Nobody would have guessed that a 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim in 1957, who got his first big break as the lyricist for “West Side Story” (and then two years later for “Gypsy”), would weave an amazing and illustrious career that is still going strong 60 years later. Sondheim, who has written the music and lyrics for musicals, like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George, “Into the Woods,” and more, has been considered by both performers and fans alike to be a mythical figure in the business.
At 87, and as one of the godfathers of musical theatre, it makes poetic sense to celebrate and pay homage to Sondheim’s legend in such a way where we can be not only entertained, but pause and truly reflect on an indelible legacy that will live on forever. And, “Sondheim on Sondheim” provides that opportunity — as a musical revue that was originally conceived and directed at Studio 54 on Broadway by James Lapine in 2010 – which is now back for a one-night only performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 23rd, at 7:30 pm.
Directed by James Lapine’s niece, Sarna Lapine, and choreographed by Michele Lynch, with selected works of Sondheim’s music and lyrics performed by the Gustavo Dudadmel-led L.A. Philharmonic, ten stars, who have been rehearsing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since July 11th, will take the stage, where they will be watched by Sondheim himself, who is scheduled to attend. The confirmed performers include Sarah Uriarte Berry, Phillip Boykin, Jonathan Groff, Carmen Cusak, Claybourne Elder, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ruthie Ann Miles, Solea Pfeiffer, and two holdovers from the 2010 Broadway engagement: Vanessa Williams and Lewis Cleale.
Seven years ago, Cleale was an understudy for a show that he will now star in. It has been a fascinating journey for the individual who initially had his sights set on being a lawyer before fate took him in a completely different direction. Motivated by Sondheim’s brilliance as a young adult (particularly with “Into the Woods”) Cleale, who hadn’t grown up performing unlike the majority of his peers, opened up himself to various possibilities, as he would juggle music theory, statistics, marketing, and choir while at the University of Miami.
Urged by his teachers to give acting a chance, Cleale applied to the now-defunct Burt Reynolds’ Institute for Film and Theatre in Jupiter, FL, where he and 149 others received invaluable advice from Reynolds, and guests like Paul Newman, en route to becoming eligible for Actors’ Equity and SAG in just one year. If he hadn’t gotten into Reynolds’ school, Cleale, by his own admission, would likely be a lawyer right now. Instead, he has become a well-respected performer, who earned his dues playing in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and becoming the “best Joe Gillis” Andrew Lloyd Webber and his wife had ever seen after being initially turned down for the role in “Sunset Boulevard’s” first national tour. Cleale, who is also currently starring in Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon,” recently spent time with LAexcites to reflect on his past and share his thoughts on the upcoming “Sondheim on Sondheim” spectacular on July 23rd.
What’s it like doing “Sondheim on Sondheim” while also still being a cast member of “Book of Mormon” on Broadway?
I was there when ‘The Book of Mormon’ opened in 2011; it’s the longest time I’ve ever done a show. It’s a great thing I do, as I wear a bunch of wigs as five characters (including Elder Price’s dad and Joseph Smith) and it’s a sheer joy. [Producer] Scott Rudin agreed to me doing “Sondheim on Sondheim.”
Do you expect the production on July 23rd at the Hollywood Bowl to be largely similar to the original “Sondheim on Sondheim” at Studio 54 in 2010, with much of Sondheim’s narration and the songs from the cast album left intact?
Yes, it will almost be exactly the same, but the principal difference is that in 2010 we had only 8 or 9 musicians, and this time we’ll have the entire LA Philharmonic. The set before was a jumble of TV sets in jagged arrangement with several screens, and in this one there will be two giant screens, one on each side of the stage.
Is director Sarna Lapine rehearsing “Sondheim on Sondheim” according to her own vision?
It will be in the flavor of the original conception, though she’ll add her own take to the songs. We’ve done a number of shows together, and she just directed Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sunday in the Park with George,” which garnered better reviews than the original. The rehearsal process has been great and everyone has been so nice.
Is there anyone in the “Sondheim on Sondheim” cast that you’re looking forward to working with?
Groff and I did a few concerts years ago and I love him. Jesse and I did a concert in 2009. Ruthie blew me away in ‘The King and I.’ Vanessa and I were in ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ (in 2010), and she’s the only one to ever send me flowers for ‘The Book of Mormon’ [laughs].
Since most performances happen inside 1 to 3,000 seat auditoriums, will you make any adjustments to your performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which seats about 18,000?
I actually performed at The Muny in St. Louis, which does 6-7 musicals a year, and holds about 11,000 seats. And I remember the lights coming up after each performance and there were no empty seats. It’s staggering to me that this place [the Hollywood Bowl] is even bigger and the sound is apparently phenomenal. Because we’ll have cameras on us, I can relax a little bit, but we’ll move our arms so people know who is singing [laughs].
You must be very proud that the production is largely benefiting Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and other educational initiatives.
It’s all about paying it forward, and I’m always doing things like this, and my only wish is that I could do more. Just to be able to come to downtown LA, and see actual buildings, and how much people care about the arts, means a lot. Not too long ago, I saw a huge line at The Broad (contemporary museum) at 9 a.m. Everything is just so alive and very cool.
Can you tell us anything about some of the songs you’ll be singing at the show?
Sure, the coolest one is from Sondheim’s musical, “Passion” (which debuted in 1994 on Broadway), and is called ‘Is This What You Call Love?’ I actually did the first production after the run in New York in D.C. 20 years ago. There I met Sondheim and [James] Lapine, who came down to the theatre. When Sondheim came backstage after the show, he asked me about the song, which I had sang with intensity, and got really into, and [as a result] didn’t sing every note. He asked me why, I explained, and then he said [matter-of-factly], ‘Maybe you can sing all the notes I wrote.’ I will make sure to sing every note he wrote 20 years later!
Do you remember the first exposure that you had to Stephen Sondheim’s work?
It was on PBS – watching as a kid – a “Follies” concert with Barbara Cook. I also saw “Sunday in the Park with George” with Mandy Patinkin. But, “Into the Woods” was just so accessible and Jack (the character) was just perfect. I paid attention to the lyrics – and it sounded like actors who also sang. There was something behind it – and how everything just fit together like mind candy. Sondheim’s work is the pinnacle of the intelligent musical. From meeting Sondheim to doing “Sondheim on Sondheim” in 2010 as an understudy, I’ve gotten to sing a great range of hits.
Sondheim always had parties for the cast, too, at his Manhattan town home, and he has a great memory. He remembered my performance in “Passion” and I also once had a nice conversation with him upstairs in his office when I was looking for the bathroom. What’s interesting is that at this same home, there was a fire around that time (on February 24, 1995, according to the New York Times). During the fire, there were two closet doors — one was open (with its contents inside badly damaged) and the other one, which contained every piece of music he’d ever written, was shut. If it were open, like the other one, all of it would’ve been lost.
How do you think Sondheim’s music has influenced you the most?
His writing is deeply intelligent, and meticulous in construction with some darkness. It can be very complex. It hits places inside you. There are 10 things his lyrics can evoke – and you can play many different colors you can’t normally play, if that makes any sense.
To purchase tickets to “Sondheim on Sondheim” on July 23rd at the Hollywood Bowl, please visit hollywoodbowl.com/tickets/sondheim-on-sondheim/2017-07-23