In theater circles, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is a deity. Known for his peerless proficiency in lyrical storytelling and intricate musical compositions, Sondheim has scored classics like A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and every misunderstood youth's favorite thing ever Sweeney Todd. In celebration of his works, What If? Productions is hosting a cabaret of Sondheim's music, titled Sondheim Nights.
"Sondheim is the most prolific American theater composer. His music is complex, melodic, beautiful, but he writes for an actor," says WIP co-founder Kyle Barnette. "Every song is like its own little story and so it translates well to singing something out of context."
The format of the piano bar series capitalizes on those self-contained story songs by picking and choosing from a handful of Sondheim shows. "We've chosen four or five Sondheim shows and songs from those shows that we think offer some kind of a through line," Barnette says. Some of the compositions will come from the past-reflecting Follies, fairytale subversion musical Into the Woods, and the Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy.
Compared to the normal shows that grace the WIP stage, the difficulty in Sondheim Nights was telling these stories without the rest of the play, costumes, or characters around the songs. But, this company's definition of normal is something as admirably sick in the head as Evil Dead: The Musical, so thinking outside the box wasn't too much of a problem. Barnette says, "I think we've chosen a few actors and singers who kind of relate and fill the character very well."
Some of the talent honoring Sondheim will include WIP performers James Ketelaar and Kimi Hugli, along with non-regulars Madelyn Knight and Tiffany Gammell. Kevin Thorn will show his teeth on the 88s as he handles the piano part of the piano bar. "His music is really complex and a real challenge to perform — dissonant chords and all kinds of pitter-patter rhythms that are really hard to match," Barnette says.
"I am definitely having trouble," laughs Thorn. "Sondheim is not somebody that you just sit down in front of you and expect it to be perfect for the first time. I had to work a lot these last couple weeks, but it's definitely worth it."
The piano bar series is a chance to add a new depth to the local performing community. "There's been a hunger for some sort of piano bar entertainment in Charleston," says Barnette. Sondheim Nights is the second in the series. What If's first was back in March and had jazz singer Peggy Lewis headlining, alongside Brian Porter, Becca Anderson, and Brannen Daugherty presenting jazz and Broadway standards.
And, while the local area has seen cabarets before, such as the much beloved Cabaret Kiki that Jump, Little Children members Matthew and Evan Bivins hosted in the mid-2000s, Sondheim Nights is more thematic and less sporadic in its performance style. As opposed to the typical cabaret setup, Sondheim Nights will be less of a song-and-dance variety show. It still features multiple performances from a variety of singers, but rolls with a laid-back drink-a-drink-and-relax vibe. "Some of [the songs] are very complicated and very up-tempo and it just doesn't necessarily fit the atmosphere of a piano bar, so we're slowing a couple of them down," says Thorn. Most alterations to the music have happened very naturally to complement the singers.
The easygoing feel will allow performers more of an opportunity to share about themselves, their relationship with the songs they're singing, and why it's important to them. Actors are humans, too, after all. "I like it when they tell the audience, 'Look, I'm just like you, and I love to hear music, and this means this to me,'" says Barnette. "When I see it as an audience member, I pay more attention to the song when I know it means something to someone else."
They'll have a lot of ammunition because Sondheim's work has affected so many. Some of his more popular compositions include "I'm Still Here" and "No One is Alone." In his time as a theater composer, he's won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George, an Academy Award for Best Song for "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and over 60 Tony Awards.