Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1992
If you drop the name of Stephen Sondheim, be prepared for an explosive response. No one who knows anything about music or theater is wishy-washy on the subject; people have volcanic reactions to the man and his work. Hailed as the most important composer-lyricist of his generation or damned as overly dark, cerebral, atonal and inaccessible, the supremely clever 61 year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner can certainly be said to have “chutzpah”: Who else would write musicals about cannibalism and presidential assassins?
To show that Sondheim has more than an interminable fascination for the macabre, Paul Lazarus and Paul Gemagniani put together, in 1983, a revue of thirty songs representing twelve shows and displaying the positive face, the up-side, of Stephen Sondheim. First produced as a fundraiser for New York ‘s Whitney Museum of Art, called “A Stephen Sondheim Evening”, it was re-mounted and renamed in 1990, and produced in Los Angeles as “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”. This month (March 27-April 5) it makes its San Diego debut at the San Diego Comic Opera in Balboa Park .
Guest director Jack Montgomery is given to hyperbole on the subject of Sondheim, whom he considers “the most exciting musical composer of our era, much more profoundly important than Andrew Lloyd Webber. In the next century, Stephen Sondheim will be the centerpiece of what will be remembered as the 20th century musical.” Montgomery sees “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” as “the human face of Stephen Sondheim. It has some very unusual dollops of lesser-known works and some of the biggies, too. I cannot,” he continues, “for the life of me, fathom why some other theater hasn’t done it yet. Some people have the idea that Stephen Sondheim doesn’t sell, which is a bunch of borscht.”
Leon Natker, artistic director of the Comic Opera, agrees. “No one uses voices and words like Sondheim,” he says. “I was searching for something in the comic opera or operetta tradition that’s forward-looking. And this was perfect. When it first opened in New York , Sondheim himself played the piano accompaniment. Unfortunately,” he adds with a laugh, “we couldn’t secure his talents for our production.”
But Natker did secure some other local talents, to help with the narration in the show. For each of the six performances, a media personality will appear (gratis), to provide the background, song-linking narrative. This will include Channel 10’s Lisa Kim and Channel 8’s Hal Clement and M.G. Perez (who’s coming back from his new job at KGO-TV in San Francisco just to appear in “…Tomorrow”.
The evening samples a wide range of Sondheim creations, from his very first musical effort, “Saturday Night” (he had earlier written scripts for the TV show, “Topper”), to “Primrose”, which aired on television’s “U.S. Steel Hour,” to [“Frogs”, a musical version of the Aristophanes comedy originally produced around the swimming pool at Yale in the early 1970s, through better-known plays such as fi]A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, [“A Little Night Music”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Follies” (whence the title song), “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods”.
One song, from “Merrily We Roll Along”, is called “Old Friends.” It could be written about Montgomery and Natker, who’ve shared a reciprocal theatrical relationship for eighteen years, beginning in summer stock in Indiana , continuing to their co-founding of the Chicago Opera Theatre Company in the early seventies, and two years running around Chicago as a nightclub act, The Tee- Hees. Six years ago, Natker came to San Diego to appear in Starlight’s production of “The Student Prince”, directed by Montgomery . In 1989, Natker took over the San Diego Comic Opera, and this year, Montgomery became artistic director at the Coronado Playhouse. The reciprocation continues… Montgomery is directing “…Tomorrow” at the Comic Opera, and Natker is taking a break from opera to guest-direct a Moss Hart play, “Light Up the Sky”, at Coronado (through April 4).
Meanwhile, Sondheim is getting attention elsewhere in San Diego . The Old Town Opera House was set to produce “Sweeney Todd” this month, but they cancelled the production, reportedly because of “scheduling conflicts.” Sweeney (AKA “the demon barber of Fleet Street”) will, however, put in an appearance at the La Jolla Country Day School (April 30-May 2).
Down in Coronado , Montgomery is set for a “classy, tuxedoed” production of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”. He’s an old hand at revues, having directed, designed and even written a few, most recently, “ London ‘s a Little Bit All Right”, in which both he and Natker appeared five years ago at the Comic Opera. Natker (who’s also substitute cantor at Temple Beth Israel), will lend his tenor to “Tomorrow”.
Natker is quite excited about the production. It’s another step toward re-framing the Comic Opera (formerly known as the Gilbert and Sullivan Society), expanding the repertoire and drawing in a younger audience. “Stephen Sondheim has a good track record in San Diego ,” he says. (The Old Globe premiered “Into the Woods” and the La Jolla Playhouse reworked “Merrily We Roll Along”). “There’s definitely an audience here for Sondheim, a more varied audience than those who want nostalgic operettas. We want to show them that we have something for them, too. I think this show will be wonderful fun for the audience — and a good stretch for us.”
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.