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Effortless-looking art takes effort
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Effortless-looking art takes effort

Although he was 91 years old, the death of composer Stephen Sondheim last week shocked theatre fans. In fact, the multiple Tony winner had given an interview to the New York Times five days prior in which, despite a sprained ankle, he was “playfully pugnacious.”

Sondheim’s influence on musical theatre is impossible to overstate — even when his shows weren’t blockbusters, they became part of the canon — but even taking that into account, the late Pulitzer winner seems to be having a pop culture moment right now. 

Opening Dec. 10  is director Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, featuring Sondheim’s lyrics set to Leonard Bernstein’s music. The 1957 theatrical production was Sondheim's first foray onto Broadway; he was 25 years old. Although he’s criticized his own work in the show bitterly over the ensuing six decades, he told the NYT last week that he approved of the new film, adding: “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises."

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP photo file)

While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s uplifting new musical — currently streaming on Netflix — is an adaptation of Rent composer/lyricist Jonthan Larson’s autobiographical Tick Tick… Boom, the work is also a bit of a love letter to Sondheim. Larson’s songs were heavily influenced by his hero, who, if the film is to be believed, had kind and encouraging words for the fledgling young writer when he was working on his first show.

Sondheim is portrayed by Bradley Whitford, while Andrew Garfield is garnering Oscar buzz for his exuberant portrayal of Larson, who died at 35 before seeing Rent become a megahit.

Just want to immerse yourself in Sondheim’s best songs? The NYT has collected 20 of his “most brilliant and surprising” Broadway tunes, ranging from 1954’s What More Do I Need? to 2008’s Isn’t He Something? (Yes, Send in the Clowns is included.) Winnipeg-born Len Cariou can be heard duetting with Angela Lansbury in the deliciously witty A Little Priest from 1979’s cast recording of Sweeney Todd.

Finally, streaming service Crave has the Peabody-winning 2013 HBO documentary Six by Sondheim, directed by his longtime collaborator James Lepine. It’s rich with archival interviews (Sondheim is, not surprisingly, very articulate about his process), legendary performances and new short films of some of his most beloved tunes.

“To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort,” he says, before revealing that he writes using pencils with the softest lead, so he can waste a lot of time sharpening them. 

Got a favourite Sondheim song? Tips on upcoming events, concerts, exhibitions? Drop me a line at jill.wilson@winnipegfreepress.com.

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson

What’s up this week 

It just wouldn’t be the festive season without Tom Jackson’s Huron Carole. The annual variety show and fundraiser for Harvest Manitoba is in its 34th year. Like last year’s show, the Dec. 8 event will be virtual, over Zoom, presenting the familiar lineup of Christmas classics, road stories, original music and dad jokes courtesy of the Companion of the Order of Canada. Tickets are available here and there’s a link to donate even if you can’t “attend” the concert.

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Winnipeg bar band the Windups put on several outdoor shows this summer, but the best way to enjoy this blistering rock quartet is in a watering hole with a hundred or so of your sweaty friends. An added bonus? The group’s Times Change(d) show on Saturday, Dec. 4, also features Silver Clouds, the pop act fronted by ex-Novillero/Duotang singer-songwriter Rod Slaughter, in its first onstage appearance. Tickets are $15 on Eventbrite

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Shakespeare in the Ruins is extending the digital run of Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will a week; it will now be available to Dec. 12. In this object-theatre piece, Debbie Patterson tells the story of Anne Hathaway’s relationship with the Bard. Pay-what-you-choose tickets available here.

In Shakespeare’s Will tabletop sandbox feature, Debbie Patterson is not only the star but director and set designer of Anne Hathaway’s own story. (Leif Norman Photo)

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Contortionist Samantha Halas’s one-woman show features a pizza waitress who “might spill your drinks and mess up your order, but she bends over backwards, quite literally, to win your heart.” The Montreal-based, Winnipeg-born performer presents Deep Dish at the Gas Station Art Centre Dec. 2-5. Tickets are $20 and available for purchase online

Recommended

Book: A review by Canstar Community News reporter Sheldon Birinie first alerted me to The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin, but it fell off my radar until I saw it praised again by humourist Samantha Irby in her newsletter. Now I’m obsessed with reading everything penned by Vlautin — a Portland-based novelist and songwriter whose stark, unadorned style is perfectly suited to his down-at-heel characters as they try to remember to dream while struggling to survive in today’s America. Heartbreaking and beautiful.  And speaking of Samantha Irby...

Newsletter: Who’s on Judge Mathis Today? Subtitled “An Idiotic Recap of the Greatest Syndicated Courtroom Show of All Time,” Irby’s newsletter is just that: her hilarious observations of the fashions, foibles and “Accordions of Truth” brought forth by plaintiffs and defendants in Judge Greg Mathis’s daytime TV court. Irby (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life) enjoys the show without irony but with sidesplitting and profane asides (and occasionally some pop culture recommendations). She is a writer for the new Sex and the City series, And Just Like That… which premières Dec. 9 on Crave, and if I had any qualms about the show’s return (let’s be frank, Samantha really put the sex in the city), the fact she’s involved means I’m up for a game of “Let’s do a shot every time the girls get brunch.”

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