Atlanta theater community shares Stephen Sondheim inspiration

Kevin Harry played Sweeney Todd and Deborah Bowman was Mrs. Lovett in Actor’s Express’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS
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Kevin Harry played Sweeney Todd and Deborah Bowman was Mrs. Lovett in Actor’s Express’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS

Few Atlanta theater artists knew Stephen Sondheim personally. Yet the loss felt personal for countless Atlanta actors, directors and other theater professionals, as is apparent in social media posts and buzz that has spread following the death of the acclaimed songwriter and master of musical theater at age 91 on Nov. 26.

ArtsATL asked Atlanta theater-world denizens (and a few former Atlantans) to allow us to publish their posts or otherwise share their feelings. Here, they show their appreciation for the inspiration that was — and still very much is — Sondheim.

Freddie Ashley

Contemplating the passing of Sondheim is really impossible to wrap my head around. It’s not hyperbole to say that he changed the American musical theater with his peerless skill and his meticulous commitment to honest storytelling. I find something profoundly moving in almost every one of his shows, whether it is his uncanny ability to isolate the truth of a moment, uncover a small corner of the human experience I’d never previously considered or his capacity for creating a glorious musical phrase, chord or motif. How lucky we have all been to live at the same time as Stephen Sondheim, and how doubly fortunate that his work will endure even now as his physical journey has concluded.

Ashley is Actor’s Express artistic director and directed its 2016 production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

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Susan V. Booth, artistic director at the Alliance Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY

Susan V. Booth, artistic director at the Alliance Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Susan V. Booth, artistic director at the Alliance Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY

Susan Booth

Shakespeare, Shaw, Ruhl and Sondheim.

When you first start studying theater, there are certain dramatic texts that are fantastic puzzle boxes — keys to enlightened living if you will yourself to stay at them with rigor and attention. If you’re lucky, you start with Shakespeare, as it toughens you up for all that is to come. Shaw arrived with the awareness that the politics of class and gender have pretty well remained evergreen; we just talked about them more elegantly in his time. Sarah Ruhl brought the epiphany that there were impeccable psychologists amongst us who were calling themselves playwrights.

And then there was Sondheim.

He was writing long before Sarah Ruhl, but I came to him late, because I had a completely willful (and deeply arrogant) aversion to musicals for a while there. Thought them slight. But then I listened to the soundtrack of ‘Sweeney Todd’ and understood madness from the inside. Then I performed in a production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and realized what fame (or the lack thereof) does to a person. And then, as a gift to my daughter, who grew up sharing me with my profession, I directed ‘Into the Woods.’ And I was humbled beyond measure. By the perfection of the score, that was scientific in its capacity to disarm you. By the brilliance of the lyrics, that made the intellectual riddles of behavioral psychology immediate and breathtaking. And most of all — by what Mr. Sondheim taught me about parenting in a way that no book, no lecture, no degree ever would have taught me.

There really are giants in the sky. And we have lost one of the greatest ones.

Booth is Alliance Theatre’s Jennings Hertz artistic director and directed its 2011 production of “Into the Woods.”

ExploreObituary of Stephen Sondheim

Phillip DePoy

For Christmas in 1962 my parents bought the Broadway cast album of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’ I listened to it until you could see through the grooves in the record. I was 12 and I learned three things from that experience: Zero Mostel was almost as funny as Lenny Bruce; Greek theater had the potential for hilarity; and Stephen Sondheim wrote the best songs ever written for theater in the 20th century. The last of these revelations impelled me to write my first musical, at age 12. For the next 30 years I didn’t do anything else in the theatrical world but write songs. So, thanks, Dr. Sondheim (surely someone somewhere gave him a doctorate, right?) for all the joy and heartache. And all the million other lovely things that wouldn’t have happened in this world without you.

DePoy is a novelist and playwright of the Alliance Theatre’s season-opening musical “Darlin’ Cory.”

Kevin Harry

My first professional show in Atlanta was a 2001 production of ‘Company’ at Actor’s Express. The second was ‘Sweeney Todd.’ I did two productions of that.

‘Sweeney’ will stand apart because it was the show that got me interested in theater in the first place. My junior high choir director played the soundtrack on vinyl during a break in rehearsal, and I was hooked. Never dreamt at that time that I would ever play the role.

Singing Sondheim is like competing in the Olympics for singers. There is a saying that, ‘There is no breathing in Sondheim!’ It’s true. The level of difficulty and complexity in singing his music, especially in the ensemble track, is often hidden behind the beautiful arrangements.

Harry is an actor and a Suzi Bass Award winner for “Sweeney Todd” at Actor’s Express.

Clifton Guterman

While obtaining my MFA in acting at SCAD, I had the amazing good fortune to play George Seurat in Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ Though I had the vocal range for the pointillism painter, it’s certainly not a role I’d ever book professionally. (A leading man, I am not. Except in my imagination.) But, some dark hair dye, a great fake beard and mustache combo, spirit gum, and period clothing made me, well, not me, and we more than pulled it off.

That wondrous show helped solidify one tenet of my hodgepodge acting technique: Use and magnify the parts of myself that align with a role and put others (that don’t) on mute. The George of Act One (set in 1880s Paris) was far from me in temperament and objectives, though I certainly knew (by then) what it’s like to obsess over a career above people. And to simultaneously love someone madly. Act Two’s George — Seurat’s great-grandson, an American mixed-media artist — was much more me, and I loved the contrast and freedom to play him very close to home, stripped of the beard but not the charm and angst and brilliance.

‘Sunday’s’ major themes hit me like a runaway train then and stuck: Our choices have consequences, and for others too; no one can create precisely what you can nor be you nor you them; live in the moment and be where you are now, not yesterday nor tomorrow; family and friends should always come first; and there is nothing more sacred than children and art, a fact I understand now more than ever as a first-time father to a 6-month-old, perfect little boy. To me, ‘Sunday’ has the two best lyrics of anything ever written, particularly beautiful for us artists:

‘Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see’ (from ‘Move On’); and, ‘The child is so sweet, and the girls are so rapturous. Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?’ (from ‘Children and Art’).

Guterman is head of Big Picture Casting’s Film and Television Division and a former Theatrical Outfit associate artistic director.

Chase Davidson

I was fortunate enough to be a part of a concert reading of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ at Actor’s Express, and it was one of my last times on stage since the pandemic (started). I don’t know if anyone noticed but during the rehearsals, there were several numbers where I was in the back of the room learning the music (I had never heard the piece), and sobbing to myself. And at that point in my life, I’m glad I hadn’t heard the piece yet. It hit quite profoundly, and I don’t think it would’ve in my younger years.

One of the best pieces of advice professors in the past imparted with me is not to rush to Sondheim. Do the roles who are age-appropriate, but let his work touch you as you grow and develop, because that’s what it’s there for — don’t force it! Sondheim gave us gifts that will give perpetually, no matter where we are in our lives.

Davidson is an actor and Suzi Bass Award winner for “Ragtime” at Serenbe Playhouse.

Amanda Wansa Morgan

Sondheim was my entry into musical theater as a young child. I grew up with a single mother who let me watch ‘Into the Woods’ on KPBS when I was 6 or 7 years old. There was something about it that helped me understand the world and seemed to speak my language.

My mom took me to see Barbra Streisand in concert in 1994 in Los Angeles, the last live event we went to together before her death in 1995. (Streisand) sang a lot of Sondheim’s music, and my mom would sing ‘Not While I’m Around’ to me at bedtime for years prior.

As an educator, his work is profoundly impactful in the classroom — we use it as a part of scene study and script and score analysis at KSU in the musical theater courses every year. His work gives students such depth to study when they are learning the nuggets of acting through song.

Morgan is coordinator of musical theatre at Kennesaw State University.

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Terry Burrell (far right) heads the cast of the City Springs Theatre Company's production of the fairy-tale musical "Into the Woods." Courtesy of Ben Rose Photography

Credit: Ben Rose/BenRosePhotography.com

Terry Burrell (far right) heads the cast of the City Springs Theatre Company's production of the fairy-tale musical "Into the Woods."

Courtesy of Ben Rose Photography
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Terry Burrell (far right) heads the cast of the City Springs Theatre Company's production of the fairy-tale musical "Into the Woods." Courtesy of Ben Rose Photography

Credit: Ben Rose/BenRosePhotography.com

Credit: Ben Rose/BenRosePhotography.com

City Springs Theatre Company

A day of great sadness. Anyone who works in musical theater will probably at some point interpret the words and/or music of Stephen Sondheim. His contributions to the art form are truly immeasurable. We were fortunate to produce ‘Into The Woods’ last summer, and in July we will bring to the stage his immortal lyrics from ‘West Side Story.’ Godspeed Mr. Sondheim, and thank you. May his memory be a blessing.

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Aurora Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” took home six Suzis, including lead actress and lead actor in a musical for co-stars Galen Crawley and Andy Meeks. CONTRIBUTED BY: BreeAnne Clowdus

Aurora Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” took home six Suzis, including lead actress and lead actor in a musical for co-stars Galen Crawley and Andy Meeks. CONTRIBUTED BY: BreeAnne Clowdus
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Aurora Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” took home six Suzis, including lead actress and lead actor in a musical for co-stars Galen Crawley and Andy Meeks. CONTRIBUTED BY: BreeAnne Clowdus

Galen Crawley

To me, Sondheim *is* musical theater. My parents played the ‘Into the Woods’ cast recording so much when I was kid that I knew every word by the time I was 8.

His words and music are gifts to an actor — everything you need is right there on the page. You don’t have to work too hard to make something of them, just get out of the way and let the material tell the story.

I’m sad to know he isn’t in the world anymore, but with all the incredible songs and stories he left us, he’ll never really be gone.

Crawley is an actress and Suzi Bass Award winner for “Mary Poppins” at Aurora Theatre.

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Sean Daniel's message from Stephen Sondheim.

Credit: Courtesy of Sean Daniels

Sean Daniel's message from Stephen Sondheim.
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Sean Daniel's message from Stephen Sondheim.

Credit: Courtesy of Sean Daniels

Credit: Courtesy of Sean Daniels

Sean Daniels

He was so generous when he came to see ‘The Lion’ (which Daniels directed off-Broadway) that he sent congratulation emails and a gift to be auctioned off at our next gala. My wife (former Atlantan Veronika Duerr) bought it. The fact that he was seeing off-Broadway musicals and tracking down the creators, decades after he needed to, says it all. . . .

Or the time I told him I’d never get over seeing ‘Sweeney Todd’ as a kid. #rookiemistake #sondheim

Daniels is artistic director at Arizona Theatre Company and co-founder and former artistic director of Dad’s Garage.

Veronika Duerr

‘Sunday’ meant the most to me. I watched (the tape of) it over and over and over as a teen. But really, all of them are incredibly meaningful. Rest in power, Sir.

‘Anything you do

Let it come from you

Then it will all be new’

Duerr, an actor at Arizona Theatre Company, co-founded Atlanta’s The Weird Sisters Theatre Project.

Justin Anderson

As I reflect on the loss, I actually wonder if Stephen Sondheim’s transition is the solidification of love. Love for the human experience, love for the messiness of life, love for reflecting on the hard, hurtful, heartfelt or hilarious (sometimes colors of all simultaneously) things. His love made manifest was his ability to stand atop the tower of the world and sketch out the scaffolding of story in which all of his characters could simply work things out. ⁣

⁣At the center of each narrative, choice reigns supreme: always course-altering, never casual. And like all of time’s most meaningful and impactful sages, poets, and artists, he never pressed to make the choice for his character. The gift wasn’t the answer. The gift was the curiosity to and posture of choosing itself. If we lean into and metabolize that gift, we inherently become his children — the very essence of all of his characters at different junctures on life’s journey — and elevate his art to the greatest echelon of notoriety: impact. ⁣

⁣His impact is legacy.⁣

His legacy brings life.

His life was love.

Anderson is a former Aurora Theatre associate artistic director.

Scott Rousseau

' . . . strolling through trees, on an island in the river -- on an ordinary Sunday.’

‘White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.’

— from ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

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To Scott Rousseau from Stephen Sondheim: "his letter to me when I requested a piece of music from him in 1987, one of two letters from him I cherish."

Credit: Courtesy of Scott Rousseau

To Scott Rousseau from Stephen Sondheim: "his letter to me when I requested a piece of music from him in 1987, one of two letters from him I cherish."
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To Scott Rousseau from Stephen Sondheim: "his letter to me when I requested a piece of music from him in 1987, one of two letters from him I cherish."

Credit: Courtesy of Scott Rousseau

Credit: Courtesy of Scott Rousseau

I shall always remember and love the man who shaped my love of theater. I directed many of his musicals. I shall miss you, Mister Sondheim. Enjoy your ordinary Sunday. ❤️

Rousseau is an Atlanta director, who, among other Sondheim credits, directed a 1980s production of “Into the Woods” at Neighborhood Playhouse.

Heidi Cline McKerley

I am gutted by Stephen Sondheim’s passing. The three writing giants who have influenced me the most in my career are Shakespeare, Chekhov and Sondheim. Working on their shows makes me a better artist every time . . . every single time. I have directed ‘West Side Story,’ ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (twice), ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Into the Woods’ and, most recently, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ (at Cobb County’s Jennie T. Anderson Theatre) after 30+ years of pitching it. I was also lucky enough to get to perform in ‘Assassins.’ All of them are incredibly influential milestones in my growth as an artist.

His exploration of the human condition makes you feel like he knows you personally. To succeed in a Sondheim show, you have to be a great technician and also know how to act with your soul turned inside out; it’s an incredible challenge on the highest artistic level and the most rewarding. The depth is unconquerable, and that’s thrilling. It keeps you joyously consumed and voracious about your work.

I am deeply moved by the beautiful posts of so many of my theater friends who have been touched by Sondheim, too. How incredible to be so gifted that your work will live on forever to inspire, challenge and change artists for generations to come! “Bit by bit, putting it together . . . Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art. Every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. Having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution, Putting it together, that’s what counts.”

Rest in power, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you for the many works of art that you have left us. “No one leaves for good.” Children and art . . .

McKerley is producing artistic director of Soul-stice Repertory Ensemble 2.0 and an artistic associate at Horizon Theatre Company.


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