SOLANA BEACH – While you may not know the name Stephen Sondheim, you probably know some of the American composer’s musical works, which range from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” to the dark tale of “Sweeny Todd,” to “Gypsy.”
But whether you do or don’t, none of that matters, said Dan O’Connor, Impro Theatre’s artistic director and co-director of the full-length, completely improvised musical “Sondheim Unscripted.”
Because what the audience will see in one night at the North Coast Repertory Theatre is a musical, created live, moment-to-moment, before their eyes.
“The show is completely different every night,” said O’Connor. “It’s everything Sondheim, without anything he wrote,” he said.
Michele Spears is co-director of the unscripted show.
“Director is a strange word, when you’re dealing with improv,” Spears said. “Basically it means coming up with the technical look of the show…but also…helping to guide the company towards a better understanding of whatever style we’re doing, in this case, Sondheim.”
The Impro Theatre group, a nonprofit theater company established in 1998 and based in Los Angeles, became interested in how Sondheim constructed his musicals, and to create a long-form narrative that is completely improvised was something that appealed to their sense of being challenged.
“It’s kind of like Jenga,” O’Connor said. “We’re building each moment of the story as we’re doing it. We kind of know where the story’s going…and hopefully, at the end of 90 minutes, we’ve arrived at a place where the story has some closure,” O’Connor said.
The group has been performing “Sondheim Unscripted” since the spring, and during that time the ensemble has started to develop their own vocabulary and learn new things about the style’s they are working in and what they can really play with, Spears explained. “It just sort of solidifies like a good team that’s playing all season,” she added.
The shows begin with audience interaction. And with Sondheim’s repertoire being so varied, the audience is basically given carte blanche to suggest what they want the story to be about.
“The complete control is given to the audience,” Spears said. “They’re going to be the spark. Whatever that first offer is that comes out, the entire night is going to emerge from that suggestion.”
And their audiences haven’t proved too timid to suggest stories, either.
“There’s power in numbers, I think,” Spears said. “It’s not like they have to stand up and identify themselves. They get to yell it out in a dark theater and that’s amazing what freedom that gives people.”
O’Connor said they loved coming to the North Coast Rep and to audiences in San Diego County because they’re so engaged. “And because it’s being created in front of them, they’re on the rollercoaster ride with us.”
Sondheim’s style is very complex, but very identifiable, O’Connor said. “It’s that kind of freedom to create a musical based on almost any subject matter that is really exciting for us.”
We have people who come and are real Sondheim aficionados, O’Connor said, but it’s not necessary to know anything at all about Sondheim because you’re coming to see a musical done only for that night, only for that audience.
At this particular performance at the North Coast Repertory, musician Peter Smith will be accompanying the actors on stage, something that is of great excitement to the company, said O’Connor. “He’s such a terrific, not only keyboard player, but understands Sondheim so well,” he added.
Each of the members of the Impro Theatre has a background in traditional, dramatic acting.
“We’ve all worked on scripted material, and not that there’s anything wrong with scripted material,” O’Connor said, “but being able to create something that’s completely different every night…using our writing skills…our acting skills, our improv skills and hopefully bringing a bit of our own personality into the ensemble…I think that’s the reason why we do it. It’s because it’s so challenging on so many different levels and we get to use all of the skills we’ve gone to school for and trained for.”
The Sept. 20 show is expected to sell out, said Sandra Schwarzmann, the North Coast Repertory’s director of marketing. The Impro Theatre group has been very well accepted with audiences, Schwarzmann said, adding that a second performance of Sondheim Unscripted is expected to be announced at a later date.
The Impro Theatre group does perform the unscripted shows as a series, including Film Noir Unscripted, which begins Nov. 7.
Tickets for “Sondheim Unscripted” are still available online at northcoastrep.org, or by calling the box office (858) 481-1055. Box office hours are Monday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. non-performance days, and noon to 6 p.m. on days of the performances. Tickets range from $15 to $20.