A new production downtown showcasing the works of Stephen Sondheim seeks to pay homage to the recently deceased composer and lyricist.
“Sondheim on Sondheim,” modeled after the Broadway show of the same name, opens at Highmark Theatre on Oct. 19 and runs through Oct. 23.
Performances, which feature a group of 16 Point Park University students, take place Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday at 2 p.m. General admission tickets cost $35.
Zeva Barzell, the director of Point Park’s musical theater program, directs and leads choreography. She is not new to Sondheim, having previously been involved with Point Park productions of “Into The Woods” and “The Frogs.”
“I think [Sondheim] is probably the greatest composer/lyricist of our time,” Barzell — who, like Sondheim, is Jewish — told the Chronicle.
“Sondheim’s work is extremely complex and layered and written for folks who’ve been on the planet longer,” she added. “For students to have the wisdom and foresight to delve into this material, that’s impressive. I think people will be happily surprised by what they’re seeing.”
The show will feature songs from several Sondheim musicals, interspersed with film footage of Sondheim speaking to the audience.
Sondheim died in November 2021 at the age of 91. His debut came writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story” in 1957, at age 27. He was born to Jewish parents in New York City but raised without any formal Jewish background, to the extent that he once said Bernstein had to explain to him how to pronounce the words “Yom Kippur.”
Sondheim’s other well-known musicals include “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park With George.” Many of them were not smash hits immediately, as he avoided traditional Broadway formulas that would immediately draw audiences. Instead, he crafted musicals that dealt with subjects that had not received treatments on mainstream stages: loneliness, despair and the artistic temperament.
The cast of “Sondheim on Sondheim” is assisted by a student crew, such as a stage manager and assistant stage manager, said James Cunningham, who serves as the show’s music director.
Cunningham is making his Sondheim musical debut with the show; he previously was involved only in shows for which Sondheim wrote lyrics, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”
“Sondheim on Sondheim” has been called a “revelatory revue full of wonderful moments” and a “funny, affectionate and revealing tribute” to one of musical theater’s greatest composers.
The performance on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. will be audio described; the performance on Thursday, Oct. 20 will be followed by a talkback.
Barzell said Sondheim’s death late last year sparked the idea for the “Sondheim on Sondheim” run at Point Park.
“We said, ‘We really need to do something to celebrate this man’s life,’” Barzell told the Chronicle. “And this is the culmination of that.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. JTA contributed to this story.