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BWW Feature: Remembering Stephen Sondheim and His Legacy in Indonesia

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The musical theatre giant sadly passed away November 26, 2021

BWW Feature: Remembering Stephen Sondheim and His Legacy in Indonesia On November 26, musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim passed away. His musical career, spanning more than five decades, has enthralled and inspired thespians, writers, and fans from all over the world. Sondheim musicals are known for their intricately woven lyrics and challenging yet beautiful melodies, earning him a multitude of awards.

Sondheim's name first came to be known in the Broadway scene through West Side Story. He wrote the lyrics to the rich and energetic score by fellow legend Leonard Bernstein. His turn as a lyricist would continue through his next collaboration, this time with Jule Styne on the showbiz drama Gypsy.

In 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first musical he both wrote the music and lyrics to. A farcical love comedy set in Ancient Greece, this departure from the highly dramatic West Side Story and Gypsy was a hint of just how adaptable his musicality was.

He went on to create so many more musical works throughout the years. Some highlights from his illustrious career include the NYC urbanite dramedy Company; the penny dreadful ballad of Sweeney Todd; an introspective dive into artistic obsession and legacy in Sunday in the Park with George; the surprisingly grim fairytale mashup Into the Woods; and trigger-happy historical fiction Assassins.

As a tribute to the maestro and his rich body of work, let's look back at several Indonesian productions of his works, more than 10,000 miles away from his birthplace.

West Side Story (JPAC, 2017)

This Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1950s New York City has renewed buzz recently, from both the 2020 Broadway revival (which tragically closed prematurely due to a certain global pandemic) and the upcoming Steven Sondheim cinematic adaptation, set to premiere in early December.

Set to Bernstein's powerful tunes, Sondheim's lyrics are riveting, witty, and timely. Lines as "say it loud and there's music playing; say it soft and it's almost like praying", "I feel pretty and witty and gay", and "twelve in a room in America" have been etched in the collective consciousness of theatre-goers even to this day.

Back in 2017, Jakarta Performing Arts Community has also licensed and produced this award-winning musical. Due to its themes of racism and prejudice, the producers deemed it an important work to put on amidst the then-raising racial tension. It was also the first major JPAC production, after previously mostly dealing in smaller revues and shows.

JPAC's West Side Story ran on May 12th-14th at Graha Bhakti Budaya. Directed by Fonnyta Amran, the production starred Emir Aditya and Elhaq Latief as Tony, Ajeng Sharfina and Chezia Aviola as Maria, and Desmonda Cathabel and Angelia Winata as Anita.

We thought the JPAC's production "did justice to a musical classic" in our review, particularly noting the masterful performances by the cast.

Into the Woods (TEMAN, 2018)

Perhaps one of the most well-known Sondheim musicals, Into the Woods has also been adapted into a 2014 Disney live action movie starring James Corden and Emma Blunt. It tells the intertwined story of many fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, with dark twists and turns in its second act.

TEMAN (Teater Musikal Nusantara) chose this title as their debut work three years ago. On December 22nd and 23rd, 2018 at Teater Salihara, the theatre company put on a blackbox production of Into the Woods, giving the familiar characters a touch of Indonesian through creative costume and set design.

BWW Feature: Remembering Stephen Sondheim and His Legacy in Indonesia

Led by Venytha Yoshiantini and Benjamin Chow as co-directors, the show featured both local and international talent. Neighboring South-East Asian actors Sugie Phua and Frances Lee played the Baker and the Baker's Wife, respectively, while Indonesia's very own Lea Simanjuntak donned the Witch's mask. The sophisticated production made for an impressive first impression by TEMAN. Read our full review here.

Into the Woods Jr. (Relasi Nada Dunia, 2019)

Due to its fairy tale motif and popularity, Sondheim's Into the Woods got a junior version. With substantial changes to the libretto and the whole second act taken out, this lighter, fluffier version of Into the Woods is a popular choice for schools.

The performing arts education institute Relasi Nada Dunia licensed Into the Woods, Jr. as their first public production. With Usmar Ismail Building as their stage of choice, the gaggle of kids and teen actors took to the stage on August 25, led by director Venantius Vladimir Ivan.

BWW Feature: Remembering Stephen Sondheim and His Legacy in Indonesia

Despite the much-simplified story, it was still a joy seeing the fledgling performers sing and act out Sondheim's melodies. A standout moment was Milky White being played by one of the young actors, adorably walking around the stage on all four. The rest of the review can be found here.

Company (JPAC, 2019)

Telling the story of Bobby, his many married friends, and a trio of romantic flings, Company observes the paradox of loneliness while amidst, well, company. As a more mature story set in the hustle bustle of the metropolitan New York City, it was a good fit for the similarly robust yet impersonal Jakarta life.

JPAC's Fonnyta Amran returned as the director, directing a team of actors, including Jhony Johannis as Bobby and Ade Rianom as Joanne. Company marked the first time JPAC used live music through a collaboration with TRUST Orchestra. The production took place on November 29 through December 1 at Teater Salihara.

BWW Feature: Remembering Stephen Sondheim and His Legacy in Indonesia

The cerebral production made good use of set elements to portray Bobby's ever-moving mental landscape. As we said in our review, JPAC has proven that mature-themed shows do have a place in Indonesia's blossoming musical industry; musicals can be both entertaining AND thought-provoking.

Closing

Although Stephen Sondheim might no longer be with us, his music, his words, and his endless love for creative endeavors (he was working on a new musical to his last days) have permanently enriched musical theatre. His influence can't be overstated, with many composers, writers, lyricists, both aspiring and established, looking up to him, wishing for just a smidgeon of his genius and work ethic.

Though there are so many lines and lyrics that I can quote to showcase a glimpse of his artistry, do excuse my selfishness in choosing one from a show that hasn't been produced in Indonesia, for I believe it beautifully illustrates the depth of Sondheim's irreplaceable creative mind.

"White. A blank canvas or a page. His favorite. So many possibilities."

Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim


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