Theater: THE COMPLETE SONDHEIM @ 90 ROUNDTABLE (Porchlight Music Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 23, 2021

in Theater-Chicago


While we were all prepared to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday in 2020, and all of his accomplishments up until then, along comes COVID, which not only shut down Broadway (including the revival of Company, which had pandemic insurance, if you can believe that!), but also halted all of those Sondheim parties and bashes we were going to attend. Thankfully, Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre, which has staged many Sondheim musicals, presented Sondheim @ 90 Roundtable with Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber joining three special guests each week to discuss the works of Sondheim’s career. From hits West Side Story, Into the Woods, and Sweeney Todd to flops (well, financial flops, Sondheim ain’t got one stinker score) The Frogs and Road Show/Bounce, the discussions have been fun and informative, including some enlightening bits that even this Sondheim maven didn’t know — and some amazing clips, too. Fortunately, the series will remain available in perpetuity on Porchlight’s YouTube Channel. Check them out!

West Side Story (episode premiered: April 25, 2020)
The debut episode of Sondheim at 90 Roundtable. Weber and his guests Gary Griffin (director of Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vegas), Mark Hoebee (producing artistic director of Paper Mill Playhouse) and Diana Martinez (director at McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage) discuss the musical retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a lyricist.

Sunday in the Park with George (episode premiered: May 2, 2020)
Weber is joined by Nick Bowling (founding artistic director of TimeLine Theatre Company), David Cromer (Our Town) and Heidi Kettenring (Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane). With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the production was inspired by Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Follies (episode premiered: May 9, 2020)
This episode highlights Follies, music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Goldman, which was inspired by a New York Times article about a gathering of former showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies. The roundtable includes Weber and guests David H. Bell (Hot Mikado, director on Broadway, Off Broadway, Carnegie Hall, The National Theatre, London’s West End and The Kennedy Center), Gary Griffin (director of Broadway’s The Color Purple, Sunday in the Park… and Chicago’s Follies) and Hollis Resnik (Porchlight’s Sunset Boulevard, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Into the Woods and A Little Night Music).

Gypsy, A Musical Fable (episode premiered: May 16, 2020)
Here she is, world! This week’s episode delves into Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote lyrics with music by Jule Styne and a book by Arthur Laurents. Weber’s guests include Klea Blackhurst (Gypsy at Drury Lane Theatre and known for her award- winning tribute to Ethel Merman), E. Faye Butler (Porchlight’s own Madame Rose) and Marc Robin (Artistic Director of Pennsylvania’s historic Fulton Theatre and recipient of 16 Joseph Jefferson Awards with 42 nominations).

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (episode premiered: May 23, 2020)
The man behind the demon barber of Fleet Street is the focus. Music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler. This week’s guests include Jim Corti, (Artistic Director of Paramount Theatre; Broadway: Candide, A Chorus Line), David Girolmo (Broadway credits includes War Paint and Porchlight’s Sweeney Todd) and James Earl Jones II (national tour of Come From Away).

Into the Woods (episode premiered: May 30, 2020)
This modern twist on the Grimm fairy tales has music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Guests David Cromer (Tony Award-winning director of The Band’s Visit), Sean Allan Krill (currently in the cast of Jagged Little Pill) and Jessie Mueller (Tony Award-winning star of Broadway’s Beautiful: the Carole King Musical, Waitress, Carousel) join Weber for a journey to a far-off kingdom.

Merrily We Roll Along (episode premiered: June 13, 2020)
With lyrics and music by Sondheim and book by George Furth — based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart — Merrily is a legendary production that is told backwards in time and ran for 44 previews and only 16 performances in 1981 telling the story of three friends and the ups and downs of their 19 year relationship. Weber is joined by Marcia Milgrom Dodge (Ragtime at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway), Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune chief theater critic) and Lonny Price (Broadway’s original “Charley Kringas”).

Pacific Overtures (episode premiered: June 20, 2020)
Telly Leung, (Roundabout Theatre’s Pacific Overtures, Allegiance), Richard Manera (Lyric Opera’s Das Rheingold, Marriott Theatre’s The King & I, London’s Donmar Warehouse’s Pacific Overtures) and Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody and co-lyricist Bring It On!) join Weber to talk about Pacific Overtures, music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman. Considered by many to be the artistic pinnacle of the legendary Sondheim/Hal Prince collaborations, this exploration of culture and imperialism pushed the boundaries of musical theatre further than ever before.

Anyone Can Whistle (episode premiered: June 27, 2020)
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, this tells the story of a small town mayor, who, in an attempt to draw tourists, creates a “fake” miracle. Weber’s guests include Victoria Bussert (director, Music Theatre Program; professor of theatre, Baldwin Wallace University), Cheryl Coons (director, Music Theater Program, Chicago Dramatists) and Porchlight’s Casting & Company Manager Christopher Pazdernik (Director of the inaugural production of the Porchlight Revisits series, Anyone Can Whistle) discussing this Sondheim show that has rarely been produced since its opening but its score has endured, becoming a much performed part of Sondheim’s canon including the title song, “Everybody Says Don’t” and “There Won’t Be Trumpets.”

Road Show aka Bounce (episode premiered: Dec. 5, 2020)
Weber is joined by Deanna Dunagan (Tony winner for August: Osage County, who appeared in the world premiere of Bounce at the Goodman, directed by Hal Prince), Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune chief theater critic) and Michael Mahler the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon as well as music direction for Road Show at Chicago Shakes) to talk about Road Show, previously titled Bounce and before that Gold! and Wise Guys. With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, this show has a fascinating history, a complex evolution and has never appeared on the Great White Way but had productions in Chicago, Washington D.C. and off-Broadway. It tells the story of brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner and their adventures across America at the start of the 20th century for the Klondike Gold Rush to the Florida real estate boom in the 1920s.

A Little Night Music (episode premiered: Dec. 12, 2020)
A work inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and involves the romantic lives of several couples. Joining Weber are Brianna Borger (A Little Night Music at Writers), Nick Bowling (director of the Chicago premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim) and Christie Chiles Twillie (music director, piano conductor, accompanist and vocal coach for musical theatre) to discuss the eventful weekend in the country that Sondheim created.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum (episode premiered: Dec. 19, 2020)
It’s more than comedy tonight, as Weber is joined by Anika Chapin (Goodspeed Musicals artistic associate), Ross Lehman (A Funny Thing at Broadway’s St. James Theatre) and Linda Madonia (music director for Porchlight’s Funny Thing) With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Forum is inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC).

The Frogs (episode premiered: Dec. 26, 2020)
Victoria Bussert (The Frogs at Pegasus Players), Christopher Pazdernik (director of numerous Porchlight Revisits) and Christie Chiles Twillie (music director for Porchlight’s Minnie’s Boys) discussing the musical send up of Greek comedy and satire “The Frogs.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and “freely adapted” by Burt Shevelove, with host Michael Weber. Loosely based on a comedy written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes, “The Frogs” playfully explores the great challenges of human existence: confronting fears, understanding life and death and challenging the distractions that can prevent us from achieving our goals.

Assassins (episode premiered: Jan. 2, 2021)
Weber is joined by Anika Chapin (artistic associate and resident dramaturg at Goodspeed Musicals), Jermaine Hill (music direction The Music Man) and Stef Tovar (The Christmas Schooner) to discuss this tour-de-force musical featuring Sondheim’s signature blend of intelligently stunning lyrics and beautiful music with a story focusing on America’s fascination with celebrity via the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents.

Do I Hear A Waltz? (episode premiered: Jan. 9, 2021)
Weber is joined by Cheryl Coons (Director of the Music Theater Program at Chicago Dramatists), Anthony Crivello (Tony winner for Broadway’s Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Kelli Harrington (“Leona Samish” in Do I Hear a Waltz? at The Music Theatre Company) to discuss this musical and its history, including Sondheim working with Richard Rodgers for his one and only time.

Saturday Night (episode premiered: Jan. 16, 2021)
Saturday Night has music and lyrics from a 24-year old Stephen Sondheim, and book, based on the play “Front Porch in Flatbush” by brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, who wrote the film Casablanca. Sondheim was to make his Broadway debut during the 1954-55 season, but unforseen circumstances delayed its opening night in New York – for 45 years! Hear about the stories behind this fascinating production and some of its modern iterations when Weber is joined by Frankie Leo Bennett (Porchlight’s In The Heights), Andréa Burns (selected by Sondheim to create the role of “Celeste” in the New York premiere) and Nik Kmieck (New Faces Sing Broadway 1941).

Passion (episode premiered: Jan. 30, 2021)
Passion tells the story of a love triangle and is adapted from Ettore Scola’s 1981 film Passione d’Amore and its source material, Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novel Fosca. Weber’s guests this week, discussing what many consider Sondheim’s most personal work, are John Doyle (Tony Award-winning director), Judy Kuhn (multiple Tony, Olivier and Grammy Award nominee; Passion at the Kennedy Center Sondheim Festival) and Kathy Voytko (Broadway’s The Frogs and Passion at Chicago Shakespeare).

Company (episode premiered Feb. 6, 2021)
Joining Weber for a lively discussion on the award-winning musical, its development, its popularity and its recent revivals are Raúl Esparza (Broadway’s Company), Robert Falls (Sunday in the Park with George at The Goodman Theatre) and Lonny Price (Broadway’s original “Charley Kringas” in Merrily We Roll Along).

The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia (episode premiered Mar 27, 2021)
Weber is joined by the author of the soon to be released “The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia,” Rick Pender, to discuss this new work encompassing Sondheim’s career from past to present and looks to the future of what we can expect from one of our most prolific and admired composer and lyricist.

Desert Island Playlist (episode premiered Apr 10, 2021)
This episode shares what songs are on the MUST HAVE “Desert Island Playlist” of former Sondheim @ 90 guests. Joining Michael with their personal choices are Roberta Duchak (award-winning music director; U.S. Music Supervisor for “Six: The Musical”), Peter Filichia (author & columnist; critic emeritus for Newark’s “Star-Ledger” and News 12) and John Yap (founder of Jay Records which recently released the first complete recording of “Anyone Can Whistle”).: Roberta Duchak, Peter Filichia, John Yap (founder of Jay Records which recently released the first complete recording of Anyone Can Whistle)

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