Singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim “is like spinning plates.” At least, that’s the experience of singer and actor Larry Owens.
“One must divide their attention three ways — musically, dramatically, and emotionally,” he explained. “The reward is when you get that alchemic balance absolutely correct. Hitting the bull’s-eye of a lyric is euphoric.”
There will be a lot of plate spinning, and no small amount of euphoria, in Pasadena over the next four months as the Pasadena Playhouse presents its first-ever Sondheim celebration, which kicks off this week. It’s a remarkably ambitious project, featuring full-scale productions of two iconic shows and a series of concerts demonstrating the diverse ways a new generation of performers is interpreting the Sondheim canon.
“There has been a perceived elitism about Sondheim — the idea that his music was inaccessible,” said Artistic Director Danny Feldman. “Our idea was: Can we break down that barrier? Can we do it in a concentrated way, presenting multiple pieces so people can experience his work from multiple perspectives?”
Among the perspectives on offer are those of Eleri Ward, who brings an indie-folk feel to Sondheim’s songs, and Owens, who starred in the original off-Broadway production of Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop. The celebration culminates with two concerts featuring Bernadette Peters, who originated lead roles in two Sondheim shows.
The idea of a Sondheim series was conceived during the COVID lockdown. Already dealing with declining subscriber rates, Feldman reasoned that he — like his counterparts around the country — needed to create something special to lure audiences back once theaters reopened.
A longtime Sondheim aficionado, he surmised a festival devoted to that giant of musical theater might just do the trick — especially if it “includes artists who have been excluded from Sondheim’s work in the past.”
In other words, he didn’t want simply to send in the clones.
The effort of putting it together was well underway when Sondheim died a little over a year ago. His passing “was a gut punch for all of us here,” Feldman recalled. “We had spent months and months engaging with the work, trying to decide what to do. So it felt like an intimate loss — like a family member.
“After that, the weight of what we were trying to do felt very different. Creating an opportunity for people to come together to recognize and commemorate this great artist became part of our assignment.”
Feldman and his colleagues decided to anchor the celebration with two contrasting shows: Sunday in the Park With George, a serious look at the process and pitfalls of making art, and A Little Night Music, which he describes as “a delightful sex farce.” For both productions, the Playhouse is using the original orchestrations, which require nearly 20 players for each.
“There was no way we could honor Sondheim and not have a full orchestra,” Feldman said. “He’s a master of harmony. I’m not sure enough people understand that. You’ll be hearing it the way it was intended.
“We have truly the top musicians in Los Angeles. When our contractor put out the word (about what we were doing), the best of the best showed up. They too want to come together to play this music.”
Feldman’s own entry into Sondheim’s work was “very music-based,” he recalled. “In high school, I was a pianist who accompanied a lot of musical theater kids. My first interaction with his work was playing this really challenging music while accompanying people.
“I remember having a very hard time with it — and grasping the rigor and thought that was put into every note. Even now, I always tend to go back to the score when making decisions about the shows.”
One decision that was easy to make was hiring Sarna Lapine to direct Sunday in the Park With George. She directed the critically acclaimed most recent revival of the show in New York. She is also the niece of the show’s book writer and co-creator, James Lapine.
“Sarna Lapine’s production strips away a lot,” Feldman said. “There are beautiful projections and costumes, but it’s a minimalist production; you can see the orchestra through a scrim. Part of that is honoring the core of the show, which is the music and the brilliant book.
“Sunday in the Park feels less radical today because so many creators have subsequently built upon it. But we want to honor the radical piece that it is.”
The celebration will also feature a production of the revue Sondheim on Sondheim from the USC theater department, an improvised evening of pseudo-Sondheim titled “Sondheim UnScripted,” and a concert bringing together several area choruses, including the Pasadena Chorale, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Vox Femina LA, and the Academy of Music for the Blind.
Owens, who will perform his show on the set of Sunday in the Park, is excited to do it on a proscenium stage for the first time. Feldman calls the evening “part performance art, part radical reinterpretation. It’s a delight to see someone as talented as he is connect to the music so deeply and find new meaning in it.”
“I’m representing the grand tradition of Sondheim actors,” Owens said. “But I am Black. I am gay. I’m in this body. I wear the crisp white oxfords of Elaine Stritch, but I also wear a do-rag.”
His unconventional approach to the material — his show consists of “22 moments from the canon,” some of which require him to embody multiple characters — proved popular in New York, where he sold out Carnegie Hall last year. Sondheim had passed away by that point, but Owens reports the composer did see his earlier performance in A Strange Loop. He calls performing in front of the master “my greatest honor.”
As Feldman notes, it’s unlikely A Strange Loop would even exist were it not for Sondheim.
“Everyone writing musical theater today was influenced by him,” he noted. “I’ve always been drawn to Sondheim’s work for its artistry, for its excellence, for its nuance — and also for its impact on the American theater. He redefined what a musical could be.”
Sunday in the Park With George runs Feb. 14 – March 19 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. Larry Owens will perform his show “Sondheimia” on Feb. 27 and March 6. A Little Night Music plays April 25 – May 21. For more information, go to the Playhouse’s website.