James Gardiner and the Cast on ‘Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim’

James Gardiner.

This is my second semester as an adjunct professor of theatre at George Mason University, where I teach a Musical Theatre Workshop. Edward Gero, Professor of Theatre, and Ken Elston, Chair of the Department of Theatre, initially approached me last winter to take over the course and help them as they started to develop a musical theatre certificate. When I started thinking about how to approach the Musical Theatre Workshop this semester, it seemed like an obvious choice to focus on the work of Stephen Sondheim. The Department of Theatre was opening it’s season with a production of Into the Woods and we thought a course focusing on Mr. Sondheim’s contributions to the American theatre would serve as a nice companion to the work that some of the students were doing outside of the classroom. In an attempt to give our students more opportunities to perform, Ken and I discussed the idea of a cabaret that we could do outside of Mason. The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and Signature Theatre were generous enough to let us use their venues for our upcoming performances. I especially thought it was an amazing opportunity for our students to present their work at Signature, since it is nationally recognized as the Mecca of all things Sondheim.

We held auditions about a month ago. Roughly 30 students auditioned and we offered spots to 10 students. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to work with such a talented group. Not only are they talented singers and actors, but they’re incredibly smart kids. They bring a tremendous amount of curiosity to the process and they never seem to settle. Not once have they said that they completely understand the material that they’ve been given. They keep asking questions. They keep exploring the lyrics and looking at how the music informs their choices. That’s a testament to the wonderful teachers at Mason like Ken and Ed. It’s also a testament to the work of Stephen Sondheim. The man is a genius. That’s not hyperbole… that’s fact… and I think that’s something the students have grown to realize.

Each student is working on two songs and I asked them each to write a little bit about one of the songs that they’ve been working on. If you’re interested in attending a performance of Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim, there is more information below.

Jacob Lash – “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George
I will be singing “Finishing the Hat” from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It’s a song in which my world of art has been attacked by someone very close to me. Someone who cannot understand why I pour my life and soul into my art. Brainstorming and thinking out loud with James about the lyrics has made all the difference in the world. The song is immensely more interesting now than it was the first couple times I read it on my own. James already knew the song very well, but we have also made some discoveries together as we’ve looked closely at the text. What seemed like a good but relatively ordinary piece has become a full arrangement of dynamics and color. The variety of conflicting desires and fears makes it a riveting piece of work. I hope to do it as much justice as can.

Margaret Berkowtiz – “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music
“Before Finishing The Hat, I had never performed any of Sondheim’s pieces, so rehearsing “The Miller’s Son,” from A Little Night Music, has been an entirely new, and amazing learning experience for me! During the song, Petra sings of wanting to experience all that a young woman’s freedom has to offer before becoming entrapped in marriage. I identify with it as I imagine myself talking to one of my sisters, who is perfectly content with her current relationship, but who is also still very young. By trying to illuminate all the possibilities that await her before settling down, I am really trying to make myself seem like the wiser, cooler sister, and ultimately, under the surface, am seeking self-assurance by doing so. Throughout the song I get carried away into a romantic world of endless ideals, but finally must realize that the grandeur of my imaginations may not be as genuine after all, as the simplest, most unelaborate future of mine, which may indeed lie ahead; and how I would feel if I had to be content with accepting that…”

Brittany Martz – “Another Hundred People” from Company
It’s quite a fun song to sing for a mezzo, but it’s also quite easy to get lost in the mindset of “Listen to me belt! Now doesn’t that sound pretty. I’ll do it again in a little bit.” But when you take the time to really listen to the lyrics and the pacing of the song, there is so much valuable material to work with not only as a singer, but as an actor. There’s a saying that if your character says the same thing multiple times, something about it must change each time. Well, this is a very repetitive song; what does this woman really want? Ultimately, I believe it is acceptance by this crazy big city. It’s fun to play with how her tactics change to get this acceptance.

Melissa Berkowitz – “So Many People” from Saturday Night
One of the songs I will be performing is “So Many People.”  From the musical, Saturday Night, “So Many People” is a song about love.  But it is more complex than a simple love song. I have chosen to focus on the fight to keep love. The character is singing about how she fell in love with someone who did not meet her pre-set, fairytale standards.  However, she discovers that “the man means more than the means.”  Her lover, however, also fell in love with her, even though she also lacks his pre-set monetary standards. She must then fight to keep him from giving up and walking away once they’ve revealed their true identities.  I have approached the performance of the song from a strong theatre base, focusing on the objectives of the character, and the tactics she uses to achieve those objectives. My goal is for the song to have the power and energy of her fight to keep him.

Collin Taylor – “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along
“I’m singing Good Thing Going from Merrily We Roll Along, one of Sondheim’s biggest flops but one of my personal favorites. The song itself describes a relationship between two friends, and how they lost sight of their friendship when other life obstacles got in the way. The themes of friendship and loss in this song are so universal it was easy to get to the bottom of what the song was: a last effort plea from one friend to another to bring back what they once had. My character brings into focus the issues the friendship has, and how he wants them fixed before it’s too late. Working on the song I’ve learned that you can have different tactics for getting what you want, but when you have an overarching objective in the song that carries you through it, it raises the stakes even higher.”

Matthew Lincoln-Bugg – “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd
The song is sung by Tobias to Mrs. Lovett, who has taken him in after Sweeney kills his boss, Pirelli. In this song, he expresses how much Mrs. Lovett means to him by assuring her that he will never let any harm come to her and hinting at the fact that she shouldn’t trust Sweeney. When James assigned me this piece, I thought my work was done; I already knew the song and I already knew what the song was about. But when I had my one-on-one session with him, he brought it to a whole new level. Now, when I sing the song, it’s a totally different feel to it and it’s more personal.

Rafael Medina – “Unworthy of Your Love” from Assassins
For me, this song is about undying hope. About being so sure of something you will do anything to attain it. Even in circumstances that make something unobtainable, there is a part of us that can’t let go; we insist that there are greater forces working against us in our pursuit to convince someone else that we are the one. Real world circumstances, unjustly separate what could have been, and as time wears on, we become more desperate. While our mind may tell us that it’s never going to happen, our hearts refuse to give in. This song is manifestation of that feeling. That burning.

Ruthie Rado – “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from Follies
I’m working on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from Follies. It’s from the Loveland portion of the show, where the characters’ inner thoughts are revealed through vaudeville numbers. In this song, Phyllis explains the competition between herself and another woman through humor. Interesting song to tackle- hard mix of pain and humor.

Julie Keyes – “What More Do I Need” from Saturday Night
‘What More Do I Need?’ from the musical Saturday Night is a clever, upbeat explanation of how people have these great expectations for what love will be, but once they find it, they realize that life doesn’t turn into rainbows and sunshine. I’ve approached the song sarcastically, but not forgetting that the character has indeed found the love she needs. The song discusses all the not-so-beautiful things city life brings, such as rumbling subways, grimy streets, and the constant hustle and bustle around town. But, none of that matters as long as she can love the man of her dreams (who does, indeed, love her back.)

Lynley Peoples – Assistant Director
During my time working with James Gardiner on Finishing the Hat, I learned an approach to tackling musical theater. The actor must be able to answer three questions: Who are you talking you? What do you want? What active tactics are going to use to get what you want? To help answer these questions, the actor can look at the previous action in the show, the subtext of the lyrics, and the instrumental shifts in the music. A song, at first, can seem intimidating, but really it is nothing more than a monologue set to music. I had the invaluable opportunity to work alongside Gardiner and the cast on their songs. My favorite parts of the process were the moments of discovery when an actor would connect a personal experience to the character’s or a phrase in the song took on new meaning.

Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim will have two performances – one on December 12th at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and the other on December 17th at Signature Theatre. Tickets for each performance of are $20. Proceeds from this event support students pursuing a certificate in musical theater as part of their undergraduate degree in Theater at George Mason University.

Purchase tickets to the Dec. 12 performance at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, here, or purchase tickets at the door.

The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia is located at 8900 Little River Turnpike, Fairfax, VA 22031.

Tickets for the December 17th performance at Signature Theatre are only available at the door, cash or check only. Please do not contact the Signature Theatre box office for this event. Reservations may be made at theater@gmu.edu or by calling (703) 993-2195. Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA, 22206.

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