During the summer of 2002 theater lovers from around the globe flocked to Washington DC where six fully staged productions of Sondheim musicals where the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration. They were presented in two repertories of three shows each in the 1,100 seat Eisenhower Theater. The phenomenon that the celebration was to become was obvious from the beginning: When tickets went on sale the box office racked up the biggest one-day total in its history. That day it filled orders from 41 states and from countries around the globe including Australia, Japan, Portugal, Sweden and Great Britain.
It was no wonder. How else could you see Christine BaranskI and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Celia Keenan-Bolger in Sweeney Todd; John Barrowman, Lynn Redgrave and Alice Ripley in Company; and Raúl Esparza, Melissa Erico and Dana Ivey in Sunday in the Park with George -- and do it all in a weekend's visit in May or June, then come back later in the summer to catch Esparza with Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor, Anastasia Barzee and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along; Michael Cerveris, Rebecca Luker and Judy Kuhn in Passion; and top it off with Randy Graff, Blair Brown, Barbara Byrne, John Dorsett, Douglas Sills, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Natascia Diaz and Danny Gurwin in A Little Night Music?
We asked Eric Schaeffer, the Artistic Director of the celebration, to reminisce about what he says became "the 'Camp Sondheim' experience." Schaeffer co-founded Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA., and has served as its artistic director since 1989. He staged the 2011 revival of Follies for the Kennedy Center, and then took it to Broadway and Los Angeles.
The Sondheim Review: How did it start?
Eric Schaeffer: I had worked at the Kennedy Center before and Jim Johnson, chairman of the Center, knew me and knew I was in London working on Witches of Eastwick when they signed Michael Kaiser to be the new President of the Kennedy Center. Kaiser, of course, was still in London where he had made quite a name for himself as the director of the Royal Opera House, turning it around from bankruptcy to financial and artistic success. Jim suggested we should get to know each other while Michael was still in London, so I called him and he said he wanted to talk to me about an idea. We set up a meeting. He said he wanted the Kennedy Center to get back into producing like it did in the Roger Stevens days. That was exciting news, but then he laid out the idea he had wanted to talk to me about. He said he really wanted to do a Sondheim Celebration. He said that Sondheim was an under-appreciated artist and we could provide a focus on his genius and artistry by doing full productions of his shows in rep. He said he'd love to do six shows. He didn't know Steve and he knew I did. So he wondered if I could help him make the proposal. I called Steve and told him Michael would like to talk to him about a proposal and we set up a meeting at Steve's home in New York. Michael made his case with real enthusiasm, saying that he was talking about doing full productions – not cut down tabs – and doing them with their original orchestrations using the full sized Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. We'd use different directors and use the Eisenhower Theater.
TSR: Why not the Opera House?
Schaeffer: There really wasn't any consideration of doing them in the Opera House. From the start, we were thinking of the Eisenhower because the kind of shows that Steve does fit well in that size house. They aren't big and wouldn't fit as well in the Opera House. The Eisenhower isn't a small theater, but it has a much more intimate feel.
TSR: What was Sondheim's reaction?
Schaeffer: Well, Steve seemed pleased and complimented and he said "let me think about it and I'll get back to you." We felt good about the meeting but weren't sure how it would turn out. Michael got in his car, but since my apartment in New York isn't too far from Steve's, I chose to walk from the east side to the west. I'd been walking for about five minutes when my cell phone rang and it was Steve. He said he just had one question … "do you really think they can do this?" I told him my impression of Michael Kaiser was that he was serious about getting the resources to do big things and this was just such a big thing so, yes, I thought he could do it.
TSR: I suppose that selecting the shows and the directors came first but tell me if I'm right and how you went about it.
Schaeffer: Well, first we picked the shows. We didn't want to do things that had just had revivals. For example, Follies had just been revived (on Broadway). Then Michael talked to Max Woodward (the Kennedy Center's vice president for theater programming) to see about the logistics of fitting all of this in, not just on the stage but rehearsal space, set construction, cast accommodations – all of it. We talked about Pacific Overtures but Steve said "there's this really great production in Tokyo – maybe you could bring it over" and that's what we did (with director Amon Miyamoto's production from the New National Theatre of Tokyo). Michael really wanted to do Sunday in the Park with George and I really wanted to make sure we included Passion.
TSR: So the directors came next?
Schaeffer: Yes. Steve had suggestions, and we went over a lot of matches. I picked the designers for set, lights and sound because we knew we'd have to have the same people do all the shows so the physical demands would be compatible. I did this before we called any potential directors because every director always wants to have a clean slate, so I wanted to have the constraints each would face set in advance. Then I called each to make the explanation of what we were trying to put together. Each responded the same way … "Your going to do that? I'm in!"
TSR: Talk about the casting process for a bit.
Schaeffer: The excitement of it just built and built. Tara Rubin was our casting director. She's the queen of musical theater casting, and everything started falling into place when she lined up Christine (Baranski to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney). Once word spread, agents started calling and and people were calling saying "I want to be part of this."
TSR: One of the Sondheim Celebration performances that has become part of Washington theatre lore was the night the late Jane Pesci-Townsend went on as Mrs. Lovett for Baranski? Were you there that night?
Schaeffer: Oh, yes! I was standing at the back of the house. You know, Christine is one of those amazing performers who come hell or high water is going to go on. You just know she'll always be there. So when we got the call (that a throat infection would keep her out) I said "Oh, my God!" But Jane was such a big part of the Washington theater community and so talented, we all knew she could do it. Everyone there was rooting 300 percent for her. She was so different from Christine, but so great – and the way (Brian Stokes Mitchell) worked with her was fabulous. Of course, Stokes's leadership was just amazing throughout. I remember the last night of tech. When the final run through ended, it was about a quarter of midnight and everyone was bone tired. But Stokes asked for silence for just a moment and asked the cast to take a minute to thank everyone who worked so hard to get us to this point. Then he led them in applause for the crew! There was a feeling of all being part of something you just knew was a once in a lifetime event. Everyone was pulling for everyone else to succeed. I know that when it was over, I thought I'd just hit the highlight of my entire career: Nothing could ever be as great, as good or as important as this.
TSR: I don't suppose you got a summer vacation that year … at least not until September. How did you keep things going at Signature Theater? You directed The Gospel According to Fishman, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the concert version of The Rink in Lubber Run Park while doing the Sondheim Celebration!
Schaeffer: I didn't sleep … but, then, who wanted to sleep? These were days you didn't mind working through the night. There was such a great team of people at the Kennedy Center, so I didn't have to worry about the details. I was the conduit for the artistic side of the team.
TSR: Talk about the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Was Kay Cameron the orchestra's music director at the time?
Schaeffer: Yes, Kay did all the coordination for the individual music directors. We picked music directors that Steve knew or I knew. I mean, when you have Jonathan (Tunick, Sondheim's legendary orchestrator) calling to say "I'd love to do Company and I'd appreciate it if you would consider me (for music director)" what do you do? It must have been amazing for him to conduct his own orchestrations each night. And the working environment was so different at the Center. There was pressure. Yes, pressure to make this the best thing ever. But it was a different kind of pressure than on Broadway. It just got the creative juices flowing … and the love. We knew it was momentous and that it would never happen again. People worked harder than ever, but everyone was pulling for everyone to succeed and whatever you needed they wanted you to have.
TSR: Looking back on each of the six productions, what stands out in your memory when I mention each show? Lets start with Sweeney Todd.
Schaeffer: The set! The first time I walked in and saw that huge bridge that they would have to move out of there and then move it back in. I couldn't believe it could be done.
Schaeffer: Alice (Ripley) doing "Getting Married Today" – what a brilliant thing every time! But then also I remember John Barrowman was just such a leader and so much fun. It made it a loving, great team. We were so lucky to get him over from London.
TSR: Sunday in the Park with George?
Schaeffer: The fearless passion and energy of Raúl Esparza. I choked up every night when he pulled that huge drop curtain down.
TSR: Merrily We Roll Along?
Schaeffer: Really, it was the reaction of everyone to the show. I think it was the first time people looked at it and said "it's a good show!" What Christopher Ashley did with it was just amazing.
Schaeffer: The opportunity to work with this trio (Michael Cerveris, Rebecca Luker, Judy Kuhn) was just bliss! With them performing you just love to go to work every day.
TSR: A Little Night Music?
Schaeffer: Getting to hear that score with the original orchestrations and that company.
TSR: There were a lot of Signature Theatre regulars involved -- Donna Migliaccio, Sherri Edelen, Wil Gartshore, Amy McWilliams, Harry Winter, Ilona Dulaski and others -- and not just on the shows you directed. Was that your doing?
Schaeffer: Well, that was half me and half Michael. In our talks I made a point of saying how great the talent pool is in Washington. But that is the wonderful thing about Michael. He saw it as a chance to tap into that and also to demonstrate it as a strength. He thought it would be great for the city, and great for our people to be given the opportunity to work on this. We had a goal of half and half from the very beginning.
TSR: Please talk about Sondheim's participation -- his role in the planning, his dialog with the directors and designers, his participation at rehearsals and his attendance at performances.
Schaeffer: He was just so excited about it all. I remember the first time he walked into the Eisenhower and he saw that show curtain – the big blue curtain with just his signature on it – and he said "This is going to be overwhelming!" He would usually come down at the beginning of the rehearsal process on each show, which gave him a chance to work on the run-throughs of the others as well. He'd give notes and thoughts which the actors just loved. Actors love having it from the source. I mean it was a chance to ask why he'd written something the way he had, or to work out an idea they had. Steve is just one of the most amazing collaborators. Of course, he always talked to the directors first. He'd give his views and sometimes say "can you tell them this or that? Or do you want me to talk to them?" That sort of thing.
TSR: Talk a bit about Michael Kaiser's participation.
Schaeffer: Well, my big memory is how he would stand in the wings stage right every night at the end of every show. That put him between the stage and the elevator and stairs down to the dressing rooms. He'd stand there and thank each member of the the cast as they came off with tears running down his face. That's the kind of love that filled the summer of "Camp Sondheim." We had T-shirts made up for everyone. They said "Camp Sondheim," but each had the logo of the show the person was working on. The team spirit was beyond belief. This really was the most amazing team. You can't bottle this but it was a summer to remember. And the celebration really did accomplish what Michael thought from the start. It really made people realize how brilliant Steve is and how brilliant his work is. It sparked a resurgence, spurring revivals on Broadway and across the country. [TSR]
Eric Schaeffer Recalls 2002's Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center