Denning: ‘Sondheim is one of the greats. It’s like Shakespeare dying.”

The acclaimed composer died Friday. McCallum’s theatre director reflects on Sondheim’s legacy and his connection to the legendary figure.


Madison Olsen

ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: The cast performs in “Something’s Coming.” “We bickered like siblings and annoyed each other to no end, but we also have such a tight bond that allows us to pull off these massive shows,” senior Meg Willimont said. “I am constantly astounded by the talented people I work with every day, and I know I will see them on TV one day.”

By Samantha Powers, Meena Anderson, Ashley Chamberlain, Josephine Clarke, Emily Goulet, Zoe Hocker, and Madison Olsen

Broadway composer and musical theatre revolutionary Stephen Sondheim died Friday at 91. In his career that lasted nearly half a century, he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, composed shows like Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods and earned eight Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Among his works was the autobiographical documentary show, Sondheim on Sondheim, which MacTheatre put on in 2015. In this musical detailing the composer’s life, students showcased his most acclaimed songs and explored the man behind the legend.

Sondheim’s lawyer attended the production, and when MacTheatre director Joshua Denning corresponded with him, the lawyer passed Denning’s letter along to Sondheim himself. Denning received a heartfelt letter in response in which Sondheim declared, “Teaching is the sacred profession.” The letter now sits framed in Denning’s office.

“I’ll keep it forever,” Denning said. “I’ll probably frame it even better, like professionally framed, and I’ll keep it forever. He’s like a Shakespeare. He’s probably one of the smartest people that’s ever lived, and what he could do with music and words is so extraordinary. So it’s like, ‘I have a letter from a genius.'”

Denning wanted to teach his students about Sondheim through the revue show, and he says that even now his former students message him on social media thanking him for the experience.

“I did this musical basically to teach them about him,” Denning said. “I mean, he’s his own musical animal. There’s nobody else, really, like him, that writes like him. So it was a way to learn about how to perform that style and sort of his way of looking at the world.”

Denning sees Sondheim’s writing style as uniquely realistic.

“He was the first person, really, the first musical theatre writer, that wasn’t afraid to put the complexity of the human mind and psyche onstage, in music. His shows don’t ever end with a happy ending. It’s not necessarily a sad ending, it’s always just as complex as life really is.”

Just as Sondheim portrayed life’s endings in nuanced ways, Denning reflects on the ending of Sondheim’s life with understanding, but most of all, awe.

“I had been mentally preparing myself for it,” Denning said. “Because he’s, you know, one of the greats. It’s like Shakespeare dying. There will never be another one. Ever.”

SONDHEIM STAR: Junior Max Corney performs “Forget War” in the fall 2015 production of Sondheim on Sondheim. “[Sondheim had] a very versatile range of characters you can play,” Corney said. “You’re not playing one character, you’re playing many, and the changes in characters happens in seconds.” Photo by Madison Olsen.

HAPPY TOGETHER (FOR NOW): Juniors Ellie Zambarano and Courtney Crocker perform “Happiness” together. “What was really funny about this song is that at the beginning of it, you think it is going to be a classic love song, but each couple is continuously interrupted by a new actor and steals a member of the couple,” Zambarano said, “so it is basically a chain reaction of one person leaving someone for someone else who then in turn leaves them for someone else.” Photo by Madison Olsen.

Senior Arturo Hernandez played three parts in the show. “Sondheim on Sondheim was one of the hardest shows I have ever done, and it was very challenging but we did it, and it was amazing,” Hernandez said. Photo by Ashley Chamberlain.

ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: The cast performs in “Something’s Coming.” “We bickered like siblings and annoyed each other to no end, but we also have such a tight bond that allows us to pull off these massive shows,” senior Meg Willimont said. “I am constantly astounded by the talented people I work with every day, and I know I will see them on TV one day.” Photo by Madison Olsen.

UP TO THE CHALLENGE: Sophomore Tristan Tierney sings alongside senior Kendrick Lawson. “This show was great for us musical theatre kids because we were exposed to Sondheim at such a young age,” Tierney said. “Once we learned this, you have learned the hardest music there is, and you can handle anything.” Photo by Ashley Chamberlain.

NEW AND IMPROVED: Junior and principle actor Anna McGuire holds up a shoe during “The Gun Song.” “It was so interesting to see everyone grow as performers as rehearsals went by,” McGuire said. “I love the little family we made, and I am so proud of the show. … We were all really tired from rehearsing all week, but the excitement from the audience gave us adrenaline.” Photo by Ashley Chamberlain.

Seniors Ezra Hankin and Kendrick Knight sing with junior Riley Simpson during the song “Opening Doors.” “I played an assassin,” Hankin said of his favorite character in the show. “I was trying to justify the use of guns. It was a fun role to play because I really got to act like someone who is so far from who I am.” Photo by Zoe Hocker.

A TOAST TO US: Junior Max Corney and seniors Jackson Holtkamp, Dylan Tacker, and Kendrick Lawson perform “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.” “The most rewarding moment was probably in rehearsal when we really started to connect emotionally to the music as a cast,” Holtkamp said. “We really got to commit to the music and understand what the words meant.” Another reward for the department came on closing night. As director Joshua Denning prepared for strike, he was approached by Stephen Sondheim’s laywer. Thoroughly impressed with the show, the lawyer asked for a DVD copy of the performance to present to Sondheim himself. Sondheim sent Denning a letter on Jan. 6 confirming that he was going to watch the show. Photo by Ashley Chamberlain.

SET IN THEIR WAYS: Sophomore Anna McGuire and senior Ezra Hankin sing together during the song “Happiness.” The first shows gave the cast an idea of what to improve on and what went well. “There are always ways to make the show better and if we apply everything our director told us to improve, the show will keep getting better and better,” McGuire said. Hankin said that’s exactly what happened. “The show ended up great and I am happy I got to be a part of it,” Hankin said. Photo by Zoe Hocker.

Even with the double casting, Atley Brown said that the students were still able to form connections with one another. “Stephen Sondheim says that ‘doing a show is like having a family,’ and the song we sing ends with ‘here’s to us, who’s like us, damn few,’” Brown said. “There was rarely a time when I would sing that and wouldn’t be choked up or crying. It was the most rewarding thing ever to be yourself, loving what you are doing with all of your close friends next to you.” Photo by Madison Olsen.

A LETTER FROM GOD: After the successful run of MacTheatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim, theatre teacher and director Joshua Denning was ready for strike. While approaching the stage, however, he was stopped by a man who told him, “I represent God.”

“I thought he was a religious activist, or from a church or something, and I didn’t quite understand,” Denning said. “So I was like, ‘Oh…?’ There was a song in the musical called ‘God’ about Stephen Sondheim, and I was clearly confused. Then he said ‘I’m Stephen Sondheim’s lawyer.’”

The lawyer proceeded to ask for a DVD copy of the show, promising that the theatre department wasn’t in trouble for violating copyright law. On the contrary, he loved the show, and wished to send it to Musical Theatre International, a very big musical publisher, and Stephen Sondheim.

There isn’t really anyone who has a reputation for being any more innovative, or brilliant, or accomplished, or heartfelt, or amazing than Stephen Sondheim.”

— MacTheatre director Joshua Denning

“He said, ‘It’s been [MTI’s] goal for high schools to do their productions and a lot of high schools are scared to do them because the music is so hard,’” Denning said, quoting Sondheim’s lawyer. “‘I want them to see that this is possible and that it can be done really, really well.’”
Sondheim’s lawyer asked Denning to write a letter addressed to him, to Sondheim, to the head of MTI and to Broadway director James Lapine, explaining the process of directing and rehearsing the show. Sondheim recently got back to him.

When rehearsing Sondheim on Sondheim, Denning made sure all of the actors in the production put their best efforts into it. When he found out that Sondheim was seeing the play, Denning felt blessed.

“I feel really honored,” Denning said, “I don’t know what else I could do in this life that would actually be a higher honor than that. He is, in terms of musical theatre, the most brilliant artist that we have in the world. I mean, there isn’t really anyone who has a reputation for being any more innovative, or brilliant, or accomplished, or heartfelt, or amazing than Stephen Sondheim.”  Caption by Meena Anderson and Josephine Clarke. Photo courtesy of Denning.

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on November 30, 2021.