Are We In a Sondheim Renaissance?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Jul. 06, 2024
Are We In a Sondheim Renaissance?
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: Have there been a lot of Sondheim productions in New York City since the legendary composer and lyricist passed away?

We lost the great Stephen Sondheim in November of 2021. Widely regarded as one of the most important Broadway writers of all time, Sondheim had a long and illustrious career populated by some of the most significant shows of the 20th century. Known for the risk-taking subject matter and originality of his shows and the complexity, skill, and sophistication of his writing, Sondheim’s work spans from West Side Story to Sunday in the Park with George, from Sweeney Todd to Merrily We Roll Along, from Gypsy to Follies. New York has luckily seen a high number of Sondheim productions in the past 2+ years.

At the time of Sondheim’s death in November 2021, a Broadway revival of Company had just re-started performances following the pandemic shutdown. The third Broadway revival of the 1970 musical with book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Sondheim, originally directed and produced by Harold Prince, boasted a gender swapped concept. Katrina Lenk played the central role of Bobbie (usually Bobby) in the production directed by Marianne Elliott that inspired Sondheim to declare his passion for newly reimagined versions of his shows that could reach new audiences.

Also on stage at the time Sondheim passed was an off-Broadway revival of Assassins at Classic Stage Company, directed by John Doyle, and featuring performances from Steven Pasquale, Brandon Uranowitz, Will Swenson, and more. The controversial depiction of American assassins originally premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1990, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, originally directed by Jerry Zaks. A 2004 revival introduced the show to Broadway, and this revival returned Assassins to its off-Broadway roots.

In March of 2022, New York audiences had the opportunity to see a rare Sondheim gem. The writer’s lesser known 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle has never been revived on Broadway but it has received several high profile New York concert revivals including this one at Carnegie Hall. Sondheim penned music and lyrics to Arthur Laurents’ book and original direction for this absurdist musical satire with high aims that originally had a short run. 2022’s Master Voices staging directed by Ted Sperling featured performances from Vanessa Williams and Santino Fontana.

Are We In a Sondheim Renaissance?

Less than a year after Sondheim’s passing, in May of 2022, a new production of Into The Woods was part of New York City Center’s Encores! series. The starry cast included Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker, Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, and Heather Headley as the Witch. The production, with a few cast changes, started previews on Broadway the following month, in a shockingly quick transfer. Lear deBessonet directed this new staging of the 1987 show chronicling the darker side of fairy tales with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book and original direction by James Lapine.

Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford led Sweeney Todd back to Broadway for its third revival there since its original 1979 production. The 2023 staging by Thomas Kail was gargantuan in comparison with New York’s most recent Sweeney, the intimate off-Broadway pie shop version that ran from 2017 to 2018. With its magnificent music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, and original direction and producing by Prince, Sweeney is about the unlikely subject matter of a 19th century barber hell-bent on revenge who decides to bake murder victims into pies.

Sondheim’s next show on Broadway after Sweeney Todd in 1979 was Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, and just in the same order, a revival of Merrily was the next Sondheim show to open on Broadway following Sweeney in 2023. But while the original Sweeney Todd won the Best Musical prize at the Tony Awards and was widely acclaimed, the original Merrily We Roll Along was Sondheim’s most heartbreaking flop. The record-setting 2023 revival of Merrily set the record straight on the quality of the most historically underappreciated, cult favorite musical in Sondheim’s canon. Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez led the recent reimagining of the show with music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by Furth, and original direction and producing by Prince, this time directed by Maria Friedman.

In October 2023, Sondheim’s final new musical opened in New York. His only show to premiere posthumously, Here We Are was a long-gestating project written in collaboration with book writer David Ives. The off-Broadway production was directed by Joe Mantello and its original cast boasted Bobby Cannavale, Steven Pasquale, Amber Gray, David Hyde Pierce, Rachel Bay Jones, Micaela Diamond, Denis O’Hare, Jin Ha, Francois Battiste, Tracie Bennett, and Jeremy Shamos. The show had been highly anticipated since Sondheim first publicly spoke about it in 2012. Adapted from two Luis Buñuel movies, Here We Are was an existential exploration of a group of humans whose quest for dinner becomes apocalyptic.

Are We In a Sondheim Renaissance?

In November of 2023, Master Voices presented a concert staging of The Frogs, which was originally presented in 1974 in a swimming pool at Yale. The show with book by Burt Shevelove, music and lyrics by Sondheim, and original direction by Susan Stroman made its Broadway debut at Lincoln Center for a brief 2004 Broadway run, and it returned to Lincoln Center at the Rose Theater for this Sperling-directed concert, hosted by its original Broadway star Nathan Lane.

Like Anyone Can Whistle in 2022, Follies also received a distinguished concert presentation at Carnegie Hall in June 2024. Transport Group was responsible for the all-star benefit which boasted performances from Jennifer Holliday, Carolee Carmello, Norm Lewis, Christine Ebersole, Beth Leavel, Karen Ziemba and many more. Jack Cummings III directed and Kurt Peterson and Ted Chapin co-hosted the presentation which thrillingly included the original 1971 choreography re-created for several songs by original company member Mary Jane Houdina. With terrific narration and anecdotes from original cast member Peterson and original production assistant Chapin, Follies, with book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Sondheim, was given the royal treatment. 

Just a week after New York audiences were regaled with Follies, they had the opportunity to attend another starry concert presentation of a Sondheim musical. This time it was A Little Night Music at Lincoln Center with a new concert script by John Doyle, based on the original with book by Wheeler and music and lyrics by Sondheim, originally directed and produced by Prince on Broadway in 1973. The concert, directed by Marc Bruni, featured performances from Ruthie Ann Miles, Cynthia Erivo, Marsha Mason, and more.

This fall, Broadway will receive a much-anticipated revival of Gypsy, starring Audra McDonald and directed by George C. Wolfe. Gypsy has lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne, and a book by Arthur Laurents, and has previously been seen in four Broadway revivals, following the original 1959 production which was directed by Jerome Robbins.

Also in the Broadway queue for this coming season is Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, a new Sondheim revue which will open in the spring starring Bernadette Peters and directed by Matthew Bourne. The show was highly acclaimed during its West End run.

There has been no sign in New York City since Sondheim’s passing in late 2021 of major stagings of Saturday Night, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Pacific Overtures, Side by Side by Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, Putting It Together, or Road Show. That said, West Side Story was just seen on Broadway prior to the pandemic in 2020 and Sunday in the Park was last on Broadway in 2017. Saturday Night, Passion, Do I Hear A Waltz?, Pacific Overtures, and Road Show which are all on the less- revived side of Sondheim’s oeuvre, were seen in New York productions in the 2010s. That leaves just Forum and the two revues, Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting It Together.