How do you sing the praises of Stephen Sondheim? Simple: You just sing.
In ones and twos and threes, actors who have appeared in his musicals at Signature and elsewhere picked out some of their high points in the canon — essentially demonstrating that it consists primarily of high points. Truly, it seems, you can throw a dart at any list of Sondheim numbers and it will land on something splendid.
Sondheim died on Nov. 26 at 91. Since then, testimonials to his peerless artistry have been accumulating. At Signature, plans are being developed to devote a large chunk of its 2022-23 season to Sondheim musicals. But first came this quickly arranged concert, “Everybody Rise: Signature Remembers.” Part of the title is taken from “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from the Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company.”
“I knew it was my job alongside [Managing Director] Maggie Boland as the leadership of this theater, to put into words what this man has meant to a theater that has produced over 30 productions of his musicals,” Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner said Monday in welcoming remarks. “Nothing in a theater has moved me like the music of Stephen Sondheim.”
The 270 tickets to “Everybody Rise” sold out in record time. Music director Jon Kalbfleisch, who began his Signature association with the company’s first Sondheim production, “Sweeney Todd,” in 1991, was at the piano for the memorial. I watched on a digital connection as actors I have seen in some of those 30-plus productions stepped up to the microphone: Natascia Diaz singing “Loving You,” from “Passion”; Holly Twyford delivering “Send in the Clowns,” from “A Little Night Music”; Nova Y. Payton, crooning “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods”; Bobby Smith, choosing “Marry Me a Little,” a song that had been cut on Broadway and later restored, in “Company.”
Awa Sal Secka picked a song with a lyric especially heartbreaking on this occasion: the creamy “Not a Day Goes By,” from “Merrily We Roll Along”:
Not a day goes by
Not a single day
But you’re somewhere a part of my life
And it looks like you’ll stay.
“It’s one of the songs of his that I feel has traveled with me in my life,” Secka said in a Zoom interview before the concert. “As I’ve experienced loss or love, or this or that, it’s become more and more felt in my body, and something that I’ve yearned to sing.”
Secka was one of several actors I spoke with whose love of Sondheim was ignited by the same musical. “Oh, yeah, I will never forget: It was when PBS aired ‘Into the Woods,’ ” recalled Tracy Lynn Olivera, a Signature stalwart. On Monday, she teamed up with Payton and Secka for the concert opener, a three-part vocal arrangement of “Broadway Baby” from “Follies.”
“I watched it every day after school,” Olivera said of the video version of “Into the Woods,” first broadcast in 1991. “Mostly just Act One,” she added, “because Act Two scared my brother.”
With their own Sondheim worship, Signature’s founders, Eric Schaeffer and Donna Migliaccio, cemented Washington as a destination for his musicals, a fascination that paved the way for the Kennedy Center’s history-making Sondheim Celebration in 2002. (They were both part of that event, which presented six Sondheim musicals in repertory that summer.) Over the years, legions of actors honed their technique and depth of musical-theater knowledge singing in Signature’s Sondheim shows.
“It’s just a gift being here today,” said Christopher Michael Richardson, who sang “Good Thing Going” from “Merrily We Roll Along.”
“To be here with so much of my D.C. family, giving honor to someone who has brought me together with many of these people. You know, many of these people I wouldn’t have met if I was not doing Sondheim.”
For Maria Rizzo — who sang Sondheim’s Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later” from the movie “Dick Tracy,” the bond with Sondheim goes back to an intimate early childhood memory. Members of her family used to serenade her with “Maria,” from “West Side Story,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to the melody by Leonard Bernstein. “I love that song,” Rizzo said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, people are singing about me!’ ”
For Bobby Smith, who has played an array of Sondheim characters at Signature, including Desiree’s love interest, Fredrik, in “A Little Night Music” and presidential killer Charles J. Guiteau in “Assassins,” the news of the composer’s death hit hard. “I was gutted,” he said. And though he never met Sondheim, the death felt personal — in part because the songs and their author have meant so much to him. “We overlay what he’s written and we make it fit our circumstances,” Smith said, trying to explain succinctly how potently Sondheim’s lyrics have revealed the world for him.
The composer’s words and music served as high-octane emotional propellent on Monday evening, when speeches were kept to a minimum. The songs told the story, enshrined the songwriter and reminded us that with Sondheim, we all have had such a good thing going.