Drama, Music collaboration overcomes weather disaster

The Drama and Music Departments will present their large-scale production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in the Martel Theater on March 1 at 7:30 p.m. and March 3 and 4 at 2 p.m./ Courtesy of Ela Baum

During winter break, a bomb cyclone struck the East Coast, ushering in a bitter ripple of snow, wind and ice in subzero temperatures from Florida to Maine. As a result of these extreme conditions, cars remained locked from the ice, lakes were frozen solid and people were snowed in, unable to leave their homes. Vassar wasn’t spared from this destructive weather either. Amongst the places left most battered in the wake of this cyclone was the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film (CDF). Pipes froze and broke in the costume room and the scene shop, inducing immense damage that is still being repaired.

Despite these setbacks, The Experimental Theater and the Music Department will defy obstacles and present “A Little Night Music,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, in the Martel Theater on Thursday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m., and on Saturday, March 3 and Sunday, March 4 at 2 p.m. Supported in part by The Joan Kostick Andrews ’52 Fund for Musical Theater, this production is stage directed by Director of Theater and Professor of Drama Christopher Grabowski and musically directed by Adjunct Artist in Music Miriam Charney, with choreography by NYC-based teacher Teddy Kern.

While auditions for productions usually are held during the semester of the production, because of the massive scale of this collaboration, they were held last October. Production elements were already outlined before the semester ended. However, once the bomb cyclone struck, plans changed.

Grabowski explained the alterations that needed to be made to the production on account of the damage to the CDF: “On the eve of starting production, the costume stock and scene shop was wiped out. The scene shop was just put back into service. So what was going to be a substantial set-build is instead to just expose the theater and store everything in the space to foreground the theater metaphor. We’re doing period costumes but they too were simplified because of the demands of restoring costumes too and the time that took.”

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night” and with a title referencing Mozart’s serenade “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” “A Little Night Music” follows a series of former and current lovers in 1900s Sweden. The musical features a fading actress and a hypocritical count as well as five singers that constantly pop up in the show.

In the role of Petra, Abby Lass ’21 [Full Disclosure: Lass is Assistant Online Editor for The Miscellany News], was thrilled to join this production for her first show with the Drama Department: “I’ve always been a fan of musical theater and I heard exciting things about the grant the show was using. It sounded like an exciting opportunity to get involved as a freshman, to do something that was bigger than they usually do and something that wasn’t a senior project. It just looked like a really exciting opportunity.”

Lass elaborated, “It’s definitely been a commitment. We’ve been rehearsing for 24 hours a week, which is significant. But it’s honestly been really exciting. I’ve done loads of theater at home but this is a different environment with different expectations. There’s such a sense of professionalism mixed with community. The cast has been really lovely and supportive. So it’s been an exciting new community to find.”

The original 1973 Broadway production of the musical was directed by Harold Prince and featured frequent Sondheim collaborators Glynis Johns and Len Cariou. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won six, including “Best Musical” and “Best Original Score.” In 1975, Judy Collins recorded a cover of the song “Send in the Clowns,” which earned her and Sondheim a Grammy for Song of the Year. Prince directed a film adaptation in 1977 starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Playing the role of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Tonya Ingerson ’18 related Sondheim’s elaborate detail to that of Shakespeare: “I kind of see Sondheim as a Shakespeare of musical composers to me. His music is so tricky and so intricate and complicated where it’s kind of like looking at Shakespeare texts where every time I listen to it, every time I look at it, I discover something new because there’s so much behind it, which I really love.”

Renowned composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim first gained acclamation for writing the lyrics for “West Side Story” in 1957. In total, Sondheim has received eight Grammy awards, eight Tony awards and an Oscar and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Grabowski addressed the neglect that often goes into directing musical theater, which he has made it imperative to avoid, “If you’re not really centered in the material, it comes across as bad musical theater acting, which seems simplistic. You have to remember that you’ve got to keep doing that psychological and subtextual work to support the book scenes and how they change when they’re underscored and how people move into song, you have to balance all those different levels of theatricality together.”

The Drama Department has other noteworthy events later this semester, including “The White Moth,” an original play by Caleb Featherstone ’18; Actors from the London Stage performing “The Taming of The Shrew;” a staged reading of a new play by Alexandria Smalls ’18; and “)essay)e,” a senior presentation in Drama by Sofia Gutierrez ’18.

As a graduating senior, Ingerson commented on ending her time with the Drama Department with such a distinctly mammoth production that has managed to overcome such abnormal conditions: “It’s weird to be finishing off with such a big bang, I guess, because it’s been such a big endeavor. And honestly, it’s been quite stressful. So it’s weird to have this process, which has been a very abnormal process, be my last show. But it is kind of fun to be going out with, ‘Go big or go home.’”

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