Singer Thom Allison returns to Winnipeg for Sondheimfest (Ted Simonett)
I strode out to the spot I was to stand and I saw HIM sitting there waiting to hear me.
—Thom Allison, actor and singer
The thing about Stephen Sondheim is he gives a performer and audience something to strive for, to understand, to be changed by.
His melodies are either extremely challenging or deceptively simple but always perfectly attuned to the emotional life of the character and the moment. And no one plays with words better than Sondheim: "It's your father's fault that the curse got placed and the place got cursed in the first place." Or "We've no time to sit and dither, while her withers whither with her." Come on, that's great stuff.
I remember the time I realized that this composer was brilliant. I saw a televised live performance of Sondheim's A Little Night Music on Live From Lincoln Centre starring Sally Ann Howes (Truly Scrumptious in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as Desiree. When I saw that the song was about an aging actress being refused after asking her ex-lover to leave his new young bride for her - using entertainment/theatre language:
"Isn't it rich?
Isn't it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career.
Send in the clowns."
(Clowns were considered filler when nothing else "substantial" was to be seen. They were a time killer.)
I realized how this man could use melody, situation, emotion, character and period to tell a story in song. I was hooked. I actually videotaped it and watched it so much, I destroyed it. I started to buy the audiotapes - yes, tapes, don't laugh - of his productions. My favourite show is still A Little Night Music.
Thom Allison sings "People" from Broadway, My Way
I did my first Sondheim show at Rainbow Stage in Winnipeg. A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in 1991. I've been lucky enough to perform roles in four other Sondheim shows - Side By Side By Sondheim at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg in 2001; Into the Woods at the Stratford Festival in 2005; A Little Night Music at the Shaw Festival in 2008; and Follies at the Shaw Festival in 2008.
The ultimate thrill happened in 2001. I was asked to be one of the solo performers in a gala evening honouring Stephen Sondheim. It was called World Leaders Salutes and it was a series of evenings celebrating 14 people from different arenas who were at the top in their field. Some of the other performers that evening were Canadian musical theatre icon Susan Gilmour (Fantine in Les Miz) and Tony Award winner Brent Carver (Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway).
I will never forget that night. I was to sing "Finishing The Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George and Stephen Sondheim was sitting about 20 feet from me in the front row. We were all so nervous backstage, barely anyone spoke.
But the moment they opened the curtain for me to walk out to sing, I got really calm. I strode out to the spot I was to stand and I saw HIM sitting there waiting to hear me. I nodded to the musical director and then managed to sing the song - didn't forget any lyrics.
At the end, I saw him applauding with the other audience members. Then I calmly made my exit and the moment I was offstage, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor, shivering. The bizarre part was the exact same thing happened to every single other performer that evening. He is like a deity or something.
I managed to have a moment alone with him at the after party. He was very kind and generous and had very nice things to say but most importantly, I was able to thank him for raising the bar so high and giving us all something to reach for. It still stands as one of the greatest moments in my life.
It's always a joy and challenge to do Sondheim's material but to come back to Winnipeg and do it for people who have supported me and followed me and encouraged me is a great thrill.
zone41 presents Thom Allison in Me and My Town - an Intimate Evening of Stephen Sondheim as part of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Master Playwright Festival. The performance is at the Tom Hendry Warehouse on January 20.