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Maestro Paul Gemignani and Beautiful Girls director Lonny Price discuss tribute to Stephen Sondheim, leading ladies

click to enlarge Stephen Sondheim hits the Springs Sept. 22.
  • Stephen Sondheim hits the Springs Sept. 22.

Stephen Sondheim is a man who needs about as much introduction as Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh or Steven Seagal.

But just in case you tend to confuse any of the above, Sondheim is the Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award and seven-time Tony Award winner, the lyricist and composer of such shows as West Side Story, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sweeney Todd.

Each year, the Colorado Festival of World Theatre chooses a person to receive the Donald Seawell Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre (the "Donny" award), and this year's honoree is the acclaimed Sondheim.

Maestro Paul Gemignani, who has collaborated with Sondheim for the past 36 years, and acclaimed Broadway director Lonny Price, along with Broadway stars Marin Mazzie, Jenn Colella and a surprise guest star, will hold two performances of Beautiful Girls: A Sondheim Tribute on Sept. 22 and 23.

Gemignani and Price developed the show exclusively for the Colorado festival, at the request of president and producing artistic director Suzanne Bassani.

The Independent spoke to Price and Gemignani via conference call earlier this month.

Indy: Since the creation of Beautiful Girls has been collaborative, we wanted to conference-call you so you could collaborate on this interview as well. Please feel free to jump in, take turns, whatever.

Gemignani: I never talk before the director.

Price: (laughter) Oooo, it's gonna be like that, is it? OK.

Indy: The Festival of World Theatre contacted you and asked you to come up with a show to honor Stephen. Why a show about songs written for female characters?

Price: Stephen writes great for men and women. But a lot of the seminal songs "I'm Still Here," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Broadway Baby" are for women. I've always felt that there are these incredible show-stoppers, and wouldn't it be interesting to have an evening of just female performers singing these female characters. The idea's been percolating in my head for a long time.

I did know I wanted to keep it small and contained, and I knew it had to be something that would not take too much a) rehearsal and b) have a lot of production value, because we didn't have the time.

Gemignani: Also, there've been millions of concerts done of his music with both sexes being involved. And one of the ways to get his music out even further is to try and limit it in the sense that we're making it small and focusing on an individual thing. I loved Lonny's idea.

Indy: So there's a central storyline about a woman's journey through stages of her life as reflected by Sondheim works, not just a mixtape, best-of on stage?

Price: Paul and I collaborate all the time, and we're constantly evolving it. Essentially, it's "Girl grows up, girl leaves home, girl finds guy, girl falls in love with guy, girl gets guy, girl loses guy, girl gets bitter and sits at the end of a bar and drinks." I'm using quotes from female writers such as Mae West and Maya Angelou and Dorothy Parker kind of other women's take on this situation or these particular stages, and Steve's as well.

Indy: Will the show tour after this debut?

Gemignani: From your mouth to God's ears.

Price: (laughter) We would love to. The nice thing about this piece is that it can be adjusted for whoever's in it. It's fluid.

Gemignani: And it can be done with various sizes of musical groups.

Indy: Beautiful Girls also stars Marin Mazzie, Jenn Colella and surprise guest star ...

Gemignani: (interrupting) We're not telling.

Indy: Is there anything you'll say about her?

Gemignani: (firmly) She's going to be a surprise guest.

Price: She's going to be a surprise to a lot of people.

Gemignani: It's not going to be a man.

Price: (laughter) Or a man in drag. (More laughter from Gemignani. ) Oh, OK, it's gonna be [Harvey] Fierstein, you warmed it out of us ...

Indy: I want to ask some Broadway questions, since I have two experts on the phone.

Gemignani: Is there somebody on the phone other than us?

Indy: Which shows will make it this year, and which will fold?

Price: I have no idea.

Gemignani: Who knows? Talk about Las Vegas. It's a dice roll. You never know.

Indy: If I could only see one show, what should it be?

Gemignani: Go to the one that appeals to you. I'm one that never reads reviews. If I don't like something, that's my fault. In the theater, you can be really surprised. I wouldn't take anybody's advice, including mine.

Price: I agree. And also sometimes you can go to something that other people don't like and have a wonderful time, particularly if the critics don't like it.

Indy: What about the current spat of boy-band actors and stars like Jake Gyllenhaal taking Broadway roles?

Price: Jake Gyllenhaal's a wonderful actor, and I wish him well. The only time I think the Broadway community frowns is when it's just a name to be a name, and they're not skilled and not right for the role. And then that feels kind of cheap. I think movie stars are great. The more that want to come be on Broadway, that's just swell with me.

Gemignani: Exactly. And the fact of the matter is aside from what you might hear about it [Broadway is] a very protective and kind community. Nobody wants to see somebody up on the stage put there by some greedy producer who can't do what they've been asked to do. It's embarrassing to us watching, and certainly to them. I hate to see a performer failing. I agree with Lonny. Anybody who wants to come from the West Coast, get over here.

Indy: What exactly makes Stephen Sondheim the best-known and, in many people's words, "greatest" artist in musical theater?

Gemignani: His material is totally honest, and intelligent and challenges you, like a great movie, like a great poem, like any great novel. He's not writing to formula. If you really look at his music, you realize he's writing totally to character, all the time. His music style doesn't even stay the same. Between Follies and Into the Woods, that is a huge jump, stylistically. Most composers don't do that. Most composers stay in the same comfortable place. He is so skilled as a musician and a poet that whatever comes into his mind, he can pull off.

Price: Stephen's really a musical dramatist. He's not just a songwriter. What he's done, which is why he's stayed current and popular, is that he's introduced emotional complexity into the musical theater. And you think of a song like "Sorry Grateful" from Company it's so truthful, as Paul said, it's so honest and from the heart. That's what makes them human, and what makes actors love to perform them.

Like Shakespeare or any great writer, [the actors are] able to not just play one color; they're able to play all of their humanity. That's incredibly rare in a musical. As great as Rodgers and Hammerstein and all these greats are, nobody wrote this kind of specificity and complexity of character. He's brought maturity to the musical theater in a way that no one else could.

Gemignani: And [his songs are] timeless. Like when you go to see a black-and-white movie made in the '30s and you go, "My God, this is relevant right now." That's what his material is.

Indy: Who's the next Sondheim? The next powerful force in the industry?

Price: There are a lot of good new writers. My favorite of them is Adam Guettel. There are many good people.

Gemignani: Andrew Lippa ... there are a lot of young writers coming up. It's hard to say at the moment. When I first started working for Steve in 1972, if you tried to put him on a pops concert the answer was "No, no, no ... he's a lyricist, he can't write a tune."

In order to get his music on a pops concert, he would have to put [Leonard] Bernstein on with him. I don't know of all these people we could name, Adam, Andrew, ... Jason Robert Brown, you don't know who's going to be the next Sondheim. There may not be another Sondheim for 50 years. There wasn't another Gershwin.

Indy: Is there anything I haven't asked that you want to say?

Gemignani: I think it's very bold of this festival to have the insight to go after something like this. They've committed to something really classy and important, and they'll be able to be proud of it when they're done. I think that takes producing guts, and they should get a compliment for that.

Price: This whole idea of bringing world theater to the U.S. ... It's an amazing thing for Colorado Springs, or any place in this country, to see artistry from all over the world. I wish they'd do it in New York. We could use it, too.

Indy: We never hear people wishing something from here would come to New York...

Price: Well you haven't seen Beautiful Girls yet, so you don't know. (Laughter from Gemignani.) matthew@csindy.com

Beautiful Girls: A Sondheim Tribute

The Festival Pavilion at the Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Performances: Saturday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 23, 6:30 p.m. Also: Celebration dinner, 5:30 p.m., Saturday; Champagne and Dessert Award reception, 10 p.m., Saturday; Brunch at The Broadmoor, 10:30 a.m., Sunday; "The Sound of Sondheim" symposium, 11:30 a.m., Sunday.

Tickets: $28 to $75; visit ticketswest.com or call 227-0086 for more.

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