The Determined Quartet that turned their Third Try at an All-Sondheim Songfest into an Exhilarating Masterpiece
By Myra Chanin
As 2014 was drawing to a close, the multiple award-winning theater and cabaret diva-cum-Mabel Mercer Foundation Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, approached the equally award-winning cabaret and concert star, baritone Jeff Harnar, and told him, “I want to do a show with you.” Harnar was delighted until KT revealed her idea for their act –entirely devoted to Stephen Sondheim’s words and music.
“I was terrified,” Harnar recalled. Up till then he’d only included one Sondheim song in all of his previous theme shows. I was afraid I lacked the skill to tackle the intellectual and emotional challenges of Sondheim’s art.” Even more importantly, he also told KT that he loved her very much but he didn’t want to sing Sondheim’s traditional male-to-female love songs to her. “I’m a gay man, and I wanted to sing those songs in a way that was true to my sexuality.” KT replied that she was interested in performing Sondheim lyrics written for men to sing to women. And that was that.
Jon Weber, their Musical Director, is an extraordinary jazz pianist with encyclopedic musical recall who commands the keyboard as though he has 22 fingers on each hand. Director Sondra Lee, a fixture in American and European theatre for over fifty years, completed the creative quartet. Her goal was to add drama, supply choreography and make each performance theatrically cohesive. They all agreed that Sondheim’s lyrics were so compelling and honest that the only verbal commentary by the performers would be their initial announcement that there would be no patter.
And that was that or as Sondheim said, “It started out with a song …”
Act I, Our Time, their first communal venture into gender inconsequential, commentary-free Sondheim, was unveiled at Feinstein’s/54Below in January, 2015 after KT and Jeff selected and then discussed with Jon and Sondra the 27 songs which she/he/they wanted to include – 25 tunes included or cut from 11 Sondheim musicals plus two songs he’d composed for films, 8 of them performed in sets of two and one four song medley about variations on marital bliss … or not. As always, their singing was impressive. Jeff’s “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” and “Could I Leave You,” and KT “Pretty Women,” and “Johanna,” demonstrated their new approach.
Act II, Another Hundred People, arrived in 2016 at the Laurie Beechman Theater – a re-selection of 41 Sondheim songs from 12 produced and one unproduced musical(s), one TV show and one film. I particularly liked the addition of “Barcelona” from Company, an aftermath duet between one smitten and one indifferent participant of a sexual hookup and Little Red Riding Hood’s wicked post-Big Bad Wolf disclosures about what she’d learned In The Woods, as well as a few lively, witty, unfamiliar songs from Bounce, about the Mizner Brother ’s adventures from the Klondike Gold Rush to the Florida Real Estate Boom. This program contained more three and four song medleys, with KT and Jeff singing just as well but more connected even when each sang separately.
KT and Jeff took Acts I and II to Davenport’s in Chicago, the Gaslight Theater in St. Louis and a concert series in Brownville, NE. Both shows were also shown on PBS. An international extension included week-long bookings at London’s Crazy Coqs, which gave both performers and creators the time, exposure and audience response to conclude they wanted to continue sculpting this material.
Act III, #SONDHEIMMONTAGE — 40 songs in 7 pieces in 70 minutes, represents their zenith as recently performed at the Laurie Beechman Theater, an exquisitely emotionally compelling and artistically cohesive production. .
How was Act III superior to the previous works in progress? Director Sondra Lee felt it showed how the quartet learned to trust themselves and each other during the initial two years. They developed an impressive comfort level with each other which allowed them to deal with the truth in the material which is the basis of art. Programming and organizing the songs properly and powerfully involved hard work and grew out of communal efforts. “They trusted me to take them to places they’d never thought of before. Jeff became so powerful that he unleashed the text rather than just singing it. KT became bold, brave and audacious. She dared to present herself as a slightly frowzy woman of her actual age whose hair was not impeccably coifed. They all opted for telling the truth.“
I felt the KT who shared “The Ladies who Lunch,” with a plastered Jeff, seemed to draw rage from an Irish Washerwoman foremothers’ DNA And OMG! Jeff, a wiry, lithe, always exquisitely dapper man, sang with the heft of a taller, more burley Sweeney Todd. They were both at their best as well in the merry dances choreographed by Sondra Lee which brightened up Sondheim’s sometimes gloomy perceptions.
Sondheim’s music gives you a tremendous insight into human emotions of all and any kind and it was a great joy watching KT, Jeff, Jon and Sondra illuminate them. #SONDHEIM MONTAGE proved conclusively that Sondheim deserves to be performed by mature, honest adults, willing to show their true selves: to wit, like Sullivan, Harnar, Web and Lee.
But the best news is that #SONDHEIMMONTAGE will be presented again at the Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Café on October 13, 2018 at 7 p.m. It’s a show you don’t want to miss.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto