The Sondheim Cycle: Artistic Director Peter DuBois on The Huntington’s Commitment to the Work of Stephen Sondheim

The Cast of A Little Night Music

Before Peter DuBois directed A Little Night Music last season, he had started on the planning stages for a long-term artistic exploration of composer Stephen Sondheim’s work – a project that will bring the Huntington and its audience on a decades -long journey. In an interview, DuBois shares what drives his enthusiasm for Sondheim’s work and a bit more about what audiences can expect.

Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): If people have not heard yet, what is the Huntington’s Sondheim Cycle?

Peter DuBois (Artistic Director, director of A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George): We will explore and produce all of the musicals where Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. We may add some that he may have just written the lyrics; we are still exploring what kind of limitations we want to put on ourselves. And who wants to rule out Gypsy or West Side Story?

The notion is to combine original productions that we create here at the Huntington alongside landmark productions from elsewhere that I find really exciting; we are talking to Maria Friedman about her production of Merrily We Roll Along which I saw at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, and was the definitive production of that musical. John Doyle’s Passion – which started at Classic Stage Company in New York – was an incredible rendition of a challenging musical that I would love to bring here.

CH: Where did the idea come from?

PD: I was in London watching the production of Merrily at the Menier. I had been seeing a lot of Sondheim in London in remarkably different kinds of venues. I thought, “What would it mean to do all of Sondheim’s work as an artistic and intellectual exploration of the artist?” Before the Huntington, I came from The Public Theater in New York where [founding artistic director] Joe Papp made a commitment to do all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. When Joe passed, George Wolfe continued the legacy, and completed the cycle. At the Huntington, we explored August Wilson for 20 years, and I felt like there was something profound about having an anchor artist that we are committed to over a period of time.

We are in a town where people like to geek out over certain things, and Sondheim is amazing to geek out on. Over any other musical theatre writer and composer, Sondheim is an artist who connects with Boston, because we have both a rich sense of intellectual inquiry here and also a sophisticated musical palette. Sondheim’s music – and the drama it conveys – is richly complicated, full of contradiction, and surprising when a new melody comes flying in and sweeps you off your feet.

CH: How far does it go back for you with Sondheim?

PD: I was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in high school. I just was so turned on to him as an artist by that production. I became a Sondheim fanatic, and I started to listen to all of his music.

CH: What is it about Sondheim’s work?

PD: The songs are so integrated into the story and even into the scenes themselves – especially emotionally. When I was working with actress Haydn Gwynne on “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music, we discovered you cannot take that song out of the context of the scene that precedes it between her and Fredrik. The song is a continuation emotionally of Desiree being rejected by Fredrik, and only through the song does she acknowledge that both are aware of the mistakes that they made and that they cannot be together. Immediately following our production here, Haydn was actually performing the song for a celebration of Sondheim’s work on the West End in London. She requested that they bring an actor to play Fredrik, so that they could play the scene before she sang the song. That is something that I think Sondheim does better than any one composer I have encountered.

CH: Can you talk about the music itself, too?

PD: The music also tells the story; it is not just the lyrics. The melody, the rhythm, the tone are each a representation of the story he is unfolding before the audience. Sometimes the music creates a sense of irony between what is being sung and what is being felt. A lot of people talk about how Sondheim will create darker melodies for lighter thoughts, and that’s not arbitrary — that is embedded in the character’s emotional relationship to what they are singing. Because of that depth of storytelling, it is incredible to get in the room with an actor for one of his musicals and direct the songs beat by beat. We get to share revelations: “if you attack this note this way, it has a level of irony that it wants, or if you go another way, it gets a level of vulnerability that we want.” The ability to direct those songs moment to moment is – and I don’t use this word lightly – an absolute honor.

Stephen Bogardus and Haydn GwynneCH: The first two productions are both at our large mainstage space – and they are both directed by you with a fair amount of overlap in terms of the artistic team. Should audiences expect those trends to continue?

PD: One of the things that was really appealing when I started exploring this idea a couple of years ago was that I felt like Sondheim was the artist that could unify our campuses: the 890-seat theatre we have on the Avenue of the Arts, as well as the two theatres we built in the South End at the Calderwood Pavilion. Having been exposed to Sondheim’s work at the Menier – which is a small space – I discovered that you can experience Sondheim in so many different-sized venues. There are musicals like Sunday in the Park with George that you want to see on a giant canvas, and there are musicals like Passion that pop and come alive on a smaller canvas. This is part of what differentiates an exploration of Sondheim’s work from an artist like August Wilson; with Sondheim we are using our venues to shape the artistic approach to the material and trying to choose the venue that seems most appropriate to the material.

After these two, I know some of what I want to do down the road, but I think that in the short term, we will start to explore celebrated productions from elsewhere. There are also directors in the immediate Huntington circle – Billy Porter or Joanna Gleason – who are acclaimed Sondheim interpreters already as actors and who have really compelling ideas for productions.

CH: Finally, we have heard a lot from audience members who love Sondheim and are thrilled about this long-term commitment, and then we also heard from people who had never responded to Sondheim before but loved A Little Night Music. Do you think about how to convert more people to be Sondheim geeks?

PD: By and large, people love Sondheim in this city. We won’t bore people with this exploration; we will find ways to explore the work that will keep people interested.

My hope is that we will win over converts, too. Sometimes people have just never experienced Sondheim with the benefit of the story unfolding at the same time. I have been to concerts celebrating Sondheim where it is clear that the singer does not understand the context of the song in the musical, so they just create their own approach and interpretation. Sometimes it works. But you don’t have to look further than Frank Sinatra’s “Send in the Clowns,” where, God bless his heart, the intention of the song is not conveyed in his jaunty version.

Mostly I hope that people will be interested in the opportunity to take a deep dive and go on the journey with us. In contemporary time, we are so hooked on “what is the hot single off the album,” “what episodes of the series are ‘must-watch,’” and there is very little — outside heavily serialized television — where you get to a greater level of depth over a period of years. Producing Sondheim in this way insists that you slow down and experience a body of work over several seasons. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. We are exploring the Bach or Mozart of our time – fearless as a composer and a perfectionist.

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