Presenting a tuneful overview of composer Stephen Sondheim's career in a single evening is a pretty daunting task, but that's what 20 singers will do in "Miracles: Music of Stephen Sondheim" tonight in the Fine Arts Concerts Hall at Towson State University.
Supplemented by three actors to smooth transitions in the concert-style staging, the singers, mostly from Baltimore and Washington, will be dipping into the scores of shows including "Company," "Anyone Can Whistle," "A Little Night Music," "Follies," "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods."
This Maryland Arts Festival program is a benefit for Chara House, a downtown Baltimore hospice for children living with AIDS.
Good material and a good cause don't mean the evening came together in an instant, however. Director Fredric Lee had to contend with lining up his in-demand volunteer talent and also had to decide exactly what to choose from the ample Sondheim songbook. Unlike other composers whose work readily lends itself to a greatest-hits format, Mr. Sondheim writes songs that can't be easily extracted from their original musical context.
"So many of his songs grow out of the text," Mr. Lee says in a telephone interview from his Washington home. "He's not a 'hit' songwriter, because he . . . doesn't believe in writing a song that doesn't advance the story."
Besides having several Sondheim shows to his credit in Washington theaters, Mr. Lee has worked on similar celebratory programs honoring the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and Rodgers & Hart. He's artistic director for the Ellington Company, an acting ensemble based at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington.
With those credentials, it's no surprise that Mr. Lee speaks with such enthusiasm about Mr. Sondheim's place in the Broadway pantheon. As he speaks over the phone, his four parakeets fly about his apartment chirping in the background. "They love Sondheim, too," he remarks.
Another Sondheim enthusiast involved in the TSU production is Silver Spring resident Dan Sticco, who is co-music director with Doug Lawler. Mr. Sticco has twice before worked directly with Mr. Sondheim, in 1980s revivals of the composer's 1964 show "Anyone Can Whistle." When Mr. Sticco served as music director for a production at the Hunterdon Theatre in Annandale, N.J., and later when he rewrote the musical's second-act ballet for a production at the Pegasus Players in Chicago, he contacted Mr. Sondheim for advice.
"I never expected the man to be as humble and gracious as he was," recalls Mr. Sticco, who was in his 20s at the time of his conversations with the composer. "He was very generous listening to my ideas. He's a very sharing and creative person."
Coordinating the effort of the director, music directors, singers and others involved in this evening of Sondheim music is its producer, TSU faculty member Carolyn Black-Sotir. Not only will this Pikesville resident be singing a few numbers in the Sondheim show, but she's also performing the same evening on the other side of the Fine Arts Center in the musical "Phantom."
Ms. Black-Sotir jokes that she'll need "stopwatch timing" in order to enact her character's on-stage death in "Phantom," then -- across the Fine Arts Center Lobby to join the Sondheim ensemble -- and perhaps even find time later in the evening to take a curtain call in "Phantom."
Caught during a rare moment of rest, she explains that the Sondheim show kicks off a new "American Popular Song" series at TSU.
"Sondheim is the most celebrated living composer of musical theater, so I thought it would be appropriate to start off with him."
Also scheduled in the series are "Broadway Cabaret: From Waltz to Illusion" in October, and "Radio Show," a re-enactment of a 1940s radio variety show, in April.
In an academic sense, she observes that these musical theater ventures will contribute to the "growing dialogue between the theater department and the music department. A lot of students are starting to work in both, and a music theater major could eventually develop from this."
SOUNDS OF SONDHEIM
What: "Miracles: The Music of Stephen Sondheim" concert to benefit Chara House
Where: Fine Arts Concert Hall, Towson State University
When: 8:15 tonight
Tickets: $15; Discounts to senior citizens, students, groups of 15 or more, Theatre Project Passport holders and TSU faculty, staff and alumni are available at the box office.
Call: (410) 830-2787