In the world of musical theatre, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a composer as great as Stephen Sondheim. Since his death on November 26, 2021, Sondheim has left a giant hole in the musical theatre world. His works are full of charm, wit, sublime melodies, and clever lyrics. His musicals are some of the greatest of all time, including works such as: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Company; Follies; A Little Night Music; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Sunday in the Park with George; and Into the Woods. His shows are loved by performers and audiences alike.
At this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, accomplished director and performer Mitchell Butel (and current Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia) will direct a tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim in Moments In The Woods – Songs and Stories of Sondheim. It was a pleasure to catch up with Mitchell and talk all things Sondheim.
“For me, Sondheim and Shakespeare are my two biggest artistic influences, and Sondheim probably more so. His work is marked with such heart and humanity, but also wit, humour and intelligence. For me, the kind of person I am that has been defined by the life lessons he gives through his musicals, for example: living as an artist, like in Sunday In The Park With George; human relationships like you see in Follies; or how friendships operate like in Merrily We Roll Along. Often our lives and the way we live them can be dictated by art and I think Sondheim is an incredible example of that. On top of that, as a performer, the muscles you need to perform Sondheim and to capture that intelligence, that wit and that heart, that material sharpens you up in an incredible way. He is the best kind of teacher as a performer.”
Sondheim has always been a huge part of Mitchell’s life, right from an early age.
“I was in school choirs, school plays and all of those things, and from there I started working as an actor, after I abandoned my law degree. I guess one of my first big shows was Grease The Musical with David Atkins, so musicals have always been a huge part of my life. I’ve done a lot of musical theatre as well as straight plays, but I’ve done a few Sondheim’s over the years, including Follies at the Sydney Opera House when I was quite young, Assassins in New Zealand, and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in Melbourne. Of course, I’ve also sung a lot of Sondheim at benefit nights and concerts over the years. Doing musicals is awesome, but when you get to do a Sondheim musical, then you’re really talking. I’ve been very lucky to have him in my life from pretty much the beginning of my performing career.”
Moments In The Woods will star some of Australia’s leading Sondheim performing experts, including Mitchell himself. It will also feature Philip Quast, Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt, Josie Lane, with musical direction by Daryl Wallis.
“The show came out of a conversation with Alex Sinclair, who is the executive producer of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and myself, and with Tina Arena’s oversight as well, of course. We really wanted to celebrate his impact following his death in November last year. We decided that instead of doing a musical revue on Sondheim, as there are so many out there already, it really interested us to see his impact on Australian audiences and artists. So, we selected a cross section of performers who have all performed Sondheim over their careers. Also, getting the high priest and priestess of Sondheim in Phillip Quast and Geraldine Turner was a real coup. Between them, they have performed eleven Sondheim characters and Phillip has probably performed the most Sondheim out of anyone in Australia. The whole cast are incredible singers, but most importantly, incredible actors. To perform Sondheim well, you need people who are singers and actors, rather than just singers.”
Moments In The Woods is not just for your avid Sondheim die-hard. There is promised to be a lot for those who are not as familiar with his work as well.
“The show is very conversational. We’ve tried to make it a lounge room/salon vibe as we share songs and stories with the audience. We will give a lot of context about the songs and shows and some gossipy stories about the productions the artists were involved in here in Australia. So, we will provide a lot of context, but for the avid Sondheim fan, we will play some games. Just like Sondheim liked to play games, we will also do some fun games where the audience can guess where different excerpts come from. We are currently working on a really fun medley of famous Sondheim duets. So, someone who loves Sondheim will love the show, but even people who are not as intimately equated with his works will have a great time. We have tried to have at least one song from all of Sondheim’s best known works.”
Moments In The Woods – Songs and Stories Of Sondheim will be performed for one show only at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thursday June 23, 7.30pm. Tickets can be purchased through https://www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au/
Interview by Ben Stefanoff