As they did for so many others in the last half century, the works of Stephen Sondheim defined what the musical theater could be for me.
I was seventeen years old when I encountered my first Sondheim musical, Company, with the original cast onstage in the West End of London. For the next forty-nine years, I immersed myself in his work, devouring the new shows as they came out, attending the original productions, playing the cast albums over and over (to my roommates’ dismay) and endlessly discussing them with my student pals and professional colleagues. I directed five shows with Sondheim scores, music directed five, and performed in three (well, four, if you count my seven seconds of screen time as Sweeney Todd in Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl).
It’s not surprising, then, that my notion of effective singing acting developed alongside my ongoing exposure to the innovative, complex, challenging scores that flowed from the mind of Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators. As my approach to the training of singing actors evolved and matured over the years, I looked for techniques that would be effective in bringing those works to life.
Let’s look at the particular challenges you’ll face when you sing Sondheim onstage, the Five C’s of Sondheim, if you will:
- Character – like his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim writes songs that are made to be sung by a particular character. Even more than in the work of Hammerstein, those characters tend to be complicated individuals, with a mix of admirable and regrettable traits. They often seek to conceal rather than reveal themselves, and a strong current of subtext (unspoken thoughts and feelings) usually surges underneath the words and phrases they use to express themselves. This means you must understand who is singing, choose specific behavior that will effectively delineate that character, and seek areas of congruence with your own personality to endow that character with a sense of authenticity.
- Context – Every Sondheim song grows out of a particular set of given circumstances that informs every choice of text and music. Each song communicates a particular dramatic event, and you’d be well-advised to make behavior choices that convey an understanding of that when you perform. Even when performing a song outside the show it was written for (in a class, a cabaret or a revue, for example), you need to construct a dramatic event, a scaffold of context that will support the individual moments and phrases of the song.
- Complexity – Sondheim’s songs are famous for their complexity: the dexterity of his wordplay, the enormity of his vocabulary, the jagged rhythms and unexpected intervals of his melodies. They call upon us as performers to bring the highest possible level of technical expertise to the execution of the work – diction, intonation, phrasing. The same must be true of the choices you make when you perform a Sondheim song – each phrase must be supported by specific choices, and nothing can be general or approximate.
- Craft – A passion for craft and painstaking execution is one of the hallmarks of Sondheim’s works. Each word, phrase, chord is carefully chosen, the product of a tireless process of trial and error with endless polishing and revision. The work that you craft when you perform a Sondheim song deserves to be equally well-crafted. “Art isn’t easy,” says George in “Putting It Together,” “every minor detail is a major decision.”
- Clarity – “Without [clarity], nothing else matters,” Sondheim writes in the principles for would-be lyric writers that appear in the Preface to the first volume of his collected lyrics, Finishing The Hat. A musical theater performance is made to be experienced in real time – there’s no rewinding and replaying, no subtitles, no second chances to make a first impression. Clarity comes when you make the right choices and execute them with confidence and ease.
I developed the SAVI System to help singing actors rise to the challenges of Sondheim’s state-of-the-art musical theater compositions. The ability to convey complex character and context with clarity and craft can be achieved with patient, purposeful practice, and SAVI gives you simple, reliable and effective tools and techniques to do that. SAVI will help you practice better and perform better in all sorts of musical theater styles, and they’ll help you shine when you tackle Sondheim. In the words of the man himself, “with so little to be sure of,” you can be sure of SAVI!
Now’s a great time to pick up a copy of The SAVI Singing Actor and a set of SAVI Cards to start building your SAVI skills. They also make a great gift for the singing actors in your life. Use the code SONDHEIM and receive a 20% discount on your purchases this holiday season!