Over the last year, the Ordway has presented a series examining the great composers and songwriters of the Broadway Songbook, centered on sharing stories and songs. For the latest subject, Stephen Sondheim, there is no shortage of either.
"I'm such a fan. There are just too many songs," says James Rocco, the show's creator and host.
In fact, even his favorite tune, "The Miller's Son" (from A Little Night Music) didn't make the cut. That's not surprising, considering Sondheim's legacy stretches back 60 years and includes a number of legendary shows, from West Side Story to Gypsy to Company to Sweeney Todd.
The evening is not a full-on revue. Instead, there is an informal, comfortable vibe. "It's a completely bare stage, with a piano and some stools," Rocco says. "We basically get together and talk about the music of a great songwriter or songwriting team."
In the past, audience members have become part of the mix, sharing their own observations, memories, and even corrections to the stories being told onstage. "It's like we are just hanging out at the McKnight -- like everyone is coming to the living room," Rocco says.
And while it is informal, the talent onstage is considerable, with the likes of Regina Williams, Jennifer Baldwin, and Dieter Bierbrauer taking turns to sing pieces from the Sondheim songbook. In the end, there will be about two-dozen numbers, ranging from the first show he wrote but wasn't produced (Saturday Night) to the recent, long-in-gestation Bounce. Along the way, there will be space for plenty of classics.
Rocco is also toying with performing a number as the Witch from Into the Woods. "I'm the only guy who played the Witch. It's been a long time, 20 years ago. I'm not sure if I sing like that anymore," he says.
There will also be stories, including Sondheim's relationship with his mother, his mentorship under Oscar Hammerstein, and some of the moments of creative brilliance, such as writing all of the epic "Weekend in the Country" over a single weekend or "Send in the Clowns" overnight.
The series has been a success since it started last year. For the first season, just a weekend of performances were held. Those quickly sold out. This year, it has been stretched out to a pair of weeks. Ticket sales are still strong, Rocco says.
"I have found that more and more people are coming to the songbooks because they love this kind of entertainment," Rocco says. "Musical theater is an American art form. I grew up always thinking musical theater was corny. I discovered that George M. Cohan was the James Dean of his day. What he did was revolutionary. Musical theater was an outgrowth of these rebellious street immigrants. It used the American vernacular to entertain people."
Sondheim represents the continued evolution from those original creations. "I saw Company when I was 12 years old, on Broadway. It was astounding to me. I couldn't believe how stimulating it was, how deep it was, how much I thought about it after I saw it. I was in love with Stephen Sondheim from that time on. I wanted to know everything about him," Rocco says.
IF YOU GO:
Broadway Songbook - The Words and Music of Stephen Sondheim
McKnight Theater, Ordway Center for the Arts 345 Washington St., St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651.224.4222 or visit online