'Celebrate Sondheim' musical revue more than a tribute to late Broadway legend

Farmington's Randy West helped craft show that opens this week

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • “Celebrate Sondheim” will performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23 through Saturday, March 25 and at 2 p.m. at the Farmington Civic Center.
  • It will continue March 30 through April 2.
  • Tickets are $18 and $14 at fmtn.org/shows or 505-599-1148.

FARMINGTON — Stephen Sondheim, the late Broadway legend responsible for such iconic shows as “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “A Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Forum,” was widely considered a master of both music and lyrics, an artist whose contributions to musical theater were so profound and unique that he often is credited with revolutionizing the art form.

But when it comes to singling out his favorite piece of Sondheim’s writing, Randy West, the supervisor of the Farmington Civic Center and director of the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company, can’t help but giggle a little when he cites this line Sondheim once crafted while describing, of all things, an aging cow: “Her withers wither with her.”

In those five words lie the genius of Sondheim, West believes — his cleverness, his succinctness, his originality, his audacity.

“He could compartmentalize words and make them be whatever he wanted them to be,” West said of the man who served as his mentor for decades and paved the way for much of his professional success.

West will have the opportunity pay tribute to Sondheim, who died in 2021, the best way he knows how this week when a show he helped create, “Celebrate Sondheim,” opens at the Farmington Civic Center. The production is a musical revue that repackages much of Sondheim’s better-known material into not just a career retrospective, but a project designed to offer the audience insight into the man by focusing on different aspects of his genius — including his humor.

Cason Day, left, Tanner Berry, Sean McCall and Margaret Clair rehearse a scene from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Celebrate Sondheim" being presented this week at the Farmington Civic Center.

West is promising a fully developed evening of musical theater that he hopes is destined for great things.

“It’s not a cabaret — we don’t sit on stools singing into a microphone with a piano,” he said. “It’s fully staged with eight singers and a nine-piece orchestra.”

“Celebrate Sondheim” also will have full sets and a multimedia element. One of West’s collaborators in creating the show — Aaron Berk — also is part of the production, serving as the musical director, orchestra conductor and pianist, while West has assembled a cast of experienced, well-traveled professionals to perform the material.

West had put together an earlier version of “Celebrate Sondheim” with Justin Hill more than 15 years ago, when he was organizing a musical theater company in Fairfield, Iowa. Sondheim had granted West the rights to his material then.

He took up the project again last year, after Sondheim’s death, when representatives of CMI Entertainment Inc. — a Florida-based agency that books nationally touring theatrical and musical productions — reached out to him and asked if he had a Sondheim revue in the works.

“I said, ‘I do, but I would want to tweak it and workshop it before I produce it,’” West said.

West invited Berk to collaborate with Hill and himself to get the show ready, and when it makes its debut this week, West is hopeful the production will have only begun its life. The Civic Center production will be videotaped for review by CMI officials, who could opt to pick it up and send it on tour across the country, with the City of Farmington being credited as the originator of the show.

Eileen Janesz and Matthew Aaron perform a scene from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Celebrate Sondheim."

“We don’t know for sure that’s going to happen, but it might,” said West, who already has signed on to direct CMI’s national tour of “A Christmas Carol” during the 2023 holiday season.

West — who said Sondheim first took an interest in him in 1983 when he was the little-known theater coordinator for the City of Phoenix — is excited about that possibility, viewing it as his duty to help secure the legacy of a man who had such a powerful influence on him.

“This seems like a good way to make people aware of how unique he was as a talent,” West said.

West’s introduction to Sondheim was a surprise, 90-minute phone conversation on West’s birthday 40 years ago, he said. At the conclusion of that call, Sondheim gave West his personal phone number and offered to make himself available anytime West needed advice or just wanted an ear to bend.

West took him up on the offer, regularly seeking Sondheim’s counsel as he produced a number of his shows over the years in Phoenix. And it was Sondheim who advised West to leave that desert city for San Francisco several years later, easing his path to success there by calling a number of Bay Area theater companies and advising them to hire West for projects.

Eventually, the two would even work together, as Sondheim brought West in as a collaborator in 1988 when he was retooling his 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”

One of the more meaningful conversations they had over the years came on the occasion of the birth of one of West’s children. Sondheim offered his congratulations, then added wistfully that fatherhood was not likely to be something he would experience.

“He said, ‘I’ll never do that — that’ll never be part of my life. My musicals will be my legacy,’” West said.

Margaret Clair, left, Alyssa Flowers and Shannon Cochran perform a song from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Celebrate Sondheim" at the Farmington Civic Center.

Sondheim saw it as his mission in life to do whatever he could to encourage young people to pursue a career in musical theater, West said, helping keep alive an art form that was facing significant struggles to remain relevant and commercially viable by the late 20th century.

Even now, two years after his death, West seems overwhelmed by Sondheim’s brilliance.

“He was always the smartest man in the room, no matter which room he was in,” West said of his mentor. “He was crazy smart.”

“Celebrate Sondheim” will performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23 through Saturday, March 25 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26 at the Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. It will continue March 30 through April 2. Tickets are $18 and $14 at fmtn.org/shows or 505-599-1148.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 ormeasterling@daily-times.com.

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.