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Dear Sondheim, We Love You

by:  Carolyn MacLeod at 09/24/2015

Sondheim headshotWhen it comes to musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim is a national treasure. Sondheim has 19 major works and numerous collaborations under his belt, including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods. A Little Night Music falls squarely in the middle of Sondheim’s prolific career and is a beloved favorite for many of his fans, including a few involved in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production. 

“There’s nothing harder… than crafting a musical that works on all levels,” says actor Stephen Bogardus, who plays Fredrik Egerman at the Huntington. “Now you have A Little Night Music, which is proven to be one of the quintessential musicals in the musical theatre cannon, but as far as Sondheim goes, it’s a very different kind of musical.”

What makes A Little Night Music unique is partly the fact that it is written almost entirely in triple-meters (3/4, 6/8 or variations), giving the score a sultry, waltz-like feel. Choreographer Danny Pelzig points out that while this meter gives the musical a beautiful cohesion, each song stands out and is unique: “It doesn’t call attention to the fact that it’s all in three-four. But it is. I think that’s the greatest accomplishment. You don’t feel like you’re listening to… waltz after waltz. Each song has a very different character.”

“Well, he’s a genius, Stephen Sondheim,” quips Sondheim-veteran Bobbie Steinbach, who plays Madame Armfeldt at the Huntington. Ms. Steinbach has also played Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Carlotta in Follies. “Sondheim’s word play is amazing. I think his grasp of what it is to be human is profound. The stories that he tells are often delightful, often painful and tragic, and often brutal. He touches on everything. His musicals are full of life and mortality. He’s very interested in what it means to always be heading towards what we all head towards, the next horizon if you will. Death. One of my toasts [in A Little Night Music] is ‘To Life! ...And to the only other reality… Death.’ Which stops everybody in their tracks.”

It’s that intelligence about that life that attracted Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois to this production. “He really delves into humanity, vis-à-vis the music and I love exploring how the music leads the way as far as guiding you through a scene and through a song.” While this is DuBois’s first musical to direct at the Huntington, he’s found Sondheim’s songwriting to be incredibly important to the development of the show’s characters. “What I love about Sondheim is that the most important thing, I think, to him is the capacity of an actor to act a song. Not just to note perfect, but really to be able to approach his material moment to moment through the acting.” This unique opportunity is certainly not lost on Stephen Bogardus, “Sondheim is perhaps the most rewarding kind of show you can work on… because he is so articulate and smart and the wordplay is so important. To be able to figure that out in your own head and convey it to the audience is a great challenge.”

“I think of Sondheim as the Shakespeare of our lifetime," praises Peter DuBois. "I don’t know an artist working in our medium who’s more brilliant than he is, who’s been more profoundly prolific… I think he’s one of the greatest artists of all time, and it’s an incredible honor to be able to approach the material.”

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