15 June 2022

Grandfather of modern musical theatre celebrated in a Sonnet for Sondheim

| Dione David
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Stage actors pose with sheet music and an old sewing machine at Belco Arts

a Sonnet for Sondheim hits Belco Arts from 29 June. Photo: Andrew Sikorski.

Belco Arts gave local performance art legend Lexi Sekuless a brief.

“They had done a lot of circus and burlesque and the next thing they wanted was to fill this beautiful new venue with lyrics and language,” she explains.

“I knew I was looking for something with a lot of lyricism and needed to be able to play with poetry and music.”

When someone suggested Stephen Sondheim provided the perfect centrepiece of her new production, Lexi immediately knew it was true – and a Sonnet for Sondheim was born.

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Viewed as the grandfather of the modern musical, the 20th century American composer, songwriter and lyricist changed the face of musical theatre.

“We wouldn’t have shows such as Hamilton, which the whole world knows and adores, without him,” Lexi says.

“In your traditional musicals such as Carousel or Oklahoma, the plot stops to allow characters to sing and reflect on how they feel about something. Then Sondheim created songs that progressed the plot, during which audiences could learn more about the story.

“That was exciting for audiences and a game-changer for performers because it required a whole new skill level. We’re all familiar with the term ‘triple threat’ – a person who can act, sing and dance. Modern musicals demand that level of talent.”

People holding fabric printed with sheet music in front of water

a Sonnet for Sondheim showcases the 20th century American composer’s ability to progress a plot through song. Photo: Andrew Sikorski.

a Sonnet for Sondheim is a misnomer; there is nothing singular about Lexi’s new production which will take to the stage four times at Belco Arts from 29 June to 2 July.

The show is billed as “an evening of the highest highs and the lowest lows” where “the plight of the performer, personal stories, confessions and love triangles are peppered among songs from (Sondheim’s musicals) Passion, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George”.

Director, producer and cast member, Lexi says the show follows a “cabaret format” incorporating direct address, songs and verse.

Alongside Sondheim’s brilliance, audiences will explore poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson.

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The production tagline “How do I perform thee? Let me count the ways!” has a dual application; first, it highlights the versatility of the words performed in a Sonnet for Sondheim.

“I thought this would warm audiences up to the fact we’re singing Sondheim songs but in different ways,” Lexi says.

“We’re not doing full musicals, but each cast member has crafted and written their performance into the show in a deeply personal context.”

The tagline also fortifies the performers’ commitment to their art in the face of adversity.

The famous line ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ is the penultimate classic from Browning’s celebrated series of 44 sonnets, written when she was falling in love with husband to be, Robert Barrett Browning.

“It was fitting to play on that. I created this show as a love letter to Sondheim and what it is to be an artist or theatre performer,” Lexi says.

“Especially after two tough years with the industry depressed, a bit bruised – any performer would be justified to fall out of love with it.”

Lady dancing strewn with fabric

a Sonnet for Sondheim promises “an evening of the highest highs and the lowest lows”. Photo: Andrew Sikorski.

If you’re unfamiliar with Sondheim’s work and Shakespeare and Dickinson evoke unwelcome flashbacks to ninth grade English, Lexi says a Sonnet for Sondheim is still very much for you.

“All music and language is about changing the rate at which you breathe,” she says.

“You experience the same thing at sporting events or when you listen to the radio. It’s not intellectual – understanding it isn’t a prerequisite for connecting with it and it doesn’t matter if you got a D in the Shakespeare term at school.

“The only commitment needed from you is to buy a ticket; we’ll look after the rest. And I promise you, your breath rate will change and you’ll experience something far more exciting than anything you’ll watch on Netflix.”

a Sonnet for Sondheim will play four times from 29 June to 2 July at Belco Arts. Tickets are $45 for adults and $40 for concession – book on the Belco Arts website.

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