To kick off its summer season, the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre will present the musical revue Putting It Together, featuring songs by Stephen Sondheim. Under the direction of Tom Mitchell and with music direction by Kent Conrad, the show features ten actors playing an interweaving collection of characters. To wit, those ten folks are, in boy/girl/boy/girl order: Tom Cravens and Jodi Prosser, Jeremiah Lowry and Ann Marie Morrissette, Kent Conrad and Nicole Morgan, Kyle Thomas and Stephanie Swearingen, and Lee Steiner and Cara Maurizi. I made contact with Swearingen, Maurizi, and Thomas to find out how the show is shaping up.
Their responses follow, and I’d like to point out that any puns about putting something together do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of Smile Politely or any of its staff. It’s just sad, really.
Smile Politely: This first one’s for Stephanie, who usually takes on way more than just acting in a given production. As usual, Stephanie, you're multitasking on this show. In addition to being in the cast, what else are you up to this time?
Stephanie Swearingen: Along with singing, I'm playing a few numbers in the show. The piano is on stage and part of the set.
SP: Not being a musical person myself, I have to ask: Is there anything specific to performing (or playing) Sondheim that distinguishes it from other musicals?
Cara Maurizi: I love Sondheim's music because it's so natural, like speaking. What's special about him is that he can capture a mood in a melody so effortlessly. He has a way of setting words and music so that you can feel all of the complex emotions that flow through all of us at some point in our lives. It's very different from the old school musicals in which the actor breaks out of dialogue to sing a song and then steps back in. The music and the lyrics are inseparable. It's hard to learn, because it isn't predictable at all, and the rhythms are not straightforward like many songs can be. Sondheim will catch the singer off guard by turning a phrase around or starting on an off beat, but that's how we think and speak. Once the melody is in your body, however, it seems as easy as having a conversation with a friend.
Swearingen: The difficulty with Sondheim is he is a wordsmith. There are a lot of consonants to spit out and at times in long phrases that as the singer not to breathe for insane amounts of time. A lot of people forget Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story.
Musically, Sondheim is very ridiculously rhythmic. He loves syncopation so the few places you get to sing on the beat it still feels syncopated because you were used to not being on the beat.
As a classical musician, I feel his early training with his sense of rhythm and dissonance screams of early twentieth century French music. Another way to look at it, Sondheim is more Picasso than Manet. Very defined and structured. He plays with the feel of meter without changing meter, and loves to change key constantly.
SP: Kyle, of the theatre acquaintances I've made in the last few years, you seem to be the hardest to pin down... When we met, I assumed your interest in ancient or obscure texts was your thing. And then you direct How I Became a Pirate, and now you're in the cast of a Sondheim musical. How much experience do you have with musicals?
Kyle Thomas: I actually got my start in theatre doing musicals. My undergraduate degree is in musical theatre, and my earliest professional roles were in summer stock musicals. But my interests are not solely limited to musicals or to performing. I picked up an interest in directing that began in undergrad and which led me to my first job right out of college — teaching and directing at Peking University in China. My experience in performance, directing, and teaching have all significantly aided me in my graduate research interest, which happens to be historical plays and performance. But I’m very comfortable on stage in a musical. In fact, I find music to be an excellent storytelling medium. Not only do you have the words (lyrics) and the character to build the plot, but you also have the music to add another layer of information about any given moment in the show. This is especially true for Sondheim, who writes scores rich with musical variation and that add complexity to the individual characters and the show as a whole.
SP: Cara, who do you play, and what is she like?
Maurizi (bottom, right, just barely in the frame): This show isn't like a "regular" musical because it's a review. The songs are all taken from other musicals that Sondheim has written. What makes it great is the way they have been woven together. Sondheim is about being human and relationships. So putting the songs together (as the title suggests) in this way, allows the listener to get something new out of each one. Each piece is related in that we are affected by each other.
Everyone in the cast has moments in which we have solos and we all sing together on several numbers. My "character" is ever growing and changing in each scenario. We are all just Woman or Man, but occasionally a name will be given in a song because of its context in the original show. That's what makes it so great. I am still finding out who my Woman/Girl/Frightened Human Being is as we rehearse. I can tell you that my motivations and emotions span the gamut—everything from confident New York upper class woman, to seductress, to scared-out-of-her-mind bride on her wedding day, afraid of giving up her identity.
SP: Kyle, who are you paired with in the show, and how does your character relate to the others?
Thomas: Stephanie is fantastic and a lot of fun to work with. As with the rest of the cast we’re not playing specific characters. Tom Mitchell has really envisioned this as a true ensemble piece, and thus there’s a lot left up to us as actors to decide what our relationships are with the other characters on stage. Stephanie and I have some really fun moments together in the show but we also share a lot with other characters, sometimes even suggestive of romance. At the moment we’re playing with our characters being in an open relationship, which is an interesting choice that provides for a lot of possibilities with other characters, but it’s still early in the rehearsal process and we’ll see what turns up in the final product. I guess you could say we’re still "putting it together." HA!
SP: This last one is for everybody. Do you have a favorite moment from the show? (And if so... what?)
Swearingen: I think my favorite moment might be the opening of second act. “Back in Business” was written for the movie Dick Tracy. It's go that old time radio sound that builds each time through the verse. It's a thick ensemble number that goes a bit like a train. It has very thick harmony with tons of syncopation. With the voices in this group it sounds amazing.
Maurizi: I have so many favorite moments because Sondheim's music is like water—you just want to flow through it. I absolutely love one of my solos, called "Getting Married Today," because it's like an inner monologue racing through my mind, and I know everyone will relate. I'm excited and nervous to sing it in front of all of my Station peers. I would have to say, however, I feel the most joy singing “Being Alive” with the cast. It is such a beautiful melody, and the lyrics really illuminate what it means to let yourself be vulnerable and love another human. It's magical when all of our voices come together in that piece because you feel the power of humanity and community as our voices join together.
Thomas: Overall this show is a lot of fun, and working with such a great cast of so many talented people has been a blast! I really look forward to rehearsal each night. But, I have to say that I really enjoy the opening number that I share with our music director and fellow cast member, Kent Conrad. Kent is so sharp and fun that it’s a great way to open the show. It really sets the tone for the night, and it’s one of the moments where we’re speaking directly to our audience and setting up the theatricality of the whole event—but somehow you still get lost in all of its magic. After all, it is Sondheim.
Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together celebrates its opening night Thursday, June 5, at 8 p.m. Reservations can be made online or by calling 217-384-4000. Chances are good that some — if not many — nights will sell out, so reserve seats sooner rather than later.