When a Broadway Journalist Un-Retires From the Stage… and the Day I Had a Drink With Stephen Sondheim
- OnStage Columnist
I have met Master Sondheim exactly three times in my life. Twice was just in passing at various press events. But the third time, I found myself sidled up next to him at the Glass House Tavern on 47th Street and actually got a chance to chat with the man. Both of us were enjoying cocktails prior to our respective evening performances (I was seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and he was seeing After Midnight, if memory serves), and feeling brave, I re-introduced myself.
He pretended to recognize me, told me I was going to LOVE the show, made a rather bawdy joke about Barbara Cook, clinked my glass and merrily we rolled along out into the night air. This was a few years ago, and I spent the rest of the evening shivering in starstruck wonderment.
Had this chance encounter occurred last week, I think it more likely that I would have flown into a fit of uncontrollable rage and, face streaming with tears, taken a swing at him and subsequently made headlines as the guy who got his ass kicked by an 87-year-old living legend.
Why, you ask? Easy question. Because, after a 14-year break from performing of any kind, I am attempting an ensemble track in Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose’s Marquee Production of Sweeney Todd and nightly find myself abused, frustrated and beaten down by his brilliance.
A week ago, we had just finished learning and staging all of the chorus numbers. We covered the opening, “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” “God, That’s Good,” and “City on Fire” over the course of 4 days! My body hurt from the minimal movement required of the non-dancing ensemble (yes, there is some real DANCE in this Sweeney), my brain hurt from the words and complex harmonies to be memorized and my ego hurt from the realization that I had a lot of catching up to do!
Now, there was a time way back when, where I was pretty decent. I did the various high school productions, some youth and community theatre and a bit of semi-professional work while in college. In 2003, I played Cain in a local staging of Children of Eden, moved to New York and happily retired from the stage in order to pursue employment in other areas of the theatre industry.
What followed was a decade in full-time theatre journalism, in which I was Hashtag Blessed to have the opportunity to witness the greatest talent on the planet nearly every night. With a handful of exceptions due to scheduling issues, I saw every single Broadway show that opened between 2010 and 2016. Believe me, this is NOT a brag. For every Hamilton or Book of Mormon, there are 5 other shows where you leave the theatre perplexed as to who thought this was a good idea and legitimately believing that the evening would have been better spent in a meat locker, bleeding from both eyes. Hashtag Jaded.
The point is, in that time, I was extremely fortunate to spend my entire life immersed in the highest level of theatre production and talent imaginable and very happily resigned myself to the idea that I simply had no place even trying to put my fairly limited skills on display.
Cut to a few months ago. I’m taking a several-month hiatus back in my hometown, and I have been simply astonished at how the local theatre scene has grown. I was taken to see several excellent productions by dear friends who have been regulars on the Bay Area stage… and those old feelings from years ago came flooding back.
I longed to be onstage in some capacity and it so happened that Sweeney Todd, one of my all-time favorites, was being staged by CMTSJ, where I quite effeminately played the Bearded Lady in Side Show back in the year 2000. For those unfamiliar, the company has been around for nearly 50 years and has earned a reputation as the top children’s theatre in the country. Google it.
When I was a teenager, they were putting on large-scale productions of shows like Chess, Miss Saigon, Tommy, the Yeston/Kopit Phantom, Jesus Christ Superstar and a bi-lingual Evita (performed in English and Spanish on alternating nights). They recently produced American Idiot and, this season alone, are putting talented young actors in productions of Once On This Island, 13, Evita, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Spelling Bee. This is no small endeavor, and this ambitious company (which maintains its policy of casting all who audition) pulls it off every single time.
A few times a year, CMTSJ also offers up a “Marquee Production” with casts consisting of alumni and the very best grown-up local performers out there. This is the company I now find myself in, as Non-Dancing Tenor Ensemble Guy #4 in a chorus jam-packed with true superstars. We are led by one Kevin R. Hauge, a delightful genius of a man who has served as Artistic Director for 21 years and was my director in Side Show seventeen long years ago.
Which brings us to today. First rehearsal was March 21. There is a cast of 34, a full orchestra, a massive two-level set, some incredibly cool costumes and detailed hair/wig/makeup concepts for each and every person. We have our first full run-through this Thursday the 13th, add wardrobe and orchestra on Friday, move into the beautiful Montgomery Theater on Saturday… and opening night is Friday, April 21!
My main thoughts right now:
Thought 1: This show is HARD. We all know that Sondheim isn’t for the faint of heart, but you don’t fully appreciate it until you try to learn the chorus parts for a show like this. Example. The ending of “God, That’s Good.” This is the tenor part:
The lyrics we’re singing are, “God, that’s good. That is de have you licious ever tasted smell such oh my god what perfect more that’s pies such flavor, god that’s good.” I worry that I’m having a stroke every time we run through it. As Effie White so famously declared, “I don’t DO oohs and ahhs.” I happily do oohs and ahhs, but this is truly taking it to the next level. Also… this stuff is HIGH. Example. Tenor line in the opening number:
Thought 2: The level of talent surrounding me is nothing short of extraordinary. Every night I find myself standing in awe at the powerful vocals and pinpoint-precise delivery of some very complex choreography. Every single person in this cast is taking part in their free time, giving it their all while juggling work or school, and every single one of them is up to the Herculean task that is this Sweeney Todd. It is an ensemble of stars, and it is a privilege to be sweating along with them every night. I have truly never seen a more ambitious vision for the show (I have seen over 10 productions, in 3 languages)- and there is no better group of people to be taking on the seemingly impossible.
Additionally, I’ve had a few moments to pop my head in and observe the other shows that are in the works. The teenagers are working on the upcoming Mainstage Production of Evita, while the kids are rehearsing the Rising Stars production of Once On This Island. The sheer level of talent and professionalism in this corner of the country is staggering to behold. They must be putting something in the kombucha. (Surely the abundance of Filipinos in the area helps, too. I’ve spent a lot of time in Manila, and yes, everyone can sing.)
As I enjoy my final day off until we open, I take this moment to share these thoughts from what I believe to be a fairly unique perspective and truly sing the praises of this company and the people involved. While not at liberty to say too much, I can assure all that this will be a Sweeney Todd the likes of which you’ve never seen. Anyone in the Bay Area, I hope you will find the time to attend the tale. It promises to be something truly remarkable.
Oh, and circling back to my Sondheim story. I didn’t have the courage to ask for a selfie. But I DID bother Andrew Lloyd Webber one time and came up with this gem. Soooo… sorta the same, right?
CMTSJ’s Marquee production of Sweeney Todd runs April 21-30 at San Jose’s Montgomery Theater. For tickets and information, visit CMTSJ.ORG.
The cast is led by Mark Martinez (Sweeney), Kristen Hermosillo (Lovett), David Murphy (Judge Turpin), John G. Bridges (Beadle), David Mister (Pirelli), Ted Sclavos (Anthony), Katherine Stein (Beggar Woman), Christine Freschi (Johanna), Tarif Pappu (Tobias) and Gary Beytin (Jonas Fogg).
Rounding out the company are Marlene Berner, Matthew Blank, Christina Bolognini, Alvin Buñales, Sarah Bylsma, Ruby Delgros, Colleen Doermann, Richard Dwyer, Jessica Ellithorpe, Rudy Fuentes, Tyler Harding, Josh Lau, Mercedes Dawnte Long, Andrew Lucero, Joy Osborne, Smita Patibanda, Andrew Perego, Michael Rhone, Nick Rodriguez, Kirsten Schmal, Kereli Sengstack, Ricky Silva, Nora Vellis, Jennifer Young and Cheyenne Wells.
Kevin R. Hauge directs, with choreography by Kelly Connolly, vocal direction by Daniel Hughes and music direction by Amie Jan.
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.