Sondheim Center Gala, Dec 07 | Legendary American Songwriter Gives Blessing to New Fairfield Theater

Randy West, artistic and executive director of the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, appeared in the workshop performance of Happy Hour with his wife, Margaret Claire.

Seven big broadway stars are hoofing it to the small Iowa town of Fairfield on December 7-9, 2007, for the Grand Opening Gala of the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts. Bearing the name—and blessing—of the Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-honored songwriter, the new 522-seat Stephen Sondheim theater in the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center intends to promote a new vision for professional musical theater in the Midwest and provide a creative hotbed for producers workshopping aspiring Broadway plays.

A Choice Name

According to artistic and executive director Randal K. West, who has worked with Sondheim in the past, this is the first theater in the U.S. to bear the name of America’s venerated composer and lyricist—a man described by Frank Rich in The New York Times as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater.” Sondheim’s impressive body of work includes A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Passion, Gypsy, and West Side Story, among many others.

With an ambitious vision for musical theater in the Midwest and a deep admiration for Sondheim’s work, West humbly approached the creative master earlier this year with a request to use his name for the new Fairfield theater. Sondheim graciously agreed, endorsing West’s far-reaching outlook for theater in middle America. “What thrills me most,” Sondheim replied, “is not the boost for my ego, but the fact that I’m a part, no matter how distant, of your devotion to the development of professional musical theatre, especially as it contributes to the cultural landscape of the Midwest.”

For his part, West aims to honor the Sondheim name with a full roster of inspiring programs. “Our theater carries the name of the man who has done more to advance contemporary musical theater than any other living musical theater artist and creator,” he says. “Sondheim’s work embodies the finest in emotionally moving and intellectual stimulating musical theater. We intend to live up to that legacy.”

West’s enterprising plans for the new facility a residential musical theater company, aptly called Way Off Broadway, and a conservatory program to train aspiring theater professionals.

The Grand Opening Gala

To celebrate the opening of the theater, West enlisted the talents of seven world-renowned Broadway stars, each of whom has a strong connection to Sondheim’s work: Liz Callaway, Richard Kind, Pamela Meyers, Donna Lynne Champlan, Kristin Huffman and David Malis. They’ll be performing the Sondheim Center’s premiere production, A Little Sondheim Music, an original musical revue of the composer’s greatest hits. Sondheim granted grand rights to all of his works, which allowed producer and director Randal West and musical director Justin Hill to draw from the full body of Sondheim’s work for the show’s musical numbers. Joining the all-star Broadway actors will be the entire Encore Players touring company and a full 18-piece orchestra.

An Auspicious Beginning

West and his dedicated staff have already achieved some significant milestones. The Encore Players, Iowa’s first professional touring musical theater company, opened their first season in 2006 with A Musical of Musicals, a humorous look at 40 years of musical theater.

In addition to the touring company, West is also establishing a residential music theater company, Way Off Broadway. “We hope to rival the best musical theater produced anywhere,” he says, emphasizing their commitment to producing the highest quality classic and contemporary musical theater productions. The Center will also provide a venue for exploring new works, offering “workshop” opportunities to allow writers to hone and refine productions before they take them to Broadway.

“Our plan is to gain a regional and national reputation as a unique professional musical theater company and performing arts center that offers, among many other things, a supportive environment for artists creating new musical theater works,” West explains. “The Sondheim Center will allow artists to focus on creativity and advancement of musical theater as an art form, without the demands of creating a production that has to be immediately profitable.”

Testing Broadway Bound Plays

The first example of a Broadway-bound workshop production was Happy Hour, a musical written by long-time Sondheim collaborator George Furth. Furth, an award-winning actor, playwright, and librettist, teamed with award-winning composer and musician Doug Katsaros to create Happy Hour, which was presented in workshop performances at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center in November.

Culturing Talent

“Our objective,” West elaborates, “is to facilitate a unique, creative process that combines the very best of Broadway and Hollywood talent with the most gifted regional talent, while also training local talent. As we broaden our creative processes and approaches, we intend to attract and engage audiences throughout Iowa and the Midwest, and also to serve our community and region through art education and outreach programs.”

The Way Off Broadway company will offer a Musical Theater Conservatory program with hands-on instruction and mentoring in the performing and technical arts, aimed at inspiring and training the next generation of professionals. This will include a summer season where aspiring young people can train to advance their craft.

“We intend to show young people that live musical theater is relevant to them,” West says. “Our plan is to become known as the place where artists come to learn musical theater and audiences come to see them perform. We will cater to young and adult audiences, with a special focus on programs and productions for young adults. Very few musical theater programs aggressively attempt to engage that age group.”

The Sondheim Center’s calendar includes a production of Sondheim’s classic A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which is scheduled to open January 11, 2008. West is engaging Broadway professionals for the lead roles in the production, with regional and local talent filling out the cast.

West says he is determined that Sondheim’s wish for the Center, which is to have it support the development of professional musical theater, becomes a reality. “Ten years from now,” West says, “when audiences reflect back about distinguished theaters like the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Rep, the Arena, the Goodspeed or the Steppenwolf Theaters, we want that list to include the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts.”

For information, call 641-472-2000 or visit Stephen Sondheim Center.