This year's edition of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's annual Master Playwright Festival (this is the 13th outing for the fest) shakes things up a bit.
This marks the first year a writer primarily known for musicals is the featured playwright, as the festival fetes Stephen Sondheim, a lyricist and composer regarded as one of the masters of the art of musical theatre.
That's good news and bad news in Winnipeg's theatre community. The good news is that the city currently has a remarkably strong crop of companies focused on producing musical theatre - groups like Dry Cold Productions (who will present Follies at Sondheimfest), Kiss the Giraffe (taking on A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum), District Theatre Collective (presenting Into the Woods), and White Rabbit Productions (who aren't producing a show at the festival, but several regular company members will perform in SondheimFest productions).
The bad news is that the demands of producing musicals - like the need for musicians and relatively big casts - have probably kept some of the Master Playwright Festival's regulars from mounting anything this year, and there are a few notable absences at this festival. (Though a couple of companies have found creative work-arounds - Resonator Theatrical is presenting The Last of Sheila, a non-musical entry based on a film co-written by Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; and the Manitoba Association of Playwrights is staging a reading of What's Love Got To Do With It?, a new play by Winnipeg's Muriel Hogue that's inspired by Sondheim, but doesn't feature any Sondheim music.)
Playwright Stephen Sondheim (Jerry Jackson)
That said, here are three good reasons to check out SondheimFest:
1. If you like musicals, Sondheim is the best of the best. He's won Tonys, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer for his work.
2. You're probably already familiar with some of his work. Sondheim has written some of the most popular musicals ever produced. As a lyricist, he's responsible for shows like West Side Story
; as a composer, he's done work like Sweeney Todd
and A Little Night Music
, which features his only Top 40 hit, "Send In the Clowns." At age 82, it's been reported he's still working, planning a new musical with American playwright David Ives.
3. There's a Winnipeg connection. A couple, actually. Winnipeg's own Len Cariou won a Tony for originating the title role in Sweeney Todd
in 1979. (Winnipeg Public Library will offer up a free screening of the film version of Sweeney Todd
on Jan. 28, and of West Side Story
on Jan. 19). More recently, Thom Allison - another Winnipegger who's made it to Broadway - performed for Sondheim himself at a 2001 tribute. Allison will return to his hometown during SondheimFest for a one-night-only performance of Sondheim music called Me and My Town: Thom Allison In Concert
And of course, there are lots of promising shows out there - including full productions of five of Sondheim's musicals, a play based on one of his film scripts, three new works inspired by Sondheim, an evening of Sondheim-based improv, a night of murder-mystery dinner theatre, and even a karaoke night.
Here are three SondheimFest productions to watch for:
1. Impromptu Splendor
(by National Theatre of the World, presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre) - This Toronto comedy trio came to WJT to perform an improvised play in the style of a different playwright each night last year. This year, they'll focus on Sondheim - but it's improv, so it'll be different every night. They're smart and hilarious chameleons - we'll see this year if they've got musical chops, too.
2. Into the Woods
(District Theatre Collective) - This company debuted with a professional-calibre production of Avenue Q
last year. If they can do as well with Sondheim's dark take on fairy tales, this show will be one to see.
3. Sunday In the Park With George
(Gallery Works) - Arne MacPherson directs a top-notch local cast in this musical about a painter and his painting.SondheimFest runs January 16-February 3.