Singer Katie Welsh performed an evening of song, Women in the World of Sondheim, at Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York City on June 10, 2016, accompanied by pianist Emily Whitaker. She explored a dozen female characters from Sondheim’s musicals and how they informed one another when they were put “side by side” with one another and with some of the heroines from Golden Age musicals.s Welsh’s event was an adaptation of a project originally directed by Suzanne Agins; it was previously developed at Princeton when Welsh was a student there.
Everything Sondheim: Before it was a concert, this program was your senior thesis. Why tackle Sondheim and his female characters?
Katie Welsh: During my time at Princeton, Professor Stacy Wolf, a leading feminist musical theater scholar, became my mentor. When I was a freshman, I took her class on gender and sexuality in the Broadway musical, and it fundamentally changed how I thought about musical theater. She asked us to inspect the “heteronormative” narrative (“boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”) and identify the tropes, traditions and stereotypes that have played out (and/or been challenged) over the course of this distinctly American art form’s fascinating history.
By the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to not only continue studying musical theater as a performer but also as a scholar — and specifically as a feminist scholar — and so when I took Professor Wolf’s Sondheim seminar my junior year, I couldn’t help but begin wondering: Who are the Sondheim women? How are they in conversation with one another across shows? Where do they fit in the Broadway canon? When I began my research, I discovered that the Sondheim women were already at the center of an important discussion in the field of musical theater studies. Many scholars were starting to classify “Sondheim’s women” as a new category, a new genre even, of musical theater heroines. I found this conversation exciting, and I knew I had to participate in it as both a singer and a scholar — so I devised Women in the World of Sondheim.
The show ultimately became what I now call an “informative” cabaret. Unlike more traditional cabarets, where the patter between songs is more personal and anecdotal, Women in the World of Sondheim features patter that is more informative and educational — I quote scholars and journalists, touch on the history of musical theater (specifically, Sondheim’s relationship to Rodgers and Hammerstein), lead fun moments of musical analysis and really weave the Sondheim women’s stories together in a new way.
EvSo: When and how did the passion for Sondheim develop?
Welsh: I was first introduced to Sondheim’s work when I was three years old and was allowed to watch the first act — and the first act only — of his 1987 collaboration with James Lapine, Into the Woods. (My mom loves musical theater and was quick to pass that passion on to me!) I studied and loved his shows all through high school and college, but it wasn’t until I took the seminar with Professor Wolf that I found myself deeply engaged with Sondheim’s entire body of work. While I was taking that seminar, I also happened to be singing a lot of Sondheim songs in my voice lessons … I suddenly saw an opportunity to blend my two passions — performance and scholarship — into a single project, and so it became my senior thesis!
EvSo: How did you morph your thesis into a professional concert?
Welsh: Over the past year, I’ve definitely tightened the show’s patter in certain places, but the text as a whole has mostly remained unchanged. What has significantly changed, I think, is how I present the text, specifically the tone of the show. After all, I’m going from performing the show for a roomful of scholars on a university campus to performing it for an audience in a cabaret room or supper club in the city. I’ve had to adjust and adapt to my new environments. I’ve strived to make the tone of the show a bit more informal, more inviting, more “relaxed,” while still maintaining the “informative-ness” of it — I’m striving to make it less about presenting the material to the audience and more about sharing it with the audience. This was always a goal with the show, even when I was performing it at Princeton—but I’m pursuing it even more rigorously now!
EvSo: In your concert, you tackle 12 of Sondheim’s women characters. Who have you selected?
Welsh: Ella from Evening Primrose; Marta from Company; Fay Apple from Anyone Can Whistle; Cinderella from Into the Woods; Helen from Saturday Night; Fosca from Passion; Kathy & April (& Marta again) from Company; Beth from Merrily We Roll Along; Sally Durant Plummer from Follies; Dot from Sunday in the Park with George; and the Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods.
EvSo: How did you narrow this list to 12?
Walsh: It was incredibly difficult! I had to establish some guidelines and criteria. For example, I chose to examine only female characters from shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics — so no Maria in West Side Story, no Rose in Gypsy and no Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? I also took certain logistical things into consideration: I needed to find songs that were vocally appropriate for me, and I needed the show to be a blend of up-tempo songs and ballads. I also took age into consideration — most (but not all) of the female characters I explore in the show are relatively close to my age, in their mid-to-late 20s. I did choose to sing a few pieces originally written for older characters such as Fosca, Sally and the Baker’s Wife. … After all, I didn’t want age to completely restrict myself — I wanted to explore women who fascinated me, and sometimes that meant singing the songs of slightly older characters. I ultimately chose characters I loved, characters who inspired me and characters who challenged me. And I must reiterate: This task was incredibly difficult. … For every song I sing, there are at least five others I could have sung to explore that particular idea, feeling or emotion!
EvSo: In your concert, as you speak to how these women are in conversation with one another, what have you examined?
Welsh: It’s unbelievable how much these women speak to one another across time and show — and I did not realize this until I sat down and looked at their lyrics “side by side — by side”… literally! Early in the show’s development process, my director recommended I put together a notecard chart to organize my thoughts. I put every song I wanted to sing on a notecard, color-coded the notecards (by message, theme, character, context, tempo and vocal range), and then spent an afternoon on my living room floor assembling the notecards and using pushpins to connect them to one another. This might sound kind of ridiculous, but it illuminated a lot for me because while I was “putting it together,” I really began to see the connections between the Sondheim women. Suddenly, the Sondheim women were in conversation with one another — on topics of life, love and choice.
Here is just a small sampling of some of the questions and “conversations” I consider in the show: How does Ella’s perception of the world in Evening Primrose differ from Marta’s in Company? How does Marta’s description of the struggle to connect in “Another Hundred People” relate to Fay’s struggle to connect in Anyone Can Whistle? How does Helen’s conception of love and choice in Saturday Night differ from (or perhaps mirror) Fosca’s conception of love and choice in Passion? How do the women in Company, Merrily We Roll Along and Follies express their disillusionment through song? How do Cinderella and Dot grow up over the course of their shows?
EvSo: Your concert touches on how Sondheim’s women are connected to characters who came before the ones devised by Sondheim. Can you speak to that?
Welsh: In the show, I consider what makes a Sondheim heroine more complicated, more “realistic,” than a Golden Age, Rodgers and Hammerstein ingénue. Laura Hanson’s article, “‘Broadway Babies’: Images of Women in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim,” really inspired my exploration of this idea.
I specifically touch on Sondheim’s relationship to Oscar Hammerstein II, since Hammerstein served as his mentor and surrogate father. I argue that while Sondheim learned a lot from Hammerstein, he seems to challenge his mentor in his body of work by, as one journalist writes, “questioning, qualifying and subverting Hammerstein’s rose-colored philosophy of faith, hope and moral uplift. … The messages in many of Sondheim’s shows are harsh reality checks of his mentor’s pie-in-the-sky optimism.”
In order to illustrate this point, I do a side-by-side comparison of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 Cinderella vs. Sondheim and Lapine’s 1987 Cinderella. I go from “Ten Minutes Ago” into “On the Steps of the Palace” — a delightful contrast people seem to love!
I ultimately feel the Sondheim women are more dynamic than their Golden Age counterparts. The degree to which the Sondheim women change, transform and evolve over the course of a show is extraordinary. While I believe the Laurey we meet in Act I of Oklahoma is pretty much the same Laurey we meet at the end of Act II, I do not believe the Cinderella we meet in Act I of Into the Woods is the same Cinderella we meet in Act II.
EvSo: Why do you believe these characters stand out in musical theater?
Welsh: The Sondheim women are dynamic — they grow and develop — and they often have some kind of agency. They have to confront significant obstacles and grapple with them on their own — often without a Prince Charming or “happily ever after” ending in sight. There’s so much that must happen within them, so much self-evaluation, self-exploration and self-discovery, all in the hopes of attaining self-knowledge, which makes them incredibly wonderful and challenging characters for actors to embody. The Sondheim women experience fundamental shifts in their perspectives. They often find themselves in stories where they can’t go back to before and where they therefore must move forward.
EvSo: Out of the 12 characters you’ve selected, who is the one you would love to play? Is there anyone you would add?
Welsh: Who would I love to play right now? Cinderella, Beth, Dot and Fay. Who would I love to play someday? The Baker’s Wife and Sally. Who would I add? At some point in my life, Desirée’s “Send in the Clowns” needs to find a way into this program.
EvSo: Why is a concert like this important for audiences?
Welsh: For a long time, musical theater was not taken seriously in the world of academia. It was considered lowbrow art, “fluff,” entertainment for entertainment’s sake. But scholars in recent years have really begun to take it more seriously. Musical theater studies is an exciting field right now; there are now journals and forums and conferences devoted solely to the serious study of this American art form. A concert like Women in the World of Sondheim is important because it invites the audience to engage with musical theater in a new way. It pushes boundaries in terms of content — it takes musical theater seriously and treats it as a discipline worth analyzing — and it pushes boundaries in terms of form — it makes the typically personal, anecdotal cabaret patter a site for analysis. The show simultaneously entertains, educates, engages and excites audiences in a way I never dreamed was possible.
EvSo: Do you intend to keep performing this concert?
Welsh: I originally performed the concert at Princeton, and over the last six months, I’ve performed it at various NYC venues, including the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, the Metropolitan Room and most recently Feinstein’s/54 Below. I intend to continue performing and growing the show. I’ll be bringing it to the Princeton Club of New York sometime next year, and I look forward to bringing it to other venues in the city as well.
The show has inspired me to create new “informative” cabarets. I’ve already developed and performed a second concert, Love … According to the Great American Songbook, and I’m currently developing a third show that explores the Broadway ingénue through the decades.
Associate Editor JOSH AUSTIN is the publication/website content editor for Actors’ Equity Association. After earning his master’s degree in arts journalism at Syracuse University he joined The Sondheim Review’s editorial team, 2013 to 2015.