Stephen Sondheim is about as close to a living legend as you can get. The composer/lyricist of nearly 20 musicals has explored everything from the demon barber of Fleet St. to the fairy tale characters of Into The Woods (which plays the Ahmanson Theatre through May 14, 2017). In our 50-year history, Center Theatre Group has produced many of Sondheim’s major works. To celebrate, we’ve curated a list of a few of our favorites.
‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’—1971
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum represents Sondheim’s first major work where he authored both the music AND the lyrics. Forum tells the story of a hapless Roman slave by the name of Pseudolus, his bid for freedom, and the star-crossed love affair between his master and a courtesan from the brothel next door. Featuring songs such as “Comedy Tonight” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” this is a light-hearted entry into a body of work, which is generally anything but. Forum brought “something for everyone” to the Ahmanson in 1971 and featured Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker
‘A Little Night Music’—1991
Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music takes place in Sweden around the beginning of the 20th century. Focusing on a complicated web of romantic relationships, it creates a story in which couples change partners as often as the dancers of a waltz. This Sondheim classic features songs such as “Night Waltz” and “Send in The Clowns” in its exploration of love, life, and the follies of the night. A Little Night Music brought smiles to the Ahmanson stage in 1991 and featured Lois Nettleton, John McMartin, and Glynis Johns.
In 1966, a recently transplanted New Yorker named Gordon Davidson directed the UCLA Theatre Group’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, which had flopped on Broadway a decade earlier. Davidson’s production was a resounding success—so much so that it inspired Dorothy Buffum Chandler to invite him to take the reins of a new Los Angeles theatre company launching the following year. By 1973, Bernstein’s Candide (based on the Voltaire novel of the same name) was overhauled with new lyrics by literary luminaries including Stephen Sondheim. But this tale of an illegitimate baron’s nephew (Candide), his banishment, and his quest to make his way back to his love took another two decades to come to Center Theatre Group. In 1995, Davidson reprised his directorial role to celebrate the reopening of the Ahmanson after a renovation—this time featuring the words of Sondheim as well as Richard Wilbur, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, and original librettist Lillian Hellman.
‘Putting It Together’—1998
Putting It Together is a musical revue composed entirely of Sondheim music. It features songs from some of his most important works including Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Company (to name a few). It all came together as part of a pre-Broadway run on the Taper stage in 1998, and featured musical theatre titans such as Carol Burnett, John McCook, Bronson Pinchot, and Susan Egan in the cast.
Broadway’s Barbara Cook strutted the boards of the Ahmanson stage in 2003 for her concert of…mostly Sondheim music. A tour de force that traversed nearly every period of musical theatre, Mostly Sondheim came to Los Angeles directly from Carnegie Hall.
The Ahmanson Theatre is housing a divinity in human guise,declared the Los Angeles Times, noting the audience frenzy around the
luminous Barbara Cook.Fun fact: Cook is the performer who made Candide’s “Glitter and Be Gay” famous.
‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’—2008
Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s much loved musical thriller played the Ahmanson in 2008. It tells the story of Sweeney Todd, his quest for revenge against the lecherous Judge Turpin, and how the “Worst Pies in London” rise to delectable (and infamous) heights. Featuring a new (and more compact) orchestration, this 2008 revival is notable because, like the Fiasco Theater production of Into The Woods, it featured actors playing their own accompaniment.
‘An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin’—2009
Broadway legends (and frequent Sondheim stars) Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin played a limited engagement at the Ahmanson in 2009 featuring music from all over the Sondheim songbook (some of which they helped make famous). The Los Angeles Times described it as
a sparely elegant master class in the art of conjuring emotional truth in dramatic song.Perhaps the only tragedy surrounding this one is that no recording exists of it…le sigh.
Follies tells the story of a reunion of four members (two couples) of the “Weismann’s Follies,” (a stand-in for the real-world Ziegfeld Follies) in the condemned theatre where they once performed. What follows is a melancholic trip down memory lane of a life in the theatre that—just like the unhappy couples—seems destined for ruin. Follies brought songs like “Broadway Baby” and “Losing My Mind” to the Ahmanson stage in 2012 and featured Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, and Victoria Clark as the four leads, as well as the consummate Elaine Paige.