Winter, 2014

When Ellie Mednick, executive director of the Lark Theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Larkspur, hosted what she believed might be the first-ever Sondheim Film Festival in 2014, it was the culmination of over 40 years of presenting Stephen Sondheim's work to the public. 

In the late 1960s Mednick and her husband travelled south from her native Winnipeg, Canada, to raise their children in the comparative warmth of Marin County, Calif. She brought with her an abiding love of all things Sondheim. "It was really West Side Story that started it all," she says now. "I wore out the record [of the movie soundtrack] as a teenager and then discovered that the genius who wrote the words for that life-changing musical also wrote both words and music for others."

As a parent, she volunteered at her children's school. With another parent and ardent fan, she developed a weeklong program, The History of the American Musical Theatre, for fifth and sixth graders. They eventually took that program to 11 elementary schools in the county. "By the end of the week, the students would do a scene for us that they created themselves" she says. Of course, the songs of Stephen Sondheim were "always in there somewhere."

In 1973 she became the marketing director for the Marin Symphony, which had recently taken up residence in a large auditorium and needed increased outreach to fill its 2,000 seats. She produced annual outdoor summertime pops concerts, including programs by Sondheim, Bernstein and Gershwin. She began planning a staged concert version of A Little Night Music for the orchestra, although it never came to fruition.

In 1988, after 15 years with the symphony, Mednick took on new challenges as the marketing director for the Marin Theatre Company, which had recently become a professional theater in Mill Valley. "We did three summer shows there on strictly Sondheim material" she explained. "We did Side By Side By Sondheim and You're Gonna Love Tomorrow. But a pastiche we called Summer Nights of Sondheim, taught me about the need to secure rights." The show got a positive review from none other than the San Francisco Chronicle. "I guess New York saw the article” Says Mednick. “The next thing we knew, we had a cease-and-desist letter." 

One series she initiated for the company was Words and Music including "The Great Broadway Sing Along," which she has since taken on the road to a half-dozen Jewish community centers and civic theaters throughout California. It began as a way to use the house of the Marin Theatre Company on a production's dark nights. The series ran on one Monday night for each of the five plays in the theater's season and enjoyed seven sold-out years. "We managed to include songs from every show Sondheim wrote" says Mednick with pride. 

After she left the theater in 2001, she concentrated on producing live performances. One venue where she presented these shows was the  Lark Theatre, a single-screen movie theater that was built in 1936 but now specializes in events such as digital screenings of opera and theatre, art films and documentaries. Her work there led to her appointment as director of live events at the Lark in 2009. In 2013 she became the theatre’s executive director. 

Earlier this year, Mednick put together the aforementioned four day film festival at the Lark. Hollywood versions of West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and Gypsy were screened, as well as the 1985 PBS television documentary of the New York Philharmonic concert staging of Follies. The theater charged normal admission prices for the Hollywood movies, but offered the Follies documentary as a free educational “extra," because the documentary was not commercially available. 

"My vision for the festival had been a bit greater," says Mednick. "I had hoped to include kinescopes of TV interviews with Sondheim and perhaps Evening Primrose or A Little Night Music, but the rights just weren't there. Still, we had a fine festival."

It was just one more in the string of Sondheim events that Mednick has brought Marin County audiences.  [TSR]

One-woman bandwagon
Mednick has promoted Sondheim in California for years