Not the man himself, of course, who turns 90 in March and whose theater pieces have long endured a reputation for being technically difficult. The critic Richard Corliss said it best in Time magazine: “His melodies [are] meant to challenge the ear, not soothe it,” and “his lyrics are often so complex, they have to be heard twice.”
But for a year that has largely relied on reruns of musical theater—by December, 11 productions in all, including the returns of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats”—the near-synchronous arrival of three new local productions of musicals by the Broadway icon is as much occasion for ironic incredulity as it is cause for celebration.
Opening within four weeks are Upstart Productions’ “Company” (Sept. 13-22), Philippine Opera Company’s “Passion” (Sept. 14-29) and Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Oct. 11-27).
The last Sondheim show in Manila was the international tour of “West Side Story” at The Theatre at Solaire two years ago. But you’d have to backtrack to 2015 for the last all-Filipino staging of his work—Upstart’s “Into the Woods.”
Then, it’s all the way back to the start of the decade, with Atlantis’ “A Little Night Music” and the now-defunct Theater Down South’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2010. And a year earlier, Repertory Philippines’ (Rep) “Sweeney Todd.”
Atlantis now takes on “Sweeney Todd”—the tale of an unjustly incarcerated barber who, teaming up with a pie-shop owner who’s secretly in love with him, goes on a clandestine, murderous rampage involving meat pies in Victorian London.
Bobby Garcia directs this 40th anniversary production at The Theatre at Solaire, with Jett Pangan as the barber and Lea Salonga as the shop owner Mrs. Lovett. (In November, they will do the musical’s Singaporean premiere at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands.)
Upstart tackles “Company”—a “concept musical” exploring marriage and the tangles of committed, adult relationships. At its center is Bobby, a 35-year-old unmarried New Yorker, orbited by five couples and three other women.
Locally premiered by Rep in 1997, “Company” will play at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater, Bonifacio Global City, with OJ Mariano as Bobby and Topper Fabregas directing.
Opening a day after “Company” is “Passion,” which marks the last of Sondheim’s seven competitive Tony Awards as composer and lyricist.
The musical, adapted from Ettore Scola’s 1981 film “Passione d’Amore,” concerns the destructive obsession of an ailing woman over a soldier in 19th-century Italy.
“Passion,” also premiered in Manila by Rep in 1996, will run at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, starring Shiela Valderrama-Martinez as the woman, Fosca, and directed by Robbie Guevara.
Incidentally, Upstart’s “Company” marks the latest Sondheim collaboration between two pillars of the country’s English-language musical theater: Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Michael Williams, currently co-artistic directors of Resorts World Manila’s Full House Theater Company.
Lauchengco-Yulo’s last stab at Sondheim was her Gawad Buhay-winning turn as Mrs. Lovett in Rep’s 2009 “Sweeney Todd,” 27 years after playing Sweeney’s daughter Joanna in the musical’s 1982 Manila premiere, also by Rep.
In 1996, Lauchengco-Yulo was Fosca in Rep’s “Passion.” Opposite her as the soldier, Giorgio, was Williams, who would co-direct the 2009 “Sweeney Todd” with Rep co-founder Baby Barredo.
But “Passion” wasn’t their first appearance together in a Sondheim musical; it was in the 1992 Manila premiere of “Into the Woods,” whose maze-like story involves beloved fairy-tale characters by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm living through the consequences of their purported happily-ever-afters. Williams was Jack (of the Beanstalk fame); Lauchengco-Yulo was The Witch.
In 2007, the two returned to “the Woods” in a production directed by Rito Asilo for New Voice Company. This time, Williams and Lauchengco-Yulo played the Baker and the Baker’s wife, respectively, whose quest to have a child ties together the other tales in the musical.
Now, in “Company,” Lauchengco-Yulo returns to the role of Joanne—her 11 o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” immortalized by Elaine Stritch and Patti LuPone—22 years after first playing that part in the Rep production. Playing her stage husband is—guess who?—Williams. —CONTRIBUTED