The melodies sometimes vary from verse to verse. The rhythms can be unbelievably tricky. The emotional content is layered and complex, with lyrics cleverly conveying multiple meanings. And yet Teri Ralston finds Stephen Sondheim's songs surprisingly simple to learn. "With Neil Simon, you don't have to work to be funny," she says by way of analogy. "With Sondheim's music, if you focus on it and connect with it, it just carries you." Besides, she adds appreciatively, "Sondheim writes for singers. His high notes are on nice, open vowels."
Ralston's decades-long association with Sondheim—she was in the original Broadway productions of both Company and A Little Night Music—continues Saturday night, with the opening of Side By Side By Sondheim at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre. She will co-star with two other musical theatre veterans: Davis Gaines (who played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera in New York, L.A., and San Francisco) and Tami Tappan Damiano (a co-star of Miss Saigon and Cyrano: The Musical on Broadway).
"I have three Olympian vocalists," says director Nick DeGruccio. "They're blowing me away. I get chills every day in rehearsal."
DeGruccio directed the Los Angeles premiere of Putting It Together, a different Sondheim revue, at the Colony Theatre in 1996. The self-proclaimed "Sondheim freak" sees significant differences between that show and Side By Side, which was first produced in England in 1976. "In Putting It Together I found a through line that told the story of the whole piece," he says. "It's about five souls coming to some understanding about life. This is truly a revue. It's a celebration of the genius of this man. The only through line I'm using is playfulness and mischief and flirting."
Originally conceived by Ned Sherrin and David Kernan as a benefit for a small theatre in Wavendon, England, Side By Side By Sondheim has always been a reasonably fluid show. Sondheim polished the piece when it transferred to London's West End. Certain songs were added or deleted for the New York run and subsequent productions in Chicago and elsewhere.
Following in that tradition, "We got permission to add some music and rearrange a couple of things," DeGruccio says. "We've added some stuff from West Side Story, some songs from Follies, and 'There Won't Be Trumpets' from Anyone Can Whistle. This is our version of the show."
The narration has also been pruned a bit, with some of the dated '70s references—including a joke about Anita Bryant—removed. But the show still sticks strictly to material from the first half of Sondheim's career, with no songs written after 1976.
Increasing the fluidity still further, the Rubicon will add a new guest narrator every week, each of whom has worked with Sondheim at least once. Henry Polic II (of the sitcom Webster) will do the honors the opening week, followed by Betty Garrett July 28-Aug. 1, Richard Kline Aug. 4-8, Polly Bergen Aug. 11-15, and Donna McKechnie Aug. 18-22.
"All of them have stories about their experiences with Sondheim," says Karyl Lynn Burns, the company's executive director. "They'll add a personal touch and sing what might be a signature number for them. For example, Betty Garrett will sing 'Broadway Baby,' which she sang in Follies in New York."
The production will move to the Founders Room of the Orange County Performing Arts Center Sept. 7-19, with Carole Cook as narrator. Burns hopes to then take it to other theatres in Southern California and beyond.
"At the time we were considering our season options, we knew that Orange County had an interest in presenting it," she says. "That helped motivate us to select the show." They also built the set, which she describes as having an "upscale '70s feel," to tour.
Ralston was the first person cast, followed by Damiano, who played Stella in the Rubicon's acclaimed 2003 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Gaines was a relatively late replacement for David Engel, who dropped out to star in Musical Theatre West's current staging of Kiss Me, Kate in Long Beach. "We had approached [Gaines] about another role some time ago, but the timing hadn't been right," Burns recalls. "This just worked out."
DeGruccio couldn't be happier with his trio. He notes that most Sondheim songs tell little stories, and nearly all express some form of emotional ambivalence. They require not only the technique of a great singer but also the sensitivity of a fine actor.
"I like subtlety in my shows, and I like [theatre that reflects] real life," he says. "That's why I love Sondheim. A lot of his songs have a wonderful moment in which a light bulb goes off, and [the character realizes], 'Now I understand.' That's such interesting drama to witness."
While noting that many Sondheim songs deal with the obstacles we put in our own way, DeGruccio doesn't see the songwriter's work as bleak or depressing.
"I try to find the positive," he says. "Playing the negative in Sondheim is a trap. Then it becomes cold and unfeeling. I don't think he ever intended it to be that way. All his characters are searching. That's his biggest recurring theme, I think: Searching for something."
"Side By Side By Sondheim," presented by and at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed. 7 p.m., Thu. 2 & 8 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. July 24-Aug. 22. $25-45. (805) 667-2900.