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Side By Side By Sondheim Preview

Raleigh Little Theatre Preview
Robert W. McDowell
Friday, May 8, 2009

Side By Side By Sondheim showcases the best
of the best Broadway's best songwriter

Raleigh Little Theatre's presentation of Side By Side By Sondheim, performed under the stars on May 8-9 and 15-16 in RLT's Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre, showcases the best of the best of Broadway's best contemporary songwriter.

New York City-born composer and lyricist Stephen Joshua Sondheim is a seven-time Tony Award® winner -- for Best Score and Best Lyrics for Company (1971) and for Best Score for Follies (1972), A Little Night Music (1973 Best Score), Sweeney Todd (1979), Into The Woods (1988), and Passion (1994 -- who also took home the 1990 Academy Award for Best Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy. The 79-year-old Sondheim also received the 2008 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, as well as the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday In The Park With George and Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

“I first became of this show when I heard the original Broadway cast album in summer of 1977,” recalls RLT guest director Brent Wilson. “I almost wore it out, memorized it, made up scenarios to go with the songs.” Wilson saw touring production of Side By Side in late 1978 and 1979.

Musical gems from the Sondheim songbook include: “Comedy Tonight” (from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) and “Love Is in the Air” (dropped from Forum); “If Momma Was Married” (with music by Jule Styne, from Gypsy); ““Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music); “I Never Do Anything Twice (from the film The Seven Percent Solution); “Losing My Mind” and “I'm Still Here,” and “Could I Leave You?” (from Follies); and many, many more.

Subtitled “A Musical Entertainment,” Side By Side By Sondheim features the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim as well as the music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne. Ned Sherrin provides “continuity. The show made its Broadway debut, directed by Ned Sherrin, with musical staging by Bob Howe, on April 18, 1977 at the Music Box Theatre, later transferred to the Morosco Theatre, and played for 384 performances before closing on March 19, 1978. Side By Side received five 1977 Tony Award® nominations -- for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (David Kernan and Ned Sherrin), and Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Millicent Martin and Julie N. McKenzie).

The show is traditionally performed with two keyboard players and three singers in eveningwear, sitting on stools.

“That was fine,” says RLT guest director Brent Wilson, “but I always imagined something bigger, even as a child. What I've done is to try to honor Sondheim's specificity by trying to make each song a scene with characters from the show [in which the song first appeared].

Wilson says, “We're talking about three singers, one man and three women. We're each playing 24 or more characters for this particular production. So, every song is a complete story in itself. We try to provide subtext from a show. For example, ‘A Boy Like That' is from West Side Story. We did an exercise in which I asked the two women who sing that song to imagine that they were actually in that show.

“With that framework,” explains Wilson, “we did a lot of layer work. I've been working with the singers since November, because the material is huge and challenging. I decided that we should all be completely off book before we began blocking and choreography. That's one reason that we didn't hold auditions. The other main reason that we didn't hold auditions is because Rose Martin and Martie Todd Sirois are two of the finest singing actresses available anywhere.

“So, when I heard that the show had been added late to the season as a fundraiser by RLT managing director Ellen Landau, within three days of the announcement, I had a handwritten proposal on Ellen's desk about how I wanted to do the show,” reveals Brent Wilson. “Also to enable characterization, we're using lots of different props and costume pieces, and there's a team of dressers -- six of them -- and about 70 percent of the changes take place onstage, in front of the audience.”

Wilson adds, “There's very little downtime between the songs. It's an interesting challenge, because the singers don't talk, the keyboard players don't sing or talk, they just play, and neither the narrator nor the keyboard players sing until the end of the play when they [all] sing the title song.

“[Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director] Haskell [Fitz-Simons] and [managing director] Ellen [Landau] graciously accepted my proposal ... and I began work last May on how I wanted the show to unfolded,” says Wilson. “I decided that, except for intermission, it wouldn't stop at all. It would be like a clockwork toy set in motion with characters moving.”

He adds, “There's a lot of movement. There's walking, dance steps, even some legitimate ballet. The reason that musical theater is so magical is when the characters can no longer find the words to speak, they have to sing. I did cast myself as the only male singer, because I didn't know any other actors who would put up with me for this long.

“Brett Wilson and Julie Florin have been working with us also since the Christmas holidays,” Wilson says. “We met once a week in February and twice a week in March for four-hour rehearsals. Since April, we've been rehearsing every night with an occasional weekend night off. In April, we started choreography with the genius Nancy Rich. I had, of course, been in touch with her from the beginning. I had monthly meetings with her about how I wanted the show to unfold. Where I wasn't sure what a song was, or I couldn't relate it to the show, I just made stuff up -- I reimagined the scenario.”

Wilson says, “I'm really, really excited about this show., there was no budget for [Side By Side], since it's a fundraiser, so I'm pretty much paying for everything out of my pocket. It's my gift to RLT for allowing me to volunteer and play there for 26 years now, since 1983.”

In addition to director Brent Wilson, Raleigh Little Theatre's creative team for Side By Side By Sondheim includes choreographer Nancy Rich, assistant director Gerri Kouri, accompanists Brett Wilson and Julie Florin (keyboards), technical director and lighting designer Andy Parks, sound designer Hope Cadden, and stage manager Elaine Petrone.

Although he is a familiar face to Raleigh Little Theatre patrons, Side By Side By Sondheim marks Brent Wilson's directorial debut at RLT. He has previously directed Happy Birthday, Wanda June for Raleigh Ensemble Players, the Thalian Association's production of Pump Boys And Dinettes, and also served as musical director for RLT's production of Pump Boys And Dinettes in 2004. Wilson also directed The Fantasticks and The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds at Theatre in the Park in the early 1980s.

Director Brent Wilson says, “I've been singing with Rose [Martin] since 1985. We met during Theatre in the Park's production of Hair. I've been singing with Martie [Todd Sirois] since RLT's production of Oklahoma in the amphitheatre in 1999. That's the last show in which we were all three in together.

“Interestingly,” Wilson notes, “Martie and Rose have never sung together before. I had a hunch that they would sound awesome together, and that's proved to be true. It's really amazing, and I'm really, really pumped about this. I'm also really, really tired.”

Raleigh Little Theatre presents Side By Side By Sondheim Friday-Saturday, May 8-9 and 15-16, at 8 p.m. in RLT's Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. $18 ($15 students up to and including college and seniors 62+). 919/821-3111 or click here. NOTE 1: Rain dates are May 10th and May 17th at 8 p.m. NOTE 2: Gates and the concession stands will open one hour before the show starts. NOTE 3: All shows are wheelchair accessible. RALEIGH LITTLE THEATRE: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/performances/08-09/sidebyside.html. THE SHOW: http://www.sondheim.com/shows/side_by_side/ (Sondheim.com), http://www.sondheimguide.com/sideby.html (The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=7993 (Internet Broadway Database). STEPHEN SONDHEIM: http://www.sondheim.com/ (Sondheim.com), http://www.sondheim.org/ (The Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=12430 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0814227/ (Internet Movie Database).

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