Big classical music institutions (i.e. symphonies and opera companies) have long been on the Stephen Sondheim bandwagon and the occasion of his 80th birthday year (which is today–3/22/10) has been a great excuse for them to further horn in on the musical theatre domain, where the composer has excelled.
But one classical pianist, Anthony de Mare, has come up with a fresh approach to celebrating Sondheim. About five years ago, de Mare began talking with composer friends — and he knows lots of composers — about them making short (10 minutes or less) piano arrangements/reworkings/homages to selections from the Sondheim songbook.
There’s plenty of precedent for such a thing, starting with Gershwin songs for the piano by Gershwin himself, by Art Tatum and Earl Wild, among others. De Mare can also be quiet the showman on stage — he’s talked, sung and even tap danced while playing at the keyboard — so there’s lots of potential for where the project, titled “Liasons,” could go as a concert/theater event.
De Mare first approached Sondheim with a letter in November 2006 and got a quick and positive reply.
“The opening line in his first response was ‘I’m flattered and delighted by your interest in my songs, and your project sounds intriguing indeed,’” says de Mare. “We still have not yet met in person but I have about 15 notes from him regarding his opinion, suggestions and excitement about the project.”
“He’s never put any restrictions on anything,” continues de Mare. “In one of our first exchanges, he said the project sounded enormously ambitious and he found it a bit hard to believe that the list of distinguished composers I was intending to approach would take the time to write variations or settings of someone else’s songs. And he often referred to my list of collaborators as ‘A-list composers.’”
The match-up of composers and songs, though still in development, is included at the end of this story. At the top of the list is Sondheim’s former teacher, the 93-year old serialist master Milton Babbitt. His selection? “I’m Still Here.”
According to de Mare, more than a few composers from outside the classical music world were approached, including Elton John, David Byrne, and Elvis Costello among others, but they declined participation because of other commitments. But the list does include jazzman Fred Hersch, theater/film composer Peter Golub and musical theater composer Eric Rockwell.
“Surprisingly, there were very few cases where two composers chose the same song,” explains de Mare. “There was always some discussion regarding their choice and many would offer personal reasons or insights as to why a particular song resonated with them. Some actually surprised me with their choices.”
Generally speaking, getting composers on board was the easy part. Raising money for commissions has taken time. De Mare had hoped to have at least part of “Liasons” ready to debut during this birthday year but the economic downturn caused delays. Sondheim, though, has helped with fundraising by suggesting figures in the theater world who might contribute. Arts centers in the U.S. and Canada, where de Mare will perform “Liasons,” have also pitched in. Nearly $40,000 has been raised to date.
The first roll out of works will take place in March and April next year at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Like the old fashioned out-of-town try-out of a musical, de Mare wants to work with the material before bringing it to New York. He ultimately envisions the songs filling three evenings and plans to engage a director to shape and add to it. Recordings are also planned.
“And it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long long time,” he says. “And everybody seems to like the whole idea because it’s a different angle for his music.”
Milton Babbitt: I’m Still Here (Follies)
Mason Bates: song TBD
Eve Beglarian: song TBD
Derek Bermel: Sorry-Grateful (Company)
William Bolcom: song TBD
Kenji Bunch: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
Michael Daugherty: song TBD
Peter Golub: Children and Art (Sunday in the Park)
Ricky Ian Gordon: Every Day a Little Death (A Little Night Music)
Annie Gosfield: A Bowler Hat (Pacific Overtures)
Jake Heggie: A Weekend in the Country (A Little Night Music)
Fred Hersch: No One Is Alone (Into the Woods)
Jerome Kitzke: Sunday, Lesson #8 & Move On (Sunday in the Park)
Ricardo Lorenz: Mrs. Lovett medley (Sweeney Todd)
Paul Moravec: Losing My Mind (Follies)
David Rakowski: The Ladies Who Lunch (Company)
Steve Reich: Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park)
Eric Rockwell: You Could Drive a Person Crazy (Company)
Daniel Bernard Roumain: Assassins (selection)
Frederic Rzewski: Assassins (selection) or The Frogs (selection)
Rodney Sharman: Beautiful (Sunday in the Park)
David Shire: Comedy Tonight (Forum)
Bernadette Speach: Liaisons/Send In The Clowns (A Little Night Music)
Nils Vigeland: Merrily We Roll Along (medley)