By Wesley Walter, Managing editor
The UM Theatre Department’s rendition of “Sondheim Tribute Revue,” which showcases a compilation of songs written by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is set to debut on Nov. 16.
Sondheim is renowned for his compositions, which appear in musicals such as “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods” and “West Side Story.”
According to Music Theatre International, who licenses the revue, the show contains a customizable selection of Sondheim pieces. No more than three pieces are allowed to come from the same show and excerpts from scenes or the use of sets or costumes specific to a show are prohibited.
The theatre instructors leading the show are director Marcus Lane and musical director Jennifer Hartsell.
“It wasn’t our original plan,” Lane said speaking on the decision to put on the revue, saying the department had intended to put on “Young Frankenstein.”
“In the middle of the summer we had a faculty member who took a new job. They just happened to be the person who builds the sets, and ‘Young Frankenstein’ really has a big set,” Lane said. “As a faculty we kind of chatted together and wanted something that really still allowed our students to showcase their talents, but didn’t have a big scenic element.”
Sondheim’s recent death in 2021, along with UM’s history of putting on Sondheim shows, were also cited by Lane as other reasons the revue made sense.
“Almost every four years over the last 20 plus years there’s been a Sondheim piece,” Lane said, “So for our alums there’s a really strong connection.”
Without the presence of a traditional set, the show will be utilizing more light cues, fog and movement by performers both on and off stage, according to Lane.
“Because I don’t have a set to put people on, I’m moving people all over the stage,” Lane said. “And not just in the stage but in the theatre itself, so anywhere where there’s a door someone’s going to be entering and, you know, exiting through it. There’s people singing in the aisles, there’s people up in the balcony, so we kind of had to get a bit clever about how we stage it that way.”
Lane also said that he strived to make the show more accessible. He initially wanted to hire a sign language interpreter, but was unable to fit it into the show’s budget. Instead, the show will be utilizing LED screens displaying the lyrics of pieces similar to a teleprompter.
“I have a couple of students that I’ve worked with recently who have some hearing issues. I discovered this year I’m starting to have some hearing issues, you know, so it’s just one of those things wanting to make sure that we’re finding ways to be more inclusive making sure that we’re not excluding but we’re just finding ways so more people can enjoy,” Lane said.
When deciding what songs would appear in the show Lane said, “I picked three songs before we cast it. I was like these are three songs I want to have for the show no matter what. Everything else we auditioned people and then, based off their audition, we decided who we wanted to work with and then found songs we thought worked for those people.”
According to Lane, the freedom to choose songs has allowed him to delve deeper into Sondheim’s repertoire and showcase his less well-known works, as well as find songs that best fit their performers.
“For me there were a couple—I don’t want to say obscure songs—but maybe not performed as readily songs that I just really love,” Lane said.
Of Sondheim’s work, cast member Kurtis O’Neal said, “Before I came here, I didn’t really know that much. I knew that he did ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ but that was about it, and then I heard all of these other songs from all these other musicals and I was like, ‘This is really good.’”
Sondheim was renowned for the complexity, thoughtfulness and, at times, difficulty of his music.
“There’s a couple of really beautiful songs that we’re doing. So, like the ‘Johanna Quartet’ or ‘Unworthy of Your Love,’ that if you didn’t have people who could sing that music you’d be in trouble. We are lucky that, you know, we had people come in and audition and they were fantastic,” Lane said.
The difficulty of Sondheim’s compositions has been both challenging and rewarding for cast members.
“It’s been hard at some times, but it’s been really fun,” O’Neal said, “‘God That’s Good.’ I struggle everyday with that song, it’s so hard, but it sounds so good when we all get it right.”
Cast member Jaanai De La Torre said, “Some of it’s really hard but it’s, like, worth it in the end I guess cause he has a lot of crunchy stuff and it’s like, ‘Ooh, that sounds delicious,’ but it’s so hard to remember.”
Discussing Sondheim’s compositions, cast member Cole Wilson said, “Every note, every chord, every line has a meaning. It’s just the more you dissect a piece the more you’ll find, and I don’t know if there’s ever an end to the amount of thought put behind one of his—one of his works.”
According to Lane, Sondheim’s constant dedication to artistic improvement through mentorship and collaboration is one of his favorite aspects of the composer’s works, and part of what has made him so renowned. This is also a value Lane said he has tried to impress on his students while preparing for the show.
“There’s this sense of mentorship in that you know I think he knew he was good, but he always acknowledged that his work was better because the people who sang his songs, who played his music made it better,” said Lane. “He was just somebody who I guess was really comfortable with where he was at and really loved that other people made his work better.”
Speaking on why students should come to the show, cast member Delena Dean said, “If you’re a fan of Sondheim you can see a bunch of his different work in like one place and if you’re not a fan of Sondheim or if you don’t know who Sondheim is or if you’ve never even been to the theatre before it’s a great chance to see a bunch of different theatre pieces and kind of see what the art can do.”
Lane said he expects attendees will be impressed by both Sondheim’s prowess as a composer and his students’ performances of the pieces.
“There’s something in the water here about students who come here who just are really great at blending together, working together and producing this magical sound.”
Wesley Walter is managing editor for The Alabamian. He is a junior English major and mass communications minor. Wesley boasts a 750 credit score, boyish good looks and soulful eyes that contain a deep indescribable sadness. In his free time, he enjoys travelling, visiting gas stations and thinking about getting into surfing.