The biggest April event for American musical theater lovers was “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” on April 27. Although belated (Stephen Sondheim's birthday was March 22) and plagued by a half-hour delay and technical difficulties at the start, the live stream on YouTube and Broadway.com—a fund-raiser for the youth arts-oriented organization Artists Striving to End Poverty—was a star-studded tribute to a master from dozen of artists, each singing or reminiscing from his or her home. They ranged from Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski's delightful take on “The Ladies Who Lunch” to Bernadette Peters' haunting a cappella “No One is Alone.”
A less-advertised but equally ambitious celebration of Sondheim's 90th year actually got underway the previous night. That's when Porchlight Music Theatre's free viral series “Sondheim @ 90 Roundtable” made its debut on the theater's Facebook page. Created and hosted by artistic director Michael Weber, the series brings together a trio of knowledgeable fans to discuss one of Sondheim's musicals each Saturday evening.
“Our goal is to cover all 19 of Sondheim's shows,” said Weber, who has directed five or six of them in his eight years at Porchlight, which has staged 10 so far. The most recent one was “Gypsy” with a stunning performance by E. Faye Butler as Mama Rose.
The first Roundtable focused on Sondheim's first Broadway show, “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the lyrics. The guests were frequent Sondheim director in Chicago and on Broadway, Gary Griffin, who won an Olivier Award for “Pacific Overtures” in London; Mark Hoebee, producing artistic director of Paper Mill Playhouse, and Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage. Enhanced by photos and film clips, the freewheeling conversation lasted about 50 minutes and revealed interesting details about Sondheim, as well as the participants' experiences with – and emotional reactions – to the work.
“We're not going to deal with the shows in chronological order but thought it would be good to start with the first one,” said Weber. “I'd planned on about 30 minutes and was worried about filling that much time, but the conversation just went where it wanted to. Everyone was so well prepared that I didn't even need my list of questions.”
The second episode, May 2, was devoted to “Sunday in the Park with George,” which was inspired by Georges Seurat's painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Joining Weber were Nick Bowling, founding artistic director of TimeLine Theatre Company and director of the Chicago premiere of Porchlight's Jeff Award-winning “Sondheim on Sondheim;” prolific director and actor David Cromer, who recently won a Tony Award for “The Band’s Visit,” and Jeff Award-winning actor Heidi Kettenring, who has appeared in “Sunday in the Park with George” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and “Sweeney Todd” at Drury Lane Theatre.
The subject of the third installment, May 9, is “Follies.” which was sparked by a New York Times article about a gathering of former showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies. Guests include multi-award-winning national and international director David H. Bell, director Griffin again, and award-winning actor Hollis Resnik, who has memorably performed in “Sweeney Todd,” “Follies,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music,” and many others.
Weber, who pulled the Roundtable together within a couple weeks of theaters shutting down due to COVID-19, said that the main logistical challenge has been scheduling the guests, who are all over the country, so the order of the shows depends on who he lines up.
“When I asked people if they wanted to participate, I also asked which Sondheim shows made the greatest impression on them and excited them the most,” he explained. “They basically chose which segment to be on. That's partly why there are some repeat guests, such as Griffin.”
The schedule for the rest of May, which is subject to change, is “Gypsy” with director Marc Robin and actors Klea Blackhurst and E. Faye Butler on May 16; “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with director Jim Corti and actors David Girolmo and James Earl Jones II on May 23, and “Into the Woods” with a returning Cromer and actors Jessie Mueller and Sean Allen Krill on May 30.
Weber used Zoom to create the programs. He invited the guests for the live conversations, which were recorded, then turned over to an editor, who added video, photos, and so on before the broadcasts. “It's been a learning curve,” he said. “Zoom is user friendly, so you can have multiple people talking and see their faces, but you can't read their body language, so there's an arc to listening.”
While he estimated that only about 60 people watched the initial Roundtable when it went “live,” Weber said that hundreds have tuned in at their own convenience since then. “I'm very pleased with the content,” he said. “It's unique, spontaneous, and feels like a group of fans getting together to talk about what they liked about a chosen show.”
To watch the Sondheim @ 90 Roundtable, go to:
To watch “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” go to: