Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012
Students & Sondheim: ‘Putting it Together’
on Staten Island’s Main Stage
by MICHAEL J. FRESSOLA
There are simpler ways to ease into a theater season than with a Stephen Sondheim revue, but a less challenging start would be a mistake, according to Drew Scott Harris and Lauri Young, director and music director of Wagner College’s upcoming “Putting It Together.”
Everyone involved, students and profs, is learning.
“I can listen to this music over and over and find new things to appreciate,” said Young, “I look forward to rehearsal every night. As the accompanist, I am approaching the score the way I would a chamber music recital: Practice, practice, practice and pay attention to details.”
“Putting It Together” extracts songs from lesser-known Sondheim works like “Frogs,” as well as better-known material like “Company,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”
The first version of the revue opened 20 years ago in London; a different assortment surfaced on Broadway in 1999.
Wagner’s Wednesday through Oct. 14 production represents yet another variation, approved last month by the composer/lyricist himself.
The cast of nine includes Wagner faculty member Amy Williams and seniors Elana Abt, Alex Boniello, Eric Petillo, Michael Garamoni, Robert Haltiwanger and Olivia Puckett. They’ll handle 30 songs. The show will inaugurate the newly refurbished Main Stage theater.
Director Drew Scott Harris discussed his theory of revues, his dealings with Sondheim, and his favorite number:
Q: Calling “Putting It Together” a revue seems almost sadistic. Revues are breezy and fun. This show seems to gather up all the tricky numbers from 10 shows, but even then, it has to come off without visible strain, shouldn’t it?
A: For me, sitting through a “breezy and fun” revue, say something like “The Lawrence Welk Show” or a cruise ship, high-voltage revue — where songs modulate up a half-step with every repetition — is as close to the Marquis de Sade as I would ever want to be.
The numbers in “Putting It Together” are complex and sometimes labyrinthine, but I wouldn’t call them tricky. Doing this show has shown me how remarkably beautiful and emotionally moving Sondheim’s work really is, and, that the generalizations about his writing being only intellectual are just that — generalizations.
There are a couple of songs in this show that regularly move me to tears, for the right reasons. And don’t ask me which ones. A director must retain some shred of mystery in his life.
Q: Which version are you doing — London or Broadway — and why?
A: We’re doing a combination of both the London and Broadway versions. Through Music Theatre International, I was in contact with Sondheim and sent a proposal of changes to the show especially conceived for this Wagner production.
Overall there were about a dozen changes that dealt with the fact that this is a college show and the material will be presented by 19 to 21 year olds.
He was kind enough to read through all the material, consider it and surprisingly for me — because I’ve worked with several established and famous Broadway writers/composers who are, shall we say, less than flexible — agreed to all the changes.
The only thing he asked was that we not make a cut in “Country House,” a number I believed at the time to be way over the heads of the students because it deals with a middle-aged (or older) couple whose marriage is going down the tubes.
Ironically, this number has become one of my favorites and the students get it completely. Sadly, disillusionment and loss of love are not only restricted to the over-40 crowd.
Q: Would you say that the advantage of the austere piano arrangement makes the beauty of the music/sparkle of the lyrics that much clearer?
A: Both an austere piano arrangement and a full symphonic arrangement work beautifully with Sondheim’s work. Listening to recordings of both has proven this to me. What’s more important than the arrangement, is the performer’s understanding of the material and the ability to present it with emotional connection and depth without any schmaltz.
Q: The Sondheim state of mind seems so cocktail hour/grown up. Is it an easy fit for 21-year-old actor-singer-dancers in 2012?
A: Nothing is easy about Sondheim. He challenges, and the challenge pays off. We put these kids through a grueling audition process to see who could sight read, hold onto a complex harmony line and bring emotion to a song that they understood on an intellectual level. They were also asked what they liked about Sondheim’s work and why (a la “A Chorus Line”). Students, even in 2012, love to give as good as they get.
Q: Some acting/singing teachers have been known to say that doing justice to Sondheim is a very big hurdle and that most other assignments won’t be so challenging (unless its Wagner or Rossini). What do you say?
A: If you’ve got talent, challenging material is your chocolate cake. But the truth of the matter is, even a supposedly simple tune like “Amazing Grace,” to be presented simply and beautifully is a very, very hard and rare accomplishment — I’m thinking now of Judy Collins. As for Wagner — the composer, not the college — personally, in the case of “Das Rheingold,” I prefer to leave after the overture. For me that’s earth-shakingly wonderful, gorgeous and moving, and all that follows is downhill.
Q: Are your personal faves in the “Putting it Together” mix?
A: One is. I asked if we could include “I Remember” (from “Evening Primrose”). The composer said yes. My life is full.