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Stephen Sondheim

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At 82 years old, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim so often has been referred to as the greatest living lyricist and composer in musical theater that it has become a modern day cliché. On Friday, July 13, Sondheim –joined by Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole, along with pianist extraordinaire Tim Firth – made a one-night appearance at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. With them was Michael A. Kerker, director of musical theater for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Kerker served as interviewer.

 

During the course of the two-hour Q and A – which was originally scheduled for October, 2011, but was delayed due to an East Coast snowstorm that shut down air travel – we learned that Sondheim was mentored by family friend Oscar Hammerstein II starting at the tender age of 11. What’s more, we get the lowdown from Sondheim himself on his collaborations with the luminaries of musical theater, a uniquely American art form.

 

Beginning in his 20s Sondheim contributed lyrics to playwright Arthur Laurents’ 1957 classic West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein). Two years later, Sondheim was a lyricist for Gypsy (music by Jule Styne). Sondheim informed us that a big part of his poetic technique is to use true rhymes in creating lyrics. “A false or slanted rhyme, such as ‘phone home,’ doesn’t land well in musical theater,” Sondheim insists.

As if to prove his point, celebrated performers Mitchell and Ebersole lend their mighty interpretive talents to regaling us with Sondheim songs. With singular and defining rhyme schemes such as, Thinking and sweating/ And cursing and crying/ And turning and reaching/ And walking and dying, from “Not a Day Goes By” in Merrily We Roll Along, we easily comprehend Sondheim’s distinct aesthetic  sensibility.

Sondheim told of Jule Styne’s propensity to re-write a song to the extent that he always seemed to be working with a first draft. Sondheim’s message here is that editing and reworking a piece of music is different than creating a new song from scratch. The latter is always in an inchoate state; whereas the former is a deepening process, which elaborates and gives dimension to the song.

Though Sondheim has become the standard-bearer for musical theater over the past half century, he tells us that “It’s easy to be simple (in songwriting), but to be simple and clear is not so easy. “ Further, according to Sondheim, “Clarity is the most important part of a song in musical theater.” Continuing, Sondheim declares, “Audiences may disagree or be displeased with a show or a song, but if it’s clear the composer/ lyricist and/or playwright has done his job. Clarity is the most important part.”

To find out more about Sondheim’s life and artistry read his books Finishing the Hat: Volume One and Look I Made a Hat: Volume Two. To get a close up view of an early but essential Sondheim work, see The Chance Theater production of West Side Story, continuing through August 12 at 5552 East La Palma Avenue, Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. To reserve tickets, dial (714) 777 – 3033.


 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.