After a long wait, 'Phone rings, door chimes ...'
As the international celebrations surrounding his 80th birthday have made abundantly clear, Stephen Sondheim is nigh unto a god in the world of musicals. But universal adoration doesn't necessarily translate into frequent production, at least not locally. Of the dozen musicals for which Sondheim has written both music and lyrics, more than half have been produced in Austin just once or never, with the rest staged at most three or four times over a span of decades. Even among his signature works, it's not uncommon for 10 years or more to pass between revivals. Take Company – it's a breakthrough work for Sondheim and an immensely influential musical, but the last time it was mounted in town, Rick Perry was still the Democratic state representative from Haskell County.
That kind of lengthy gap leaves some of our finest musical-theatre talents champing at the bit where Sondheim's concerned. Laura Powell, the award-winning star of the Zilker summer musical productions of Annie Get Your Gun and Once Upon a Mattress, remembers a conversation with actress Molly Wissinger on just that topic when they were performing Disney's Beauty and the Beast on the hillside, and at the mention of Company, Wissinger said, "That show needs to be done." Powell didn't require convincing. She'd been hooked on the show – in fact, on all of the composer's shows – since 1986, when she was in Simply Sondheim: The Musical Story, a revue created by a group of her musical-theatre pals. (By her own admission, Powell was "raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein," and the night they said, "Hey, let's write a musical revue about Stephen Sondheim," she didn't know who he was.) The show earned seven B. Iden Payne Award nominations that year, took home the prize for outstanding musical production, and enjoyed four revivals, but the big takeaway for Powell was her connection to the music of Sondheim. "His soundtrack is the soundtrack of my life," she says. "It is my touchstone for past references both personal and professional." As she watched the recent PBS broadcast of Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, "Every song brought back a memory," she says. "I was sitting on my couch with a box of Kleenex completely reliving my 'salad days.' I think I cried through the entire performance."
So when Michael McKelvey invited Powell to join a revival of Company he was producing, she was in. Immediately. And she didn't hesitate when asked which role she'd like to play: Joanne, the cynic who casts a (vodka) gimlet eye on Manhattan society matrons in "The Ladies Who Lunch." "God, she's so inappropriate and awful, but you gotta love her!" Powell says. "She says whatever she wants to say and the hell with the consequences!"
That was, pun intended, music to McKelvey's ears: "There were a number of very well-known Austin actresses I had in mind for the role, but Laura was definitely my first choice. I think of Joanne as a true 'broad,' strong in her convictions, truthful, and not afraid of the world because she has faced it on so many fronts and in so many ways. I wanted someone who would be honest on- and offstage, call me out if she disagreed with something, but be willing to try a different tack. In all my years of working with her, I found Laura to be warm, funny, pointed, creative, energetic, but above all honest ... in her opinion, conviction, and performance."
In addition to Powell, McKelvey has secured the talents of several gifted musical-theatre performers, including Andrew Cannata (Rent), Libby Dees (Parade), Amy Downing (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Kirk German (Annie), Joe Hartman (MilkMilkLemonade), Leslie Hollingsworth (I'll Be Seeing You), David Ponton (Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and, yes, Molly Wissinger. McKelvey's Doctuh Mistuh Productions, which last brought you Evil Dead: The Musical, will donate proceeds from the six-performance run to the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin.
So how is it for Powell slipping back into Company again after 24 years? "Working through Sondheim's insane and completely nonintuitive harmonies, which at times makes me say awful things about his mother and makes my brain want to explode, still gives me more joy than any other musical composer I have ever worked with," she says. "I count my blessings every time I get to sing Sondheim."
Company runs Dec. 15-19, Wednesday-Sunday, 8pm, with an additional performance Saturday, Dec. 18, 2pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, call 339-4934.