Interview: Robert Kelley & William Liberatore of BEING ALIVE: A SONDHEIM CELEBRATION at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Their world premiere musical revue runs June 5th through 30th in Mountain View

By: Jun. 05, 2024
Interview: Robert Kelley & William Liberatore of BEING ALIVE: A SONDHEIM CELEBRATION at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
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“Hey, old friend. What do you say, old friend?” That’s the Sondheim lyric I’ve been unable to get out of my head ever since talking to Robert Kelley and William Liberatore a couple of weeks ago about Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration, the musical revue they’ve created to honor the late, great composer. I can’t think of a better pair to take on the challenge of making a new Sondheim show. The two have been friends and artistic collaborators for almost forty years now, during which time they’ve worked together on countless, highly-acclaimed productions of Sondheim musicals at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley where Being Alive’s world premiere runs June 5th to 30th. In addition to having created the show, Kelley is directing the production with Liberatore serving as its music director. The former is Founding Artistic Director and the latter Resident Musical Director of the Tony-winning theatre company.

One of the hallmarks of Sondheim’s work is his unparalleled ability to chronicle the depth of human relationships, as evidenced in his classic musicals such as Into the WoodsA Little Night MusicSunday in the Park with GeorgeSweeney ToddCompanyPacific OverturesPassionMerrily We Roll Along and many others. Known for his brilliant wit, unorthodox melodies and heartfelt lyrics, Sondheim is TheatreWorks’ most-produced composer, with some 20 productions of his shows having been done there over the years.

I spoke with Kelley and Liberatore in a joint phone conversation about the creation of Being Alive as well as some of their more memorable past experiences with Sondheim’s work. It turned out to be one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever done because they are the kind of long-term collaborators so completely at ease with each other that the conversation just naturally flowed. They had no hesitancy in letting down their guard, whether joking about age or revealing some moments that have brought them to tears. Their respect and fondness for each other, not to mention their excitement at having another chance to work together on a Sondheim show, was evident throughout. I came away with the suspicion that this new revue might be as much a testament to their enduring creative partnership as it is to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Interview: Robert Kelley & William Liberatore of BEING ALIVE: A SONDHEIM CELEBRATION at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Music director William Liberatore (L) and director Robert Kelley (R), creators of 
Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Creating a musical revue isn’t as simple as it might seem. It can be very tricky to make it feel like a piece of theatre with an emotional arc rather than just a bunch of random songs, even if they are great ones. Once the two of you had decided to make a new Sondheim revue together, how did you approach it?

Robert Kelley: Uh, well … we thought it was gonna be easy! You know, you pick your favorite songs, of which there are many, find some great singers, some nice costumes and away you go. But it quickly became obvious that all of that had already been done with Sondheim. There were five existing revues that Music Theatre International controlled, and another one that, at least when we started, was rumored to be about to open in London, which is the new one that’s now heading towards Broadway. So the question was how do we do something a little bit different, how do we focus it?

As it turned out, we had 334 songs to choose from and that didn’t even count his songs from West Side Story or Gypsy or anything where he wrote the lyrics, but not the music. We had limitations as well from the company that licensed this thing, in that we could only do three songs from any given musical.

After a lot of chat and thinking about all the Sondheim shows we’d done and what really meant the most to us about Sondheim, we decided to focus on his take on relationships between people – love relationships, friendships of many different kinds, and on the progression of relationships in our lives, from teenage friendships to starting to see the world of sex and interaction between couples, to frustration over a lack of commitment on to engagements and weddings and then children and ongoing marriages, things starting to crumble, affairs, marriages that teetered and restored, others that fell apart. Pretty soon you’ve got all these different takes on love that Sondheim had created over his whole career, so that was what we set out to do.

William Liberatore: You know what just occurred to me as you were talking, Kelley - and I don’t know if you would agree with this - but in a funny way I feel like that restriction actually helped us to not draw too heavily off just one or two shows. Because of the three-song limit, we had to keep exploring his whole body of work, including the very early shows, the ones that nobody does. It forced us to make the song list really interesting and not just the songs everybody knows, which I think is great. There’s still tons of songs everyone knows if you’re a Sondheim fan, but I think that helped us to stay challenged in the selection process.

RK: And it went through a lot of changes. It was a lot of “Let’s try this song. How does it fit there?” We decided we’d tell the story not just using time as a connective tissue from youth through middle age, but also to use relationships between couples that you could follow over time. We have six actors, all with brilliant voices, and although they play various roles in different songs or various ideas and concepts, they’re sort of selected by age. There’s a 20s, a 30s and 40+ couple. That lets us move through different kinds of experiences and give a little context to the songs as they progress, especially with the youngest ones who start out as friends and then see an entire relationship through time. Others are well-established relationships that go through many of the different kinds of personal experiences that Sondheim wrote about in all his great shows.

What does the title “Being Alive” mean to you, beyond just being the title of one of Sondheim’s better-known songs?

WL: I think the title was Kelley’s idea, but I like the idea of the title because in that lyric the character is searching for words to describe what he wants in a relationship, and what he’s missed in relationships, so it seemed like the right title for a show that’s all about that. Sondheim constantly writes about being frustrated by love or being heartbroken by all these different things. That was a song that really said, “What is it you want when you’re searching for an intimate relationship?”

RK: And it also incorporates what you’re afraid of. One of the great lines in it is “Somebody crowd me with love.” What an amazing phrase, because it has the longing for a great partner, but also the realization that it’s going to change you and push you and crowd you.  And that’s kind of the theme of the show.

WL: It’s really the theme of his work. I mean, so much of it is that he found romantic love baffling and wonderful and horrible and inconceivable, all at the same time.

Revues can be challenging to cast because you’re not looking for people to play only one specific character. How did you approach that process?

WL: Well, musically it really was challenging because as you say, they’re not just singing one role, they need to be able to cover a huge range. We’re really thrilled with the cast. They’re phenomenal singers, all very unique and capable of singing a huge range of stuff. This music is challenging even if you’re just singing one role, because the rhythms are so driven by the language of his lyrics. They’re rhythmically really tricky because of his idea of how the melodic line has to match the emotion of what’s going on. His melodies take some of that classical structure of motifs and motivic development and cadences and all of that, but at the same time if he needs, you know, four really difficult intervals in a row for it to match what the character’s feeling, he’s gonna do it. Even though the singer’s gonna take a week just to get it in their voice. It’s really fun to be so challenged and we’re having a great experience.

Interview: Robert Kelley & William Liberatore of BEING ALIVE: A SONDHEIM CELEBRATION at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
The cast & creators of Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
L to R: Solona Husband, William Liberatore, Nick Nakashima, Melissa WolfKlain,
Sleiman Alahmadieh, Noel Anthony Escobar & Anne Tolpegin 

Bill, I totally understand why directors and actors love doing Sondheim shows because his scores offer so much to work with in terms of character and dramatic intention. Purely as a musician, what do you love about his work?

WL: Well, there’s a lot of things to love. I always feel like I’m playing what the song is trying to say, so as an accompanist I feel like I’m acting the scene with the actors. It’s all so integrated that I don’t have to wonder what kind of emotion to put into music. There are many wonderful different ways to compose and to create musical theater, but when the accompaniment is so driven dramatically by the characters in the scene and what’s happening, it just gives you so much to emote while you play, and that’s what’s fun for me. You get to really express at the piano. 

And there’s never anything boring to play, ever. Some of it, I’m still swearing under my breath at the piano… [laughs]

You two have worked together so often over the years that it's clearly a very special  partnership. What do you think has been the key to making your collaboration work?

RK: Respect.

WL: Hundred percent.

RK: Bill is able to help me with the direction, with what’s being said in the music, where are the peaks and valleys. He’s helped me to understand the music so much better with every rehearsal, and in this case as we planned to put the piece together, what types of effect a particular song is going to have, could this song come after that song? We just respect each other and we kind of know what each other’s gonna do.

WL: And we trust each other, you know? We’re never trying to manipulate the other person. He knows that he can trust me when I say, “I have no way of getting to that key from this other song.” We don’t have to waste a bunch of time wondering if the other person is being completely upfront or just trying to get their way. That’s a really nice thing about having that much life experience together, creating theater together. If I don’t understand something, I completely trust that he knows what he’s doing and that I can let go and ride with his instincts. And that goes the other way, too. If I really know something is the right choice, he’ll say, “Okay, well if you’re sure, let’s try that.”

RK: It’s fun. We do well together. We make a good pair.

WL: This is my 50th TheatreWorks musical as a musical director, and it’s all because of Robert Kelley and because he believed I was the right guy to do that. I love to tell this story - the first time Robert Kelley called to see if I would come play at TheatreWorks rehearsal, I was 14 years old. I put the phone down and said, “I have to ask my mom.” [laughs] So when you’ve known each other that long…

And I’m now 62, so I’m the baby of the partnership. [laughs]

Kelley, why did hire this 14-year-old?

WL: Cause I was good! [laughs]

RK: Um, you’re dipping into the area of my memory that is about 3 stories down and 16 corridors along before I get to it. Suffice it to say I must have heard that he was great, even though he was young.

WL: No, you heard me play at your general audition.

RK: Oh, there ya go!

WL: Yep. Kelley had general auditions where everybody got seen by him. Once a year he would sit there through hundreds of people wanting Robert Kelley to see them, and people would drag me in to play the piano for them. And you know I was probably the 10th person he called that day to see if they could play rehearsal. [Kelley laughs] Here was this stupid eighth-grader who thinks he knows how to play the piano!

RK: Well, you did. Fortunately.

Getting back to Sondheim, he’s obviously known for the unparalleled wit of his lyrics -

Both men simultaneously: Oh, Yeah!

But the flip side of the humor in Sondheim’s scores is how profoundly moving they are. Each one has at least one song that always makes me cry. What is a favorite song of his that inevitably moves you?

RK: “Move On” is one for me. I remember opening night of that show, Sunday in the Park with George. I kind of just lost touch with the audience and everything at that moment as that song rippled out across the theater and eventually moved into the reprise of “Sunday.” You know, I write cards for our cast and our team and Bill and everybody for opening night. I had them all in my hand as I was watching that happen, and when it was finally over and we hit the curtain call, I realized that I had dropped them in a circle all around me, it was like a fairy ring. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know what happened, but I just was overwhelmed.

And I think that happens in a lot of his shows, doesn’t it, where your heart breaks. Do you have a favorite, Bill?

WL: Well, there’s this moment in A Little Night Music, which I’ve done three times. In the reprise of “Send in the Clowns” where they’ve come back together and just as the music is about to peak Fredrik goes, “You and me and Fredrika,” then the orchestra swells back into “Send in the Clowns” and every single time I would just start crying. I mean, I don’t cry - I don’t have time in life to cry. Kelley cries -

RK: Oh, yeah!

WL: But every time Fredrik would go “You, me and Fredrika” like this is us now, this family we were always supposed to be and it got fucked up, and the orchestra would go [sings the first few notes of “Send in the Clowns”] bah-bah-bah-bah, I would just sob. As the conductor you don’t want to cry in front of the musicians, they do not respect that. And I would just bawl.

And the other time [laughs], was when Kelley and I saw Follies in New York. Like I said, I’ve seen Kelley cry a hundred times, but we go to see Follies in New York and Bernadette Peters starts singing “Too Many Mornings” and it’s this older version of Bernadette where her voice really isn’t there anymore. I don’t remember what it was, maybe [sings] “You remembered and my fears were gone” – but I started ugly crying, like hysterical crying [laughs uproariously] and Kelley looks over at me like “What the hell is the matter with you?!” So anyway, maybe it’s “Too Many Mornings when I ugly cried in the second balcony of some theatre.

I think it’s because Sondheim’s lyrics are based on something real about this human experience, and that’s why I think this whole revue works. It’s because we’ve all had these experiences – trying to find love, trying to make relationships work, trying to face the fact when they didn’t work. And I think Kelley’s making it all very relatable, whether you’re young or you’re someone in our age bracket reflecting on your history in those situations.

Thanks for sharing that Follies story, Bill. I saw that production, too, and I remember that moment was almost unbearably moving and I was saying to myself, “Just keep it together, Jim!” [laughs]

WL: Oh, I was gone. [laughs]

RK: Well, that’s the power of Stephen Sondheim. He just knows things. He knows things.

Speaking about knowing things, sometimes I feel like everything I know about what it means to be human in this world I learned from Stephen Sondheim. And he did seem to take pride in his role as a teacher. There’s that touching story of how tickled he was when his childhood mentor Oscar Hammerstein inscribed a photo he had given him “For Stevie – my friend and teacher.” What is something you’ve learned from Sondheim just by working on his shows?

RK: What I learned is that you can have an immensely positive experience by facing up to what’s absolutely real about people. It may be despair in a show, or whatever, but if the truth is there, it will move you deeply. He really knew that, he was a genius at doing that. And fortunately he mixed in a lot of comedy along the way. What I got out of it is “Omigod, he knows.” He’s gotten somehow to know how it all works, how people work, how love works. I guess we can all speculate on how he learned all of that, but it’s really, really something.

WL: That’s a really big question, and I think my only answer for it is just that every time I’ve worked on a Sondheim show, it draws everybody in the company incredibly close together. Because we’re doing something that is challenging us to the nth degree and we know that we’re all working so hard to get there. It’s as challenging for me as the pianist or for the singer as it is for Kelley. It’s just incredibly rewarding and yet really challenging material.

If you do a sort of easy, dippy show, you don’t walk away from it with the same kind of connection you feel when you just staged Pacific Overtures, you know? I mean, the cast of our Pacific Overtures became like a family, and 23 years later they’re still like a family. Because when art challenges you that intensely, and when the art is based on such fundamental truths about life, it transforms everybody in the company, and you carry that with you as you move on after the show - as I’m sure that we’ll all remember the bonding experience of trying to make this piece.

(all photos by Reed Flores)

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Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration performs June 5-30, 2024 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View. For tickets and additional information visit TheatreWorks.org or call 877-662-8978.




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