RAISING THE NEXT GENERATION OF SONDHEIM ACTORS
W. Ian Walker, Arts Reporter
Denise Williams, Artistic Director of Toronto’s No Strings Theatre Productions (NST) has been working with youth ages 13 to 21 for the last seven years producing summer musicals in her musical theatre school within Toronto’s busy theatre district. During her 2011 preparations for producing Sweeney Todd, Williams mentioned to her colleagues that she was considering producing Sondheim’s classic musical. She thought, “Will my students be vocally able to handle this repertoire and libretto?” When the word for NST auditions for “Todd”; 80% of her alumni and student community wanted to be in this production. Some of these students at the tender age of 13 to 17 years old, already they have several difficult Sondheim songs in their repertoire.
I spoke to three young actors, some experienced Sondheim fans and one young talented baritone and alumni of the program, Jonathon LeRose, 21 years old (Todd) and asked him; What were your impressions of Sondheim and for you, this being your first musical role with this composer? LeRose said” I think that Sondheim is a brilliant composer and never before, did I understand the complicated layers of underscoring and chord progressions in his vocal parts until I studied this role of Todd. The rhythm and constant changes in time signatures from 5/8 to 6/8 are hard enough to grasp. Then you add the chromatic different verses that sound the same, but are just a bit different and are subtle in ways as you learn so much about the composer and his intentions for the character.”
I then spoke to seasoned Sondheim fans and actors Mary Askwith, 16 and Olivia Cox, 17 (Mrs. Lovett), I asked these young ladies: What is about Sondheim, for your age group that really interests you and your future development as a singing-actor? Askwith said: “Stephen Sondheim’s scores are always so complex and precise and I love that whether I’m listening to his music or performing it. Sometime trying to sing Sondheim is difficult, but I personally love challenging myself. I love acting his songs too, because the way that he writes songs is always so full of character.
Cox continued:” Sondheim is challenging, interesting and excellent preparation for the “real world” of musical theatre. Sondheim is, without a doubt, the hardest composer that I ever sung. The notes are so intricate that they require your full attention and all of musical abilities that you have at your disposal. His music has improved my vocals drastically. Sondheim writes with such care, every sentence, every word is wholly important to the show. Nothing in it is unnecessary and everything is beautifully written.”
Denise Williams understands the competition and interest in Sondheim’s music at this youthful age. “At the end of our 2010 production of “Les Miz” our students were hungry for more drama and intensity in the musicals that we selected. They were hungry for Sondheim.” Williams is a classical singer and educator with her own Toronto voice studio who has worked as a singing-actor performing on stage, screen and recently in the cast of the Toronto run of Mirvish/Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Sound of Music
Williams continued: “I got to thinking, several years ago, what can I give or help to nurture the next generation of musical theatre students; with practical skills that they can use in their careers? Thus, No Strings Theatre Productions was born! We have been learning, growing and reaching out to the theatrical international youth community from Germany, Poland, Dominican Republic, USA and this year Syria-- for the last seven years. This age group loves to be challenged! We want to attract future candidates and students to NST, who want this insensitive musical theatre experience for their own growth.”
Williams said “Along with three other professional coaches on staff, our students have fun, as we teach them valuable skills in dance, drama and vocal classes, as well as scene study and character development. We have weekly master classes and seminars in how to survive working in the “biz”.
“Our program encourages our students to gather as much experience as they can from A-Z in how to produce a major Broadway musical in only less 20 days of preparation in total. Or as Sondheim says, they learn how to “put it all together.” Sondheim’s music and lyrics are challenging! His music, especially with its large vocal ranges and details in intonation, combined with his lyrics are difficult, even for season professionals. However, these young students want to sing and perform Sondheim! I think that as young actors, it’s good for these students to stretch themselves, learning both about the roles that they are portraying and the difficult lyrical content of Sondheim. Our training will hopefully help them for future auditions and ongoing career opportunities.”
No Strings Theatre Productions had its first online auction from July 27-September 11, 2011 www.32auctions.com Stephen Sondheim graciously gave 2 signed autographed pieces that were combined into two lots with other CDs, DVDs or books about Sondheim. If you would like to know more about NST, please check out our website at www.nostringstheatre.com