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Student Blog: Remembering the Godfather of Theatre

An interview with my high school mentor and an admirer of Sondheim

Student Blog: Remembering the Godfather of Theatre

The loss of one of the brightest lights of the Great White Way has been terribly challenging to accept. I think everyone within the theatre community can share a story related to Sondheim that led them to where they are. For me, it was the production of West Side Story and the album of Sunday in the Park with George. The South African production of West Side Story, reminded me of the magic of theatre and it solidified my dream of being part of a story made for the stage. While the Sunday in the Park with George revival with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford is my go-to album for inspiration.

Sondheim, not only ushered in the theatre era that we know and love today, he managed to be the voice of reason and image of influence within many people's lives. One of whom, was my grade eight and nine drama teacher and high school mentor. He's the one who taught me about technical work for productions, Mr. David Fick. Mr. Fick was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim didn't impact Mr. Fick as a teacher, creator, performer and director but rather as a "human being". Growing up, musicals played a huge part in Mr. Fick's life and with interactions "with any kind of art form to that extent" in your developmental years it would be hard to believe that it won't "form part of your identity". Sondheim's work helped Mr. Fick "voice what was going on inside" him through watching West Side Story or Gypsy on television, playing Sondheim songs on the piano or singing his repertoire in voice classes and drama showcases. Everything that was discovered through those "formative experiences" developed Mr. Fick's passion to "help people find their own voices through the arts".

Mr. Fick describes Sondheim's uniqueness as "a way of cutting through the noise and getting to the essence of something" with reference to Sondheim's "attention to detail, levels of artistry and craftsmanship, perception of his own work and his reflexivity"; all of which set him apart from those who came before him and of his time.

Sondheim's influence has reached far and wide, much further than just American and British theatres. We had our fair share of Sondheim productions in South Africa pre-pandemic, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story and even Side by Side by Sondheim and Marry Me a Little. The latter of which Mr. Fick was able to participate in, in an independent production in 2008. South African musical theatre productions embrace the idea of a style that is "grounded in acting" and Sondheim was "the key to unlocking it because his way of writing demands it absolutely".

The theatre may have lost a great treasure that could never be replaced but Sondheim gave musical theatre feet to walk on and artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek and Paul and Michael-John LaChiusa are able to build "houses on the foundations he laid". The works of the great artists of today have "echoes of Sondheim's voice" in their own approaches to storytelling that "resonate slightly differently" to each of us.

One could never rank Sondheim's work because each were their own unique message. But Mr. Fick's top tier musical by Sondheim would be the original production of Follies. An incredible Sondheim score and book by James Goldman "that is urbane and cynical on the surface but which is driven by everything that people just have to breathe get on with this business of being human". Add Harold Prince, Michael Bennet, Boris Aronson and the original cast, Mr. Fick would appreciate "a way to go back in experience [the production] in person".

When it comes to Sondheim's songs, there is probably a song for every mood and occasion. To sum up Sondheim's brilliance into one song is a sneaky question to ask but I asked it nonetheless. "Sondheim's brilliance is multi-faceted" but when it comes down to it, Mr. Fick has four contenders, 'Waiting for the Girls Upstairs' (Follies), which is "an entire play in itself"; 'I'm Still Here' (Follies), which is "a perfectly captured moment of defeat, tenacity and triumph"; 'Someone in a Tree' (A Stephen Sondheim Evening), "the perfect illustration of how we sit as individuals in the world that surrounds us" and of course, a favourite with a personal meaning "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd. The cover of the song by Jamie Cullum was Mr. Fick's first dance song at his wedding.

No one could ever replace Sondheim but we can certainly remember him in every fibre of the theatre community. Whether it be through the endless Original Broadway Cast Recordings to listen to or the final message from the man himself, in 'Tick, Tick...Boom!' He certainly serves as an inspiration to pursue our dreams and a reminder of community. There is no doubt that he is terribly missed and it might be a long time before there is another Shakespeare of Musicals, as they say,

"Meanwhile, be proud" Sondheim "gives theatre people a common language to speak."

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