William “Bill” Hale made his directorial debut back in 1979 with the show Company. The musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim centered on a single man struggling with commitment issues and the travails of marriage.
Hale remembers that time fondly.
“That was the first show I ever directed in town, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start out,” he says. “It was down at Buck Creek Players and we had a cast to die for – actors that were pretty well known in town and were the pick of the crop. I was really blessed.”
More than two decades later, Hale continues directing Sondheim productions.
This month he opened the Indianapolis premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim at Footlite Musicals. The show, which debuted in New York in 2010, runs through Sunday (Jan. 17th) at Footlite’s Hedback Theatre.
The musical revue highlights the life and career of the legendary composer and lyricist known for such iconic productions as West Side Story, Gypsy, Follies, Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh has called Sondheim "possibly the greatest lyricist ever."
As a tribute, it features more than 25 of his tunes – both popular and obscure – along with video footage of the famed composer reminiscing about his life.
Hale says the idea to take on Sondheim on Sondheim came to him in 2013 while directing another one of his musicals, Follies, at Footlite, where Hale has worked for more than 20 years.
“(Musical director) Paula Phelan and I were looking for something with the four leads that we had with Follies, because we really enjoyed working with them,” he says, “and I knew this piece was out there.”
Another selling point was the video of Sondheim, himself, talking about his life and artistic approach. Presented in segments throughout the performance of his songs, the videos help round out the revue.
“I love that,” says Hale, “plus, the fact that there’s a lot of material that hasn’t been in any other Sondheim revue.”
Although Hale has directed many shows throughout his career, including many non-Sondheim productions, he admits to a fondness for this composer’s work.
“His material has a lot of substance to it. The book writers ... and the directors he's worked with over the years, shaping these shows, they’ve had a lot of substance to them,” he says.
And Hale appreciates the material as a performer as well as a director.“As a performer, I’ve done several (Sondheim shows) on stage, and they’re really challenging. I mean, you have to think as a performer. The other thing I like is that his shows require an audience to come in and really listen to the material and what it’s saying.”
- Courtesy Gary Nelson
(From left) Lauren Bowers, Karen Frye, Sarah Malone and Laura Duvall-Whitson are some of the performers of Sondheim on Sondheim at Footlite Musicals. The show pays tribute to legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Originally performed at Studio 54, the famed New York nightclub turned theater, Sondheim on Sondheim offers a more intimate feel, says Hale, who has chosen to stage the show cabaret-style.
“I never thought this would be suitable – at least for us – as a full-stage musical or full-stage production, because with those, we like to have a good-sized cast,” says Hale. “Plus, I thought, it would provide people with a little more immediacy with the performer right there. The performances will be enhanced by being closer to the audience.”
This production features a cast of eight who sing songs from a medley of the composer’s musicals. Probably the most famous is Send in the Clowns, Sondheim created for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music.
Everyone from Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra has performed the song, but through video footage, the audience learns that Sondheim was surprised the song took off the way that it did, says Hale.
Sondheim has produced more than 20 musicals. Some of the most famous being A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum and West Side Story.
Footlite’s production has been updated a bit since its premiere on Broadway (“they did some tweaking since the original, cutting two songs,” says Hale). But all of the video segments are exactly as they were in the Broadway production.
Since 1954, Sondheim has actively been working as a composer and lyricist. And at age 85 he continues creating music. Because his body of work is so vast, many theater-goers may not even be aware of when they’re listening to or watching a Sondheim work.
Hale hopes Sondheim on Sondheim can help change that.
“(I hope they) cherish that he’s provided us with this material that will be here long after he’s passed,” says Hale. “And if they’re not really familiar with his work, maybe this will peak their interest and they will go out and see other shows that he’s been involved in.”