrightfest.com/