The Sondheim Review: Mixing Things Up

Artists from various musical disciplines re-imagined songs from Sunday

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

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Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! occupies a special branch on the Sondheim family tree. Stephen Sondheim holds a God-like (albeit offstage) position in the creative development of the central character, Jon, buoying the struggling songwriter’s sinking confidence with a well-timed phone call. The show is also notable for its loving tribute to Sunday in the Park with George’s title song, re-imagined as a meditation on brunch through the eyes of a harried waiter. The themes of mentorship and derivation in Larson’s musical inspired young composer Ben Wexler to create the Sondheim REMIX challenge in conjunction with a revival of tick, tick… BOOM! at New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series (June 25-28, 2014).

Writers, producers, and performers were invited to take a piece from Sunday “and remix it. Make it yours. Sample it. Adapt it. Run with it.” The range of submissions represented world music, spoken word poetry, electronica, folk, and rap, each demonstrating Sunday’s power to transcend cultures and generations.

Encores! Off-Center’s artists board winnowed 45 entries to a group of finalists, from which a team headed by Off-Center Artistic Director Jeanine Tesori chose the five winners: George Abud, “Children and Art”; Ross Baum featuring Hannah Corneau, “Move On”; Farasha Baylock, “White Colored Canvas”; Jeremy Lloyd, “Color and Light”; and Max Mamon and Christopher Staskel, “Monkey on a Leash.” All entries were posted online, and winners were invited to perform their pieces as part of the Lobby Project, a set of pre-show events that complement Encores! Off-Center shows. They received a $200 stipend, tickets to tick, tick… BOOM!,and the opportunity to perform for the Lobby Project’s June 26 audience — including Stephen Sondheim. (The event also featured a recorded “megamix” of runners-up.)

When Tesori introduced the performance, she noted that the full house of eager listeners marked significant growth for the series, indicating the audience’s hunger for original takes on Sondheim. “The Lobby Project is about legacy,” she said. “There is something really extraordinary that happens in this business (besides poverty), which is lineage. Stephen Sondheim — sometimes that name gets [labeled] ‘legendary,’ but here’s the thing I really feel: it’s deserved.” She explained how Sondheim has mentored many young composers, including Jonathan Larson, who became a role model to Lin-Manuel Miranda (playing Jon in this production), who in turn has inspired and mentored other young artists.

This lineage was keenly felt by Ross Baum, whose mash-up of “Move On” with “Champagne” from In the Heights (co-written by Miranda) earned a spot on the bill and a tweet from Miranda saying, “This dropkicked my heart.” Reflecting on the experience, Baum commented, “To pay homage to people I consider two of my biggest inspirations, in one night, in front of that kind of crowd, in an amazing historical place like City Center, was an amazing confluence of so many things that I love.”

Many of the winners spoke of the pressure inherent in performing for Sondheim and in wanting to honor his music. Jeremy Lloyd, whose electronic remix of “Color and Light” was built from samples of Sunday’s original cast recording, said, “I couldn’t look up from my instruments the entire time, but when I finally did I saw him, clapping broadly with a wide grin across his face. All I could feel was gratitude — for all the inspiration he had given me, and for this moment to hopefully show him in a small way just how much he means.”

George Abud, from a family of Lebanese-American musicians, created a new take on “Children and Art” that incorporated his own musical lineage, playing an oud, a guitar-like instrument used primarily in Middle Eastern music. (Incidentally, Abud is slated to appear in John Doyle’s 2014 Off-Broadway staging of Allegro, the show that provided Sondheim’s first Broadway work experience.) Abud was delighted to discover that Sondheim recognized the oud and had never heard a solo performance. Abud’s piece opened the program; he watched the composer from the stage as he performed. “I neared the end and just before I finished I looked over at Sondheim, and his face was full with tears,” said Abud. “He was crying. I finished. He wiped his tears away with both hands, pulled his arms back far and ripped up into huge applause and shouts for me. I could not believe it. It was the [best] moment of my life.”

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