Hey, Old Friend! The Janes and the Varscona toast Sondheim

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“But us, old friends, What’s to discuss, old friends? Here’s to us! Who’s like us? Damn few!” — Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim 

Edmonton’s top musical theatre artists gather on the Varscona stage Oct. 8 for an evening of music that celebrates the groundbreaking canon of the late great composer/lyricist. 

In Hey, old friend! An Evening of Sondheim, they’ll share favourite songs, stories of their experiences wrestling with the multiple complexities of Sondheim, memories of Sondheim shows they’ve done. And you, old friends, will hear songs from such Sondheim hits as Merrily We Roll Along, Into The Woods, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd.

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The all-star cast includes John Ullyatt, Andrea House, Ruth Alexander, Kendra Connor, Jenny McKillop, Sheldon Elter, Sue Goberdhan, Chariz Faulmino, Steven Greenfield and Jason Hardwick, as well was students from MacEwan University’s Theatre Arts. 

The evening, which includes a door prize raffle and silent auction (complete with art by Jason Carter), is a shared fundraiser for the Varscona and Plain Jane Theatre’s upcoming chamber-sized production of Sweeney Todd at Co*Lab in November.

Kate Ryan, artistic director of the Plain Janes, a company that lives and breathes in the off-centre lanes of musical theatre, grew up surrounded by Sondheim; his songs were the soundtrack of Ryan family life, “for as long as I can remember.” 

“My dad (the late great director Tim Ryan, founder of MacEwan’s musical theatre program) had a very large collection of albums from earlier work like Gypsy, Saturday Night, The Frogs, to Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods.” (Side note: I remember Tim Ryan gave me a copy of Meryl Secrest’s Sondheim biography; he had three). 

“The first Sondheim song I remember working on for an audition was What More Do I Need from Saturday Night. I loved Liz Callaway’s version from his Birthday Concert album.,” says Ryan. “I worked on it with my dad, who taught me not to gloss over the thoughts, to invest in each one and activate it: my first big introduction to ‘acting a song’…. I still go back to that song and learn more about it because of where I am today.”

Sondheim: the name conjures a world of emotional and psychological complication, verbal playfulness, musical richness in storytelling. Kendra Connor, the executive director of the Varscona, a Plain Jane star with a company history (her first show with Ryan was Drat, the Cat!), says “for me Sondheim kind of bridges the gap between classic and contemporary musical theatre…. He pulled the genre toward expressing human complexity through music and lyrics.” 

“Musical theatre now is so much more raw and real now.” muses Connor. “I’m thinking about shows like Fun Home, Light in the Piazza, Next to Normal, even Dear Evan Hansen — we would not have those without Sondheim.” 

When he adds it up, John Ullyatt has done quite a bit of Sondheim. He’s been the Wolf and Cinderella’s “Agony” Prince in Into The Woods, Tony in West Side Story, the Beadle in Sweeney Todd, Henrik in A Little Night Music, Company (in an Equity Fights Aid benefit)…. 

Into the Woods at the Citadel came early in Ullyatt’s career. So did Sweeney Todd, “a big show for me at the Phoenix…. Jim Guedo took a real chance with me and I had a ton of make-up on. I loved it, and as usual, met tons of people in the community. As a result we can talk about the time when we did that show!” 

“I think the best time I had was doing Henrik in A Little Night Music (at the Grand Theatre and Canadian Stage).” in Hey, Old Friend! he’ll sing Later from that show . “Later … When is later? All you ever hear is ‘later Henrik — Henrik, later’.” 

“I don’t know how many times I sang that song over four months,” says Ullyatt of his history with the part. “But it was never not hard to do.”  

Ah yes, hard. The musical and dramatic challenge of Sondheim is part of the attraction. Ryan, who’s directed Assassins and Into The Woods as well as the revue Sondheim On Sondheim, says when she did a Sondheim cabaret called It Takes Two with Susan Gilmour at the Citadel five years ago, “we spent a good four months learning the material.”

Says Ullyatt, “I guess what all actors seem to like about Sondheim, in fact put him on this massive pedestal, is that it’s difficult to do. But like Shakespeare, it’s all in the text. You really just have to sing the notes and not bump into the furniture. The music is so interesting and not always lovely. You don’t necessarily go out of the theatre singing the songs. But for an actor, you continuously get to dig around and see what else there is to be mined.” 

Connor talks about “how much extra thinking his songs require of the performer. That’s not a complaint! He just requires a lot of listening and concentration from the performer. His rhythms are frequently complex and the chords are often super crunchy. You have to think hard about singing in tune and on time. And then you to have to act on top of all of that.. It’s really satisfying when you nail it.” 

Ryan agrees that Sondheim is “a pinnacle musical theatre experience,” both for artists and audiences. “He leans into the messiness of humanity. He’s not afraid to share the darkness and find the humour and light. But it never comes easy. Sondheim once said ‘nobody goes through life unscathed. You write that, you touch people’.” 


Hey, Old Friend! An Evening Of Sondheim

Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre and Varscona Theatre

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Saturday Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: 780-433-3399 or varsconatheatre.com



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