Tag Archives: ” Stephen Sondheim

A Memorable Staples-Broadway Connection

Staples Players is in the midst of another this-is-like-Broadway run. “Sweeney Todd” wowed audiences last weekend. Tickets may sell out soon for this weekend’s final shows.

Audience members awed by the teenagers’ performances say to themselves, “If only I had enough talent to get on stage…”

Rondi Charleston at 19 -- the year she auditioned for "Sweeney Todd."

Rondi Charleston at 19 — the year she auditioned for “Sweeney Todd.”

One Westporter does more than just think it. She remembers vividly the day 36 years ago when she auditioned for that very show.

In 1979, Rondi Charleston was a 2nd-year student in Juilliard’s drama department. She was called to audition as an ingenue in the original production of “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway.

Charleston sang for the casting director. The next day she was called back to sing for director Hal Prince, in a big, historic theater.

Prince liked what he heard. She was called back again. This time, Stephen Sondheim was there.

Charleston was not nervous. “I was young and naive,” she laughs.

Charleston made it to one of 3 finalists. Eventually the role — Johanna, a classic Sondheim ingenue — went to someone a bit older and more seasoned.

Rondi Charleston and Emma Ruchefsky.

Rondi Charleston and Emma Ruchefsky.

Charleston is enjoying watching the current Staples Johanna — and not just because she almost played it herself.

One of the double-cast roles is Emma Ruchefsky — Charleston’s daughter.

“Life has come full circle,” the former actor says. “I couldn’t be happier or more thrilled that she is getting the chance to put her stamp on this role. I have so much respect for the work that all these kids do!”

Congrats to Emma, and Rondi — a “stage mother” everyone can love.

(Staples Players performs “Sweeney Todd” this Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21. For tickets and more information, click on StaplesPlayers.com.)

Johanna (Emma Ruchefsky) and Anthony Hope (Jack Baylis). (Photo/Kerry Long)

Johanna (Emma Ruchefsky) and Anthony Hope (Jack Baylis). (Photo/Kerry Long)


Staples Players’ Post-Apocalyptic “Sweeney Todd”

Stephen Sondheim is notorious for writing difficult musical theater. And “Sweeney Todd” is considered to be his best — and perhaps musically toughest — work.

Which is exactly why the show has been chosen by directors David Roth and Kerry Long for this spring’s Staples Players mainstage production.

Sweeney Todd poster

The curtain rises next Friday (March 13) on a unique version of the 1979 Tony Award-winning thriller. Set not in 1849, but 200 years later — 2049 — Staples’ “Sweeney” envisions a post-apocalyptic world. The undefined-but-class-war-type disaster unfolded in 2015 — this year — when both Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett were 17. That’s the age, of course, of the stars of the show.

Those stars have embraced what Roth and Long are asking them to do.

“Musically, this is the most challenging production since I’ve been here,” says Roth, a 1984 Staples graduate who directed his first Players show in 2000.

“The harmonies, rhythms and lyrics are all very tough,” Roth says. “That’s why actors love it.”

Sweeney Todd (Everett Sussman) and Mrs. Lovett (Juliet Kimble), in an intense scene. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Sweeney Todd (Everett Sussman) and Mrs. Lovett (Juliet Kimble), in an intense scene. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Before auditions began, Roth compared it to “A Chorus Line.” He told potential cast members that, just as that show demanded above all else the ability to dance, this one revolves around musicality.

And, Roth noted, that does not just mean a good singing voice. Actors also need to handle very complicated music.

“Sondheim says it bothers him when everyone singing a musical theater number has the same thought at the same time,” Roth explains. “So he writes 8 or 9 different thoughts. It’s much closer to reality.”

It’s also a lot to ask of teenagers. But Staples Players are not typical teenagers.

Like Roth and Long, they love Sondheim’s dark humor. They understand his tragic, broad themes. Like the best actors anywhere, they’ve appreciated the chance to find out where all those characters come from.

To prepare for the show, Roth has scheduled more singing rehearsals than usual. Music director Luke Rosenberg — who talked about doing “Sweeney Todd” since arriving at Staples 3 years ago — has worked hard with the directors to make sure the cast understands exactly what they’re singing.

“With Sondheim, music informs the emotion of a scene,” Roth says. “We’re trying to let that happen.”

He’s given the actors plenty of table work — talking about what happened to them in the “apocalypse,” figuring out the events that led them to where they are in 2049.

Technical director Pete DiFranco and professional set designer (and Players alum) Reid Thompson have built a clever brick structure that evokes the world Roth and Long have envision.

Meanwhile, Priscilla Stampa and Marjorie Watt — Players’ longtime costume designers, who are retiring after this main stage production — have created very innovative, post-acopalyptic costumes.

The cast of "Sweeney Todd" gets ready for opening night. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The cast of “Sweeney Todd” gets ready for opening night. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The best theater challenges, provokes and prods its audience. Stephen Sondheim is a masterful creator of the best theater — and Staples Players are wonderful interpreters of it. The 2049 version of “Sweeney Todd” promises to be a show for the ages.

(“Sweeney Todd” will be produced on Friday and Saturday, March 13, 14, 20 and 21, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 15 at 3 p.m., in the Staples High School auditorium. For tickets and more information, click here.)

Hey, Teach!

If you’ve ever been in school, you’ve had a teacher who changed your life.

If you’re like most people, you think about that teacher from time to time. You mention her fondly, to your kids and with old friends. If the teacher is lucky — and still alive — you might track him down, and thank him in a phone call, letter or email.

Between now and December 15, you can do much more. You can win a horizon-expanding, life-changing teacher $10,000.

The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards are a tangible way to thank educators — from grades K-12, and college — for the impactful work they have done. In addition to the nice monetary prize, honorees are showcased on the Kennedy Center website.

Nominators must be at least 18 years old, and must have been the nominee’s student. Nominators should create a written, audio or video story that highlights a single, specific interaction with the teacher — a moment of transformation or inspiration.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Judges are not looking for lists of accomplishments. They want to know how the teacher served as a mentor or role model. What life lessons were taught. How the teacher saw, and unlocked, untapped potential. That sort of thing.

Every Westporter must have a teacher to nominate, and a story to tell. Click here for details. And — even if you don’t complete the form — you can share inspiring “teacher moments” with other Westporters, by clicking “Comments.”

PS: Because “06880” is a place where “Westport meets the world,” there are 2 local connections to the Kennedy Center Inspirational Teacher Awards.

One is on its website. Among the links to past winning stories is one by David Pogue — the illustrious, creative tech guru who lives in town.

The other connection is Stephen Sondheim himself. In the summer of 1950, he was an apprentice at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Where, presumably, he learned a thing or two about himself and the world, from an inspirational, life-changing — if non-classroom — teacher.


Westport: A Town Filled With Showoffs

“The Show-Off” is running now at the Westport Country Playhouse.

And, between now and the final curtain on June 29, the Playhouse is running a social media campaign.

A straw hat — similar to the one worn by the show’s title character — is being photographed on prominent people all around town.

If you’re Facebook friends with the Playhouse, or follow it on Twitter, you’ll see Westport’s favorite clothier, Bill Mitchell:

Bill Mitchell

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg:

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg

Playhouse managing director Michael Ross:

Westport Country Playhouse managing director Michael Ross

And even Milky White:

Milky White

Who is Milky White, you ask?

One of the most important characters in “Into the Woods.”

And here’s the “prominent Westport” connection: In the summer of 1950, future composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was one of a dozen Playhouse apprentices.

(Click for the social media links: Facebook; Twitter). 

Stephen Sondheim: 62 Years In Westport

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the Westport Country Playhouse 2012 season opens tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1) with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

What you may not know is that the composer/lyricist’s connection to the Playhouse goes back more than 60 years. In fact, Sondheim may have longer ties to the Playhouse than just about anyone else on earth.

In the summer of 1950 — just after graduation from Williams College — a young Sondheim was one of a dozen Playhouse apprentices.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

According to a 2006  New York Times story,

He was 20 but not totally untested: he had written two shows in college, one of which was staged. He had won a composition prize that would help finance his further studies. And Oscar Hammerstein II, a neighbor from previous summers in Bucks County, Pa., had been giving him assignments in musical theater writing, critiquing the results without condescension.

Still, he had not moved many sets or called lighting cues from a booth and didn’t yet have the practical knowledge of stagecraft that would eventually inform his scores, helping to create the seamless style of works like “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” decades later. And if there’s one thing a summer theater apprenticeship can deliver on, among the many things it necessarily cannot, it’s the promise of plenty of time spent living the less glamorous life backstage.

An undated photo of the Westport Country Playhouse -- before the most recent renovation.

He applied to the Playhouse because it was near his father and stepmother’s home in Stamford. Perhaps more importantly, he said, “in those days (it was) the most prestigious summer theater in the country.”

One of the great things about his apprenticeship, he added, was that

you got to be an assistant stage manager on at least one show during the summer. I got to do it on a show called “My Fiddle’s Got Three Strings,” directed by no less than Lee Strasberg and starring Maureen Stapleton. It was my first taste of the Actors Studio. When the actors started reading, I couldn’t hear one word. You want to talk about mumbling.

Back then, Sondheim told the Times, there was a different show each week. Apprentices learned everything — from getting props and parking cars to selling Cokes and cleaning latrines.

Nothing was beneath anyone. “We were kids in the theater,” he said.

Stephen Sondheim today.

The occasion of that Times piece was a tribute to Sondheim. The Playhouse benefit was hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

We think — rightly — of that wonderful couple as two of the Westport Country Playhouse’s most devoted benefactors.

But Stephen Sondheim was there nearly a decade before they moved to town.

Starting tomorrow, he’ll be there — in the form of “Into the Woods” — once again.

That’s a lot more than a little night music.

Taking Teen Actors “Into The Woods”

David Roth is a Stephen Sondheim aficionado.

In the spring of 2002 Roth was in his 2nd year as director of Staples Players. In the aftermath of 9/11 — with Americans still shell-shocked and saddened — he replaced his original spring production choice with “Into the Woods.”

The Sondheim musical weaves together several popular fairy tales. It’s funny and uplifting. A major theme — how people from different walks of life band together in the face of crisis — fit well with the country’s post-9/11 mood. It won the prestigious Moss Hart Award — one criteria of which is “social relevance.”

Ten years later, Staples Players are again producing “Into the Woods.” This time, though, 9/11 has faded from most Americans’ memories.

And something else has changed: Two years ago, Lucy Roth was born.

Amanda Horowitz (Little Red Riding Hood) and Clay Singer (Jack, of beanstalk fame), in the 2012 Staples Players production of "Into the Woods." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Being a father — and working with co-director Kerry Long, who plays dual roles as his wife and Lucy’s mother — has caused Roth to examine “Into the Woods” with fresh eyes.

“I realize now there’s another theme: the legacy parents leave for their kids,” he says.

“After Lucy was born, Kerry and I see how our actions are reflected in her.”

Songs like “Children Will Listen” have influenced the couple’s direction of the current production, Roth says.

A tale of 2 princes: Cinderella's (Charlie Greenwald, left) and Rapunzel's (Tyler Jent). (Photo/Kerry Long)

In fairy tales, Roth now realizes, “there are almost no fathers.” Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella — all referenced in “Into the Woods” — have forced the director to think deeply about fatherhood.

In the show’s “new” fairy tale, a baker and his wife try to begin a family. They finally succeed —  but the wife dies, and the baker must bring up the child alone.

“We’re focusing on those things more,” Roth notes. “Last time we concentrated more on the havoc the giant was inflicting on people, and how they overcame it.”

Roth and Long have used their insights as parents to help their teenage actors understand the dreams their parents have for them. “We share some of our own personal experiences,” he says. “We describe our discoveries as parents, and how we’re learning about life through Lucy.”

Joanna Gleason — who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the baker’s wife — spent time with the Staples cast. She too discussed how the show resonates with her as a parent. (Then she went into the studio, to tape some audio. She will be heard on the Staples stage, as the voice of the giant.)

David Roth and Kerry Long have taken their young — but very talented — Staples actors on a long journey “Into the Woods.” This weekend and next, audiences will marvel at how far they’ve all come.

(“Into the Woods” is performed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and  Sunday, March 16, 17, 23 and 24, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 18. Click here to order tickets; click here for more information.)