Local Broadway stars are set to sing and dish on the masters of the musical
By Rick Pender
J.R. Cassidy, music director of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, happens to be a masterful marketer. Not much slows him down, although the weather did throw a curveball in September 2015 when he was set to present “Sondheim vs. Webber: The Battle of Broadway” in an outdoor concert at Devou Park.
“Mother Nature crashed the party,” he recalls.
Cassidy had lined up two singers with Broadway experience and Cincinnati roots – Pamela Myers and Jessica Hendy – for that one-time performance of the music of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, no easy task since they both have busy performance schedules.
Cassidy never lets a good idea get away. He’s finally able to bring Hendy and Myers together, Saturday, May 13, 7:30 p.m., at Northern Kentucky University’s Greaves Concert Hall.
Myers attended Taylor High, and is a 1969 graduate of the renowned musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (in fact, she was its first graduate). She went straight to Broadway and landed a role in Sondheim’s “Company.” She’s an in-demand performer, with a career that’s included many leading roles in Sondheim productions.
Westwood native Hendy graduated from St. Ursula Academy. Her CCM roots date to the early 1990s. In fact, she and Myers performed in a Hot Summer Nights production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in 1991. But Hendy’s path to stardom has put her in the singular spotlight of Lloyd Webber’s megahit, “Cats.” She toured in the show in the late ’90s. Now that it has returned to Broadway, she’s front and center as Grizabella, the tattered “Glamour Cat.”
Emotion vs. intellect?
So is there really a “battle” to be waged between Sondheim and Lloyd Webber? Cassidy’s program uses songs from nearly 20 of their Broadway hits. Even people who don’t follow musical theater know at least some of the shows.
Sondheim has won eight Tony Awards, more than any other creator of musicals. Four of Lloyd Webber’s shows are currently on Broadway, the first time that many works by one composer have been staged since Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1953.
These current giants of musical theater, oddly enough, share the same birthday – March 22. (Sondheim recently turned 87, while Lloyd Webber is 69.) For astrology adherents, that makes them Aries, near the cusp with Pisces, so they theoretically combine fiery impulsiveness with imaginative daydreaming. In other words, they’re inclined to be dreamers and doers. But how they passionately dream and do has taken them down very different paths.
I talked about this recently with Myers, Hendy and Cassidy as we discussed their upcoming concert.
“I’ve never done a Webber show,” Myers admits, “so I don’t have that frame of reference. I think Sondheim is much more intricate. Every single word is so planned out, usually devised for a specific character. From what I know of Webber as a listener, you can lift his music much easier; it’s not so pertinent to every action. You can barely lift things from Sondheim’s songs because they’re telling the story with every measure of music.”
Sondheim writes his own lyrics; Lloyd Webber partners with a lyric writer. Lloyd Webber’s music tends to lead with emotion, while Sondheim’s – because he’s crafting words and melodies – has an intellectual impact, making his compositions more musically complex.
“With Sondheim writing his own lyrics, that puts his songs in a different place, being the wordsmith that he is,” says Cassidy.
Hendy recognizes this distinction. “From purely a singer’s point of view,” she says, “Webber writes melodies that are easier to click into. Sondheim’s music is more like a crossword puzzle. You have to get that part of your brain going to click into a song. There’s often an intricate cacophony of the way he writes music with rests and melodies.”
Sondheim, in fact, is a great fan of puzzles and has created complex crossword puzzles. But his proclivity for the complex has meant that many of his shows have taken time and effort to appreciate, while Lloyd Webber’s works sweep listeners away almost immediately with great waves of emotional melody.
Cassidy makes a comparison from classical music to enlighten these differences. “Sondheim takes little pieces and eventually puts all these motifs together, and it’s magnificent. It’s how Brahms composes. Webber is more focused on writing a tune. In that way, he’s more like Tchaikovsky. There are tunes that you can remember because the melodies are repeated.”
“Phantom’s” “Music of the Night” is six minutes long, but the same six measures are repeated over and over.
Myers points out, “That’s why people leave humming the melody.”
Cassidy continues, “Webber’s tunes flow out simply and beautifully. Sondheim’s harmonic structure is more complicated, more conversational and more ‘motivic.’ Even the lyrics he wrote for shows he didn’t compose are great.” (When Sondheim was breaking into show business in 1957, he wrote words for Leonard Bernstein’s songs in “West Side Story;” in 1959 his lyrics for “Gypsy” were set to Jule Styne’s score. Since then he has followed his preferred course, writing both music and lyrics.)
One Broadway hit after another
Cassidy will open the concert with Lloyd Webber’s overture from “Phantom of the Opera.” After a few numbers featuring additional singers – CCM students Paulina Villarreal and Sola Fadiran and Danny McDowell from the Cincinnati Boy Choir – he’ll bring Myers on to sing “Another Hundred People,” the song Sondheim wrote for her in “Company” that paved the way to her Tony Award nomination. The program alternates between songs from 17 Broadway shows – including “Jesus Christ Superstar,”“Sweeney Todd,” “Evita,” “Into the Woods” – winding up with Hendy singing “Memory,” the anthem from “Cats” she’s presently performing on Broadway, followed by Myers’ rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the powerhouse culmination of “Gypsy,” featuring Sondheim’s lyrics.
Because Hendy has worked with Lloyd Webber, as Myers has with Sondheim, they have stories to tell. Cassidy will pause the concert whenever they want to share an anecdote. He says, “We’ll take moments for them to talk about their experiences. Myers has an incredible story of Sondheim instructing her about singing “Another Hundred People.” Hendy has toured with “Cats” on the road and is now doing it on Broadway. Our evening is not scripted. It’s OK to stop and engage the audience.”
Hendy doesn’t see this concert as a “battle.” To her, both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber are legends to be admired. “I wouldn’t hazard an opinion as to which one is better,” she says. “The great thing about our concert is that J.R. is presenting them both and showing the differences, but also highlighting how they are both masterful geniuses in the musical theater. They’re so uniquely themselves – and so great at what they do.
“I’m really excited to come home and sing with Pam,” Hendy adds. “We haven’t worked together since my days at CCM. I’m grateful to J.R. for inviting me. I look forward to singing for the city that I grew up in.”
Cassidy is confident a local audience will love this show. “I’m thrilled to work with these two ladies. Cincinnati’s a big theater town. This is just sort of a plum. I’m so happy to finally get this show going!”
“Saturday Night” (1954)
“West Side Story” (1957)
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962)
“Anyone Can Whistle” (1964)
“Do I Hear a Waltz?” (1965)
“A Little Night Music” (1973)
“The Frogs” (1974)
“Pacific Overtures” (1976)
“Sweeney Todd” (1979)
“Merrily We Roll Along” (1981)
“Sunday in the Park with George” (1984)
“Into the Woods” (1987)
“Bounce” (2003), rev. as “Road Show” (2008)
Lloyd Webber musicals:
“The Likes of Us” (1965/2005)
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (1968)
“Jesus Christ Superstar” (1970)
“Jeeves” (1975, rev. as “By Jeeves (1996)
“Tell Me on a Sunday” (1979)
“Song and Dance” (1982)
“Starlight Express” (1984)
“The Phantom of the Opera” (1986)
“Aspects of Love” (1989)
“Sunset Boulevard” (1993)
“Whistle Down the Wind” (1996)
“The Beautiful Game” (2000, rev. as
“The Boys in the Photograph” (2009)
“The Woman in White” (2004)
“Love Never Dies” (2010)
“Stephen Ward the Musical” (2013)
“School of Rock” (2015)
Frequent Movers & Makers contributor Rick Pender is executive editor and publisher of EverythingSondheim.org and past chair of the American Theatre Critics Association.