You would think that at some point in its evolution, a theater company devoted to producing works whose themes concern LGBT issues and whose playwrights represent the LGBT community, would get around to Sondheim. But truth be told, Theatre Out, a small storefront theater company in California’s Orange County, had more than a decade under its belt before it tackled any Sondheim works. For its 2016 season, it did so with a vengeance, with not one but four productions.
That the final roster included Sweeney Todd, Marry Me a Little, Company and Gypsy. Into the Woods and The Frogs had been originally planned, but Theatre Out’s founders David C. Carnevale and Joey Baital needed to be inventive as they faced many challenges from the moment they decided to showcase Sondheim’s works.
Baital said that the previous lack of Sondheim works by Theatre Out was “not intentional. We always have an ear to the ground for what audiences want to see, which shows are available, which are new or popular, which are of interest to actors.”
Tailoring Sondheim to Tight Quarters
The most obvious challenge was the minuscule size of the Theatre Out’s venue, located near the Artist’s Village district in county seat Santa Ana’s downtown area: The house at Theatre Out can accommodate up to 53 patrons per performance. Every must be scaled to the stage’s tight dimensions (19 feet wide by 24 feet deep).
Musicals that would normally be mounted on a fairly large scale create added hurdles. Tight spacing normally precludes live music from even a small orchestra, so prerecorded tracks of Sondheim’s music had to be purchased through publishers or specially arranged and orchestrated via digital piano and either recorded and played back or performed live from the tech booth, with the keyboard plugged directly into the theater’s sound system.
Such limitations didn’t deter Carnevale or Baital, who are well aware of the logistical and technical issues presented by the venue, which they’ve occupied since 2013. (Theatre Out’s previous venue of four years, located three blocks away, was equally tight, as were various spaces the company rented from its inaugural year through 2009.)
“We’d never done a Sondheim show nor a themed season,” Carnevale said, “and as we first began planning, we thought [a Sondheim-oriented season] would be a perfect way to merge the two. When we first looked at the Sondheim songbook, we knew we wanted to do at least one established revue and three other musicals that represented an evolution of his work.”
The “established revue” was Marry Me a Little, about how two New York singles spend a lonely Saturday night at their separate one-room apartments. Craig Lucas and Norman René created the “plotless” and dialogue-free show in 1980 from unused songs cut from better-known Sondheim musicals and from the then-unproduced Saturday Night.
Sweeney Todd was included because Carnevale’s concepts for it had been percolating as far back as 2010. Into the Woods had been “an obvious choice because of its popularity and because of its message.” The Frogs was “really a wild card — a great score and funny script, and a show that is rarely done.” Also under consideration were Road Show and the 1996 non-musical Getting Away with Murder.
The initial four selections, Carnevale said, grew out of the desire “to create a diverse presentation” of Sondheim shows. Baital said the idea for a Sondheim-oriented season “was probably in [Carnevale’s] head for a while” before 2016 preparations began in late 2014 and into early and mid-2015. The initial plan, Baital said, was for Carnevale to direct Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods and for friend and fellow director Travis Kendrick to direct The Frogs and Marry Me.
The plan for one musical director to work on all four shows “didn’t pan out” either, said Baital. Using scores rented from the publishers, Stephen Hulsey, a local musical director par excellence, created pre-recorded tracks for Sweeney Todd and Marry Me; for Gypsy, Gabrielle Maldonado worked with rented musical tracks; and for Company, local musician Paul McGlinchey played a keyboard plugged into the theater’s sound system, with Baital conducting him and the cast from inside the tech booth.
Swapping Titles on the Fly
Half the planned season went off fairly smoothly and in short order at the start of 2016 as Carnevale’s Sweeney Todd went up in January and Kendrick’s Marry Me a Little two months later.
Two events derailed the remaining two shows: In early spring, the rights to Into the Woods became unavailable since Roundabout Theatre Company’s national tour of Fiasco Theater’s acclaimed production would visit the Los Angeles area in April and May. Around the same time, Kendrick prepared to relocate from California to the East Coast when he landed a new job and became unavailable to direct The Frogs. Carnevale said he and Baital had Gypsy and Company “already on our radar as ‘just in case’ shows.”
While they had envisioned a scaled-down version of Into the Woods, plans hadn’t gotten very far when they learned the show was unavailable. Gypsy was selected for the June slot in June, rights were obtained and the duo got to work.
Dropping The Frogs, Carnevale said, “was a more difficult decision. Ultimately, as we listened to the audience talk about the season, we realized that The Frogs did not seem to be something that wanted to be seen.” Baital added this was fueled by unfamiliarity with the show and a lack of interest in seeing it. What’s more Carnevale had no desire to direct it. Fortunately, the show’s October scheduling left plenty of time to prepare a replacement.
Whatever replaced The Frogs had to be workable for the venue’s size and technical parameters, something Carnevale felt confident directing and have available performance rights. Company filled the bill.
New Takes on Sweeney Todd and Marry Me a Little
Carnevale said his Sweeney reconceptualization “began to formulate several years ago. In about 2010 or so, I began discussing with Theatre Out actor/director Tito Ortiz the idea of a small-scale version, as our stage is quite small. This soon morphed into the concept that was used for the production. As I began to research asylums in the 19th century, I discovered that at Bedlam Asylum the general public was allowed to pay to watch the inmates as a form of entertainment. It was often the most violent and sexually aggressive inmates who were on display, and visitors could poke them with sticks to make them even more active and agitated. This equivalent of a bizarre zoo really solidified the concept. I was committed to the idea that these inmates were to portray, as necessary, real women: Mrs. Lovett was Mrs. Lovett, not a drag interpretation or caricature of a female; the same with Johanna. In their process, the actors were charged with discovering disorders that mirrored their characters’ struggles within the play and would make sense within the realm of the asylum.”
The reimagining of the action within the setting of Bedlam, Carnevale said, “is ultimately what we submitted to the licensing agent, and we received permission almost immediately.” He wanted to use this concept “to focus on the storytelling,” but said that “the first step was reducing the cast size to eight principal characters who would then double for others in the story.
“Vocally, it meant more work for all, but the cast handled it beautifully. The other casting obstacle we had was using a cast of all men. This meant that any man we cast had to be able to handle the higher (vocal) parts of the score. Again, they rose to the challenge.”
Baital added that while using only men in the cast was essential. “We didn’t want a campy, drag version” of the show, he added.
Theatre Out’s reconceptualization of Marry Me a Little was just as solid and well thought out as Sweeney Todd, using two men to portray the lonely singles.
“As an LGBT theatre,” Carnevale said, “we knew from the start that we would cast it for a same-sex couple.” He and Baital worked closely with director Kendrick, and “actually offered the suggestion” of two separate casts one male and one female, which had been done in previous productions around the country, before settling on one cast of two men. Gender aside, no changes were made to the show or lyrics.
Apparent limitations can become strengths
Carnevale is eloquent in his articulation of how the strengths of most Sondheim shows are actually magnified, not diminished, by facets of small-scale theatre that might normally be thought of as limitations. “Sondheim’s works provide the creative team and actors the ability to really tell unique stories and create individualized and unique characters,” he said. “In a small, intimate theater, these stories and characters don’t get overshadowed by spectacle and are actually amplified. Actors must tell a story with truth and honesty. Small gestures become large. If actors are on stage, they must be in the moment.
“In our production the ensemble of actors was onstage and in the audience for most of the production. As Sweeney tells Anthony of his past and mentions his daughter, a slight glance from Johanna, a small hand movement from the Beggar Woman or the stiffening of the Judge’s back help to move the story forward in way that would be lost on the big stage. In working in a small space, there is also a pressing need for detail. Every prop that a character uses must tell a story; colors become important.”
A crucial fact “that draws us to Sondheim’s work,” Carnevale said, “is the challenge of creating something new. So many of his works have become part of the mainstream theatre canon and have been so since their first productions. Iconic portrayals of Mrs. Lovett or Gypsy’s Rose, for example, are burnished into audience’s minds and can be difficult to look past.”
With each show, Carnevale and Baital challenged directors “to create a new production based on the text that will speak to the audience in a way that helps them to overcome those previous iconic portrayals.”
Carnevale and Baital said their headlong, year-long plunge into Sondheim “was very well-received” by audiences and critics, with “the most attention being given to the conceptualization and casting” of Sweeney Todd and the casting in Gypsy “of an age-appropriate Rose, which seems to be a rarity.”
Rose, Carnevale said, “is a larger-than-life woman, but in a small theatre a Merman-like performance becomes too large and overbearing — and not in a Rose sort of way. There needs to be a reality to Rose and subtleness that balance the brassiness of her character. The audience must connect with her for the story to be told.”
Carnevale’s younger-than-typical casting of the role scored on two levels: First, it made more sense that the mother of two tween girls would be 40-ish versus the likes of Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters or Patti LuPone, all in their 50s when they played Mama Rose. Critic Steven Stanley of StageSceneLA praised Theatre Out’s “terrific” Tara Pitt for her “powerhouse performance.”
By adjusting the role’s scale to suit the venue, Pitt out-Merman’ed Merman. Orange County playwright John Lane had seen Merman’s Rose in 1959. After seeing Pitt’s work portrait, he told her he was “blown away” by her performance.
The Orange County Register praised Carnevale’s use of “a touch of Marat/Sade-like meta-theatrics” for his Sweeney Todd, noting that “the production typifies TO’s theatrical output, with strong ensemble work, vocal performances and music direction. It also proves the 1979 musical’s flexibility while injecting a Shakespearean sensibility, what with men playing all of the roles.”
A taste for Sondheim has stuck
Carnevale noted that “as one of the biggest influences on modern American theater, Sondheim’s work will always be a part of our consideration when we plan new seasons. We still hope to visit Into the Woods at some point, with a keen eye on the piece’s anti-bullying message, as well as Road Show, Sondheim’s latest and most openly gay-themed work … As we plan our future seasons, everything is on the table, especially as we work with directors and creative teams who are passionate about the production and who bring to us new ideas about the work.”
ERIC MARCHESE has covered the Southern California theater scene as a freelance writer since the mid-1980s.