Sondheim is hot topic at the moment after the National Theatre’s spectacular revival of Follies followed by the West End’s latest triumph of Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped Company. The Hope Mill Theatre are tackling Sondheim this autumn with his musical revue Putting It Together that features over 30 of his iconic songs.
Drawing on the title song from Sunday in the Park with George, it’s a celebration of Sondheim’s remarkable musical theatre career with some of his most memorable and best-loved shows. Telling the story of five actors thrown together at a cocktail party in Manhattan, the guests transform the apartment into a multitude of settings for a sensational evening of storytelling.
I spoke to Andrew Gallo and Lauren James Ray about bringing this show to the Hope Mill Theatre and taking on the challenge of Sondheim. “There are over 30 songs in this show, which between five actors can feel like a bit of a mammoth task,” Andrew explains. “My first experience with Sondheim was when I was at drama school and our library had stacks of CDs and I went through them all to find Nathan Lane’s version of Free from Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum. It is a song that has always stuck with me because I am just obsessed with how Nathan told that story.”
As the first Sondheim show Lauren has worked on, she described it as being a real ‘baptism by fire’. “It’s fantastic as a performer, because very rarely do you do material that is that good,” she says. “I do a lot of the classic patter songs in the show so there is a lot of pressure but it’s all so exciting.”
Whilst the music maintains Sondheim’s original style, a few songs have been arranged differently to fit in with the production. “Some of the songs have been adapted musically, so Hello Little Girl (Into The Woods) has as real swing to it so it fits into the Manhattan party vibes, and Being Alive (Company) is a beautiful group number which is really special,” Lauren explains.
There is something about Stephen Sondheim’s work that really stands the test of time. His music feels as if it is written yesterday and his lyrics are about humans, which has a real relatability about it. “The emotional content in all of Sondheim’s work is exceptional,” Lauren says. “I think it’s his storytelling, it is that resonance to each character. His work feels very raw when you get to see it or get to do it, so it’s always relevant through generations.”
Andrew adds: “I think the true genius of Sondheim is that his lyrics are never quite the same as any other lyricist, because it’s not all about the melody or fitting words to a pre determined structure. He writes a monologue and then makes it fit to music, so it makes the songs and the story told feel really natural, which immediately takes it out of a time period.
“You are going through the emotion with the character as they go to and fro in their own minds which is exactly what humans have done since the dawn of time. People will get it it because they’ll have been through those feelings.”
The story is simple and within the group of five actors, there is an older couple, a younger couple, and an onlooker who watches their stories unfold in front of them. Andrew plays the character that introduces the story and watches their stories develop. “He is a bit of an enigma of a character as you never quite find out why he is there, but he almost orchestrates the story unravelling around him,” Andrew explains. “It’s great as you’re watching these stories unfold and you get to experience it as an audience member whilst also being part of the piece.”
Lauren on the other hand plays the lady in the older couple who is very unhappy in her marriage. “She has everything she could possibly want but is lacking emotionally,” she says. “She goes on a wonderful journey which is really great to play. It gets quite emotional and there are some challenging numbers but it’s a fantastic part.”
“You’ve literally got every famous Sondheim song in this show. Watching a famous song from his musical Funny Thing Happened drawing to a beautiful emotive song like Pretty Women (Sweeney Todd), and seeing the way they tie together is just beautiful,” Andrew says. “It is one of those really special pieces of musical theatre.”
Lauren adds: “The way the different shows piece together to make a completely new show is just exquisite. It’s perfect if you’re a Sondheim fan, but also if you’re not, because you get all of the shows in one.”
Putting It Together is on at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester until the 24th of November, tickets and information can be found online here.
Photo Credit: Phil Tragen