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Adding subtext to ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

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The cast with Stephen Sondheim on the screen in the background in the Lyric Stage production.Mark S. Howard

What: The singers in "Sondheim on Sondheim'' interact with pre-recorded interviews of Stephen Sondheim

Where: Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Feb. 21. Tickets: 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

A living legend like Stephen Sondheim is inevitably going to loom large whenever a theater company performs his work.

But in "Sondheim on Sondheim,'' now at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the composer-lyricist quite literally looms over the proceedings in videotaped interviews that are projected on screens behind the revue's eight-member ensemble. Sondheim becomes, in effect, a ninth member of the cast, albeit one whose "performance'' was prerecorded.

Spiro Veloudos, who is at the helm of the production and is also the company's producing artistic director, crafted moments of connection between the live performers and the onscreen Sondheim, in songs ranging from obscure ("I'll Meet You at the Donut'') to celebrated ("Epiphany,'' from "Sweeney Todd.''). "I wanted to have some stories within the stories, so it wasn't just 'And then I wrote,' " says Veloudos. "We had to figure out how we were going to deal with all the going back and forth, so that the videos were not just an excuse for transition.''

Take one of Sondheim's most famous songs, "Send in the Clowns,'' which is drawn from "A Little Night Music'' and is sung by a character — Desiree Armfeldt, a middle-age actress — who is ruefully reflecting on the complexities of her romance with a former lover. Rather than try to directly evoke Desiree, Veloudos focused on the concept of learning from a relationship. So he had Lyric Stage cast member Leigh Barrett stand in front of a staircase, gazing up at a screen and listening to Sondheim talk about what he learned from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. "She's silhouetted, but we know she's taking some energy from that story,'' says Veloudos.


After Sondheim describes how Hammerstein signed a photo "For Stevie — my friend and teacher,'' Barrett begins her wistful rendition of "Send in the Clowns.'' Veloudos was inspired by the correlation he sees between Desiree absorbing lessons about what a relationship is and Sondheim learning from Hammerstein, not just about music but also about the importance of their bond as surrogate father and son.


Veloudos added a cheeky touch to cast member Mala Bhattacharya's performance of "Do I Hear a Waltz?," the title song from Sondheim's 1965 collaboration with Richard Rodgers. Bhattacharya performs a verse, and then the focus shifts to the onscreen Sondheim, who calls "Do I Hear a Waltz?'' an "unnecessary show'' and declares: "I am really sorry I took a year and a half of my life to write it.''

An expression of dismay, then pique, and finally determination crosses Bhattacharya's face. The actress proceeds to defiantly sing two more lines. The good-natured message, says Veloudos, is: " 'Hey, I've been singing up a storm with this piece, and you're saying it shouldn't have been written. Well, I'll show you.' "


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.