Home News Legendary Sondheim songs inspire new show at TheatreWorks

Legendary Sondheim songs inspire new show at TheatreWorks


Stephen Sondheim has proven to be one of the most unsolvable of the greatest composers in musical theater history. His artistry is a beacon of light that theater practitioners work tirelessly to unlock.

Robert Kelley knows the way he felt when he first saw Sondheim’s work, seated at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York for the original 1976 Broadway production of “Pacific Overtures.” It was the beginning of a long history with Sondheim for Kelley, one of the many creative theater artists who have burrowed beneath the mystery and magic of the famed composer and lyricist.

“I had never seen any of his work at the time,” Kelley said. “I’d never seen anything remotely like it, and it was just a completely astonishing experience that I’ll never forget.”

That initial rush, and many others Kelley experienced while interpreting Sondheim during his 50 years as founding artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (he directed a production of “Pacific Overtures” for the company in 2001), are the impetus for the stage veteran’s latest project — “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.” The revue was conceived by Kelley and his longtime collaborator, and current TheatreWorks resident musical director, William Liberatore. The show gets its world premiere via TheatreWorks on June 8.

The show’s themes focus on love, loss, heartbreak and triumph — within a cast of six performing some of Sondheim’s greatest works, including selections from such shows as “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Follies.” The show’s title comes from one of the most popular songs from the musical “Company” (a touring production of which is playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre June 5-29, presented by BroadwaySF).

TheatreWorks resident musical director William Liberatore, left, and company founding artistic director Robert Kelley, both of whom have a deep connection to Stephen Sondheim’s work, co-conceived and created a new revue built around his iconic songs. (Reed Flores/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) 

There is no real difficulty in finding first-rate material for a Sondheim revue. But for Kelley and Liberatore, the biggest challenge was crafting something new to say through the vast and legendary catalogue of the late composer, who died in 2021.

Of the five revues that are currently available for licensing, three have been produced by TheatreWorks before (a sixth, titled “Old Friends,” will open on Broadway next Spring). After Kelley and Liberatore’s exploration and examination of their own lengthy relationship with Sondheim (he is the most produced composer in the company’s history), affairs of the heart was settled upon for the show’s vision.

“I think a lot of our Sondheim productions over the years had discovered a kind of romantic world that existed alongside his darker edges,” said Kelley, who retired from TheatreWorks full-time in 2020. “That led us to the decision where we would focus on his take on love and relationships, and that was the starting point. As it turned out, Sondheim wrote a lot about those types of relationships.”

Anne Tolpegin has a rich history performing Sondheim, but one of her most incredible moments was speaking to the man himself for an entire minute. Playing Fosca in a regional premiere of “Passion” in Chicago, he provided 60 compelling seconds of infinite wisdom about what her approach should be.

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