Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Cain Park--Alma Theatre

Cain Park's SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is visual and lyrical love song to the "Father of the modern American musical."

By: Aug. 07, 2022
Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Cain Park--Alma Theatre
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Stephen Sondheim is generally credited with being the "father of the modern American musical."

His recent death has encouraged theatres to do commemorative productions of his plays. Locally, Lakeland Theatre will do FOLLIES this fall, Porthouse is now presenting WEST SIDE STORY, and Cain Park is staging SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM in its intimate Alma Theatre.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was an isolated and emotionally neglected child. His parents divorced when he was about ten. He detested his mother who blamed him for her failed marriage and once wrote him a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to him. His animosity was so strong that when she died in the spring of 1992, Sondheim did not attend her funeral. It is said that one of his most poignant songs, "Children Will Listen," was his message to the world about the effect his mother's words had on him.

His saving grace was forming a close friendship with James Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein. (Yes, that Oscar Hammerstein, the co-author of such block-buster musicals as OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE KING AND I.) The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father, influencing him profoundly and developing his love for musical theater.

It was at the Hammerstein's that Sondheim was introduced to Arthur Laurents, who told him he was working on a musical version of ROMEO AND JULIET with Leonard Bernstein. Laurents indicated that they needed a lyricist. Sondheim held a degree in composing and was reluctant. He turned to Hammerstein who supposedly said, "Look, you have a chance to work with very gifted professionals on a show that sounds interesting, and you could always write your own music eventually. My advice would be to take the job."

Sondheim took the job and wrote the words to WEST SIDE STORY. He fulfilled Hammerstein's forecast, when in 1962 he wrote both words and music for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. The show ran 964 performances and won six Tony awards. And, as the trite saying goes, "The rest is history."

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a revue which incorporates both visual clips of media and journalistic segments of actual interviews with Sondheim, interwoven with songs from all 19 of his musicals which appeared on Broadway stages. These range from the beloved to the obscure including "Something's Coming" from WEST SIDE STORY, "Finishing the Hat" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, "Being Alive" from COMPANY, and "Send in the Clowns" from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC to "The Gun Song" from ASSASSINS and "Opening Doors" from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

The show enforces the composer/lyricist's role as having reinvented the American musical with shows that tackled "unexpected themes that range far beyond the [genre's] traditional subjects" with "music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication." His shows often addressed the darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience, with songs often tinged with ambivalence about life.

His songs reveal that Sondheim used "angular harmonies and intricate melodies." And that he rejected the traditional image of the Western world typically presented in Broadway productions, and instead depicted it as "predatory and alienating."

It also illustrates that his works acquired a cult following with gay audiences. This gay connection is somewhat misleading as Sondheim, who was often described as introverted and solitary, didn't open up about his homosexuality until he was in his 40s, didn't enter a relationship until he was in his 60s, and didn't get married to Jeffrey Scott Roley, a digital technologist, until 2017.

As a kind of thank you to his being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim returned the favor, saying that he loved "passing on what Oscar passed on to me." Included in the stable of those he aided were Adan Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Larson, who wrote TICK, TICK... BOOM! and RENT, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who Sondheim asked to work with him on a planned Spanish version of WEST SIDE STORY. Miranda, in turn, approached Sondheim to aid with his HAMILTON.

Cain Park's production, which was directed by Joanna May Cullinan, has music direction by Jordan Cooper and choreography by Monica Olejko. It features Amiee Collier, Mario Clopton-Zymler, Andrea de la Fuente, Trey Gilpin, Frank Ivancic, Kate Klika, Connor Stout, and Nicole Sumlin with Cameron Olin, Adam Rawlings, Danny Simpson, and Amanda Tidwell.

The excellent production featured prime singing, well-conceived song interpretations and creative staging.

Capsule judgment: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a theatre-lovers dream. It is an in-depth look at one of America's musical theatre greats presented in his spoken words, his musical sounds, and creative lyrics. It is a must see for anyone who admires his work or is interested in finding out more about Sondheim!

For tickets, to the show, which runs until August 13, call (216) 371-3000 or visit


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