For artistic director Eric Rosen, Stephen Sondheim is more than just a musical theater composer.
Sondheim’s songs and shows have been not only an inspiration throughout Rosen’s career, they’ve also been instrumental in his life milestones.
You see, Rosen met his husband, Claybourne Elder, during Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2009 hit production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” And Elder jumpstarted his own acting career the year before in the world premiere of Sondheim’s “Road Show” off-Broadway. In 2015, Elder starred in the Rep’s well-received “Sunday in the Park With George” and, starting in February, will understudy for Jake Gyllenhaal in the Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical.
And there’s this: One of the couple’s first dates was at Sondheim’s 80th birthday party.
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“So Sondheim has certainly been a figure in my personal life in a strange way,” Rosen said. “This show is related very much to these experiences I had personally, and it was comforting to go back to some of these older songs. I just fell in love with this idea.”
The show he’s referring to is the Rep’s next production, “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which begins previews on Friday. A compilation of 28 early Sondheim songs (including the one from “Company” that lends its name to the show’s title), it’s a concert- and musical-revue-style piece celebrating the composer and what his songs mean to audiences.
So, in other words, it’s perfect for Rosen. And when a previously scheduled production of world premiere work “The Fabulous Fitches” wasn’t ready in time, “Side by Side” seemed like the natural choice.
Four actors from very different backgrounds — rural Utah, England, Manila and Alaska — will perform songs from shows such as “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “Follies” and “Company,” which the Rep memorably presented in 2001. Featuring standout hits like “Send in the Clowns” and “Broadway Baby,” the songs are all from Sondheim’s work before he turned 48, another coincidence for Rosen, who’s 46.
“It’s fun to go back in the lyrics in ‘West Side Story’ or in ‘Company,’ because this is where he was headed, but here, also, are his roots in vaudeville and in burlesque and in follies — and also in nostalgia,” Rosen said. “Once you’ve worked on contemporary Sondheim, going back to his other work, you realize how that material was really directly connected to his roots in a very Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition.”
Shanna Jones, who will sing standouts like “I’m Still Here” and “A Boy Like That,” worried that she was unfamiliar with earlier Sondheim but was surprised at how many songs she actually knew.
“Sondheim is brilliant and he’s complicated, and the songs he writes are so layered. It’s been really exciting to just be able to climb into these songs and really explore them,” said Jones, who brings her burlesque experience (“I never took my clothes off,” she noted) to the show. “It’s been a rough year for everyone, and so I feel really fortunate that I get to make people laugh. That’s honestly my greatest joy going into this.”
Oliver Thornton, who calls himself the “token British person” in the show, was likewise familiar with only a couple of songs, but he made sure to grab his favorites quickly.
“He (Rosen) sort of said, ‘Is there anything that particularly stands out to people?’ And I put my hand up straight away and said, ‘I want to sing “Send in the Clowns.” ’ And, fortunately, he complied with it,” Thornton said. The song, from “A Little Night Music,” was written for actress Glynis Johns but became a popular standard thanks to Frank Sinatra and later Judy Collins.
“Because the songs aren’t in context, there really isn’t any reason, particularly, why you would be gender-specific,” Thornton said. “And I’ve found it really interesting looking at it as a man.”
The revue presents the songs out of context of their shows, but focusing on the characters’ motivations and playing the scene as a monologue have been helpful for the cast. Rosen said even he was surprised at the level of acting required for the show.
“My biggest challenge was just my fear of it, really,” Thornton said. “People are very reverent toward (Sondheim’s) work … because he really is one of, if not the most, adventurous, well-respected composers of our lifetime. When you’re working on someone’s work like that, there’s a lot of external pressure.
“There’s also the pressure you put on yourself, which are the voices of those musical theater and Sondheim aficionados inside my head saying, ‘You’ve got to get this right.’ ”
▪ “How to Use a Knife,” through Feb. 19 at the Unicorn Theatre. In a world premiere production, a hot-shot chef tries to find his way back after personal struggles derail his career. See UnicornTheatre.org.
▪ “A Night on the Town With Alison Sneegas Borberg,” Thursday through Saturday at Musical Theatre Heritage. The actress performs a cabaret act accompanied by a musical quartet. See MTHKC.org.
▪ “Stomp,” Saturday and Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Performers make music out of anything they can get their hands on in this perennial touring show combining percussion, movement and comedy. See BroadwayinKC.com.
▪ “The Toughest Kid in the World,” Tuesday through Feb. 4 at Theatre for Young America. Through humor, songs and action, the protagonist — a kid named T.K. — explores violence and bullying. See TYA.org.