A meme that made the rounds last week, within minutes of the death of musical theater titan Stephen Sondheim, read simply, "Shakespeare. Chekhov. Sondheim."
It's not overreaching to put the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and Oscar winner in the company of drama's all-time greats. Sondheim, who died Friday at age 91, always was quick to credit collaborators (he generally wrote the songs while artists such as James Lapine or John Weidman created the book). But the depth and complexity of his music and lyrics in shows such as "Sweeney Todd," "Into the Woods" and "Assassins" (and others such as "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," for which he wrote just the lyrics) assure that his work will be performed as long as theater exists.
In the Twin Cities, we're lucky to have memories of many excellent Sondheim productions and the possibility of more in the future (Artistry's "Into the Woods," directed by Sally Wingert, opens in January). Here are nine I've been thinking about most fondly:
Theater Latte Da's 2018 production grappled with the epidemic of gun violence and the hurt that has led some of history's most notorious criminals to make terrible choices. Capped by Tyler Michaels King and Dieter Bierbrauer's monumental "Ballad of Booth," sung in the aftermath of the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, it was a painful portrait of a country gone wrong.
'Into the Woods'
The fairy tale musical about bad decisions and second chances felt especially appropriate in Ten Thousand Things' site-specific staging. I saw it at a shelter for unhoused youths, where the scent of things baking in an adjacent kitchen amplified a gorgeous "No More" by Jim Lichtscheidl (as The Baker) and Austene Van's devilish Witch.
Artistry's ambitious 2018 production wasn't the ideal version of the famously difficult musical about a reunion of former showgirls whose lives have taken bitter turns. No ideal version exists. But under the direction of Anita Ruth, its 22-piece orchestra did justice to the dazzling music, which salutes and satirizes half a century of Broadway tradition.
'Merrily We Roll Along'
The show about three pals whose lives in musical theater take dramatically different turns is famously difficult to pull off (its only Broadway production ran for just 16 performances). Its reverse chronology is tricky, as is casting a show whose actors must be believable as both middle-aged and young. So kudos to the Guthrie Theater's 2001 take for giving local audiences a thrilling chance to see it for themselves. (Richard Linklater is making a movie version, using the same technique as "Boyhood," shooting a couple of scenes each year over the course of decades.)
History Theater did the controversial show in 1993, while Bill Clinton was president. It felt like a less confusing time and, at least in my memory, that meant the production could lean on the piece's abundant comedy, including Jan Lee's brilliantly klutzy Sara Jane Moore.
We've had several "Sweeney" productions locally but the keeper is Latte Da's stripped-down version. Staged in 2015 and then transferred to Florida, it was highlighted by Wingert's dangerously appealing Mrs. Lovett and the brio of director Peter Rothstein's stagecraft.
'Sunday in the Park With George'
Widely viewed as Sondheim's most autobiographical work, it depicts artist George Seurat as so devoted to painting that his life passes him by. The standout in the Guthrie's 2017 staging was the life that passed him by: Dot, the mother of the child he never knows. Broadway vet Erin Mackey played both Dot and, in the second act, the now-elderly "child," with startling passion and warmth.
'A Little Night Music'
I loved Latte Da's intimate 2019 staging but I keep thinking about Theater Mu's 2014 version, highlighted by Meghan Kreidler's hilarious performance as a wry countess and Sheena Janson Kelley's devastating "Send in the Clowns."
Elements of Kabuki theater and Taiko drumming were incorporated into this 2004 collaboration between Park Square Theatre and Mu. Stripped down to a small cast, the production emphasized Sondheim's glorious but perhaps least-known score (once again, under the direction of Ruth).