Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

The company has presented 31 Sondheim productions to date.

By: Dec. 02, 2021
Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre
Stephen Sondheim and Signature Theatre's Founding Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

The phrase "No one is irreplaceable" was shattered this past week when composer, lyricist, and GOD of American musical theatre Stephen Sondheim passed away at age 91. Simply put, Sondheim was unique, groundbreaking and a true original that many tried to copy and never could.

Signature Theatre in Arlington VA holds the distinction of producing more of Stephen Sondheim's work than any other regional theatre in this country. To date, it has produced 31 Sondheim productions encompassing almost every musical in the master's vast canon.

Beginning in 1991 with Sweeney Todd Signature Theatre has produced at least one Sondheim musical in almost every one of their seasons and is one of the things the company is known for. In other words, producing Sondheim is Signature's signature.

I asked Signature Theatre's Co-Founder and first Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer to try to put into words why he thinks no one has ever been able to copy Sondheim.

His response is the following: "Sondheim was a genius. His use of language, his depth of emotion, his originality. There is no one like him. And I don't think there will be ever again. His genius can't be copied. I feel he has inspired countless composers and lyricists and will continue to do so as his legacy lives on."

Newly appointed Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner directed Signature's productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Passion and choreographed several other Sondheim productions.

Here is his response to my question about what inspired him the most while directing those two shows.

"Sondheim's work is a well of discovery. It is impossible to not feel inspired both as an artist and as a person by his work. Every time I am given the gift of spending time in the worlds, he and his collaborators have created I feel immense gratitude and ultimately come out of those experiences feeling like a different person."

What follows is a visual portrait of Signature Theatre's history producing the work of Stephen Sondheim. The photos are grouped by production with the earliest version first in each of the graphics.

If you are a frequent visitor of Signature Theatre, I hope this brings back wonderful memories for you. If you are a newer patron, this is your chance to get a glimpse into the work of the most important writer for the American musical theatre as produced by one of the area's most important and influential theatre companies.

Sweeney Todd: The Sondheim masterpiece that started the long Signature/Sondheim association has been produced three times. The first was in 1991 when Signature was performing at Gunston. It starred Michael Forrest and Donna Lilliard (soon to be Migliaccio) as the Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. The second was in 1999 in the legendary garage space featuring Norm Lewis in the title role. The most recent production was in 2010 starring DC favorite Edward Gero as the Demon Barber.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Assassins: Sondheim's homage to the men and women who either tried to or successfully committed an assassination against a U.S. president has also been produced at Signature three times. The first being in 1992 at Gunston, 2006 in the garage, and most recently in 2019 at Signature's current home.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Company: Sondheim's groundbreaking take on marriage has been produced at Signature Theatre twice. The first was in the garage in 1993 with Buzz Mauro starring as Bobby, the man who doesn't want to make a life's commitment. In 2013 Signature produced it again. It featured Matthew Scott as Bobby and boasted some of DC's top real life acting couples including Tracy Lynn Olivera and Evan Casey and Erin Driscoll Gardiner and James Gardiner.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Into the Woods: Sondheim's twisted rendition of some of the most beloved fairy tales ever written has been produced twice by Signature in 1994 and 2007. The latter featured Eleasha Gamble as the Witch.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Passion: A woman in need of attention and a soldier willing to give is a very broad summary for this latter day Sondheim gem that Signature has produced twice in 1996 and 2018. The latter featured Natascia Diaz and the wanting Fosca.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Sunday in the Park with George: The one that both Eric Schaeffer and Matthew Gardiner have said is their favorite Sondheim musical.

Eric Schaeffer: It will always be special to me because it was the first Sondheim musical I ever directed for The Arlington Players where we were fortunate to have the Broadway sets and costumes. The show always brings me to tears - either watching it or working on it. It's just one of Sondheim's many masterpieces that advanced the American musical.

Matthew Gardiner: I think it's Sondheim's most personal piece and I can really connect with the characters and the idea of the show. Plus, there is no better moment in musical theatre than the act one finale.

It has been produced twice at Signature in 1997 and 2014.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

A Little Night Music: Sondheim's musicalization of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night was the only one of Sondheim's musicals to produce a million selling single when Judy Collins recorded "Send in the Clowns" on her classic 1975 album Judith. The song featured an orchestration by Sondheim's long time orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.

Signature Theatre has produced it twice in 1998 and 2017. The latter featured DC superstar actress Holly Twyford in her first musical role performing the hit song.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Gypsy: The quintessential theatre tale has been produced twice at Signature Theatre. The first was in 2001 with Donna Migliaccio starring as the ultimate stage mom Mamma Rose and in 2013 with Sherri L. Edelen as it's star.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Sondheim Revues: Throughout the years, Signature Theatre has either produced or created revues of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Starting in 1998 with An Evening with Stephen Sondheim, the company has gone on to produce Putting it Together in 2002 (which went on to have a Broadway production starring Carol Burnett), Side by Side by Sondheim in 2011, and Simply Sondheim in 2015. The latter was recently streamed as part of Signature Theatre's virtual season.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Only produced once: Some of Sondheim's work has only been produced once at Signature Theatre to date.

The first graphic shows the 2003 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies from 2003, and Pacific Overtures from 2004.

The second graphic shows Merrily We Roll Along from 2007, West Side Story from 2015, and Road Show, from 2016.

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

Feature: Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre

I hope you have enjoyed this retrospective on Stephen Sondheim at Signature Theatre. Clearly he left a huge mark on our theatre community and for that we will all be forever grateful.

I would like to end this piece with a song for obvious reasons.

Here is the company of Signature Theatre's 2014 production of Sunday in the Park with George performing the act one finale "Sunday".

All photos and video courtesy of Signature Theatre.

Special Thanks to Signature Theatre's Director of Marketing Jennifer Buzzell for her assistance with this feature.


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