By Matt Peiken
Stephen Sondheim recently turned 86, but his groupies are every bit as impassioned as those who follow the world’s most cutting-edge rock bands.
At least that’s what Cincinnati arts journalist and Sondheim devotee Rick Pender is banking on with his new publishing venture, Everything Sondheim. Pender is trying to raise $20,000 before launching his online magazine devoted to all things Sondheim, with a twice-yearly printed publication also in Pender’s sights.
“In some circles, they’re called Sondheads,” Pender said of the composer and lyricist’s most ardent fans.
Consider Pender among them. He began writing in the late ’90s for a print magazine called The Sondheim Review and became its managing editor in 2004. He and several others left that magazine this past year.
While that publication still exists, at least with a barebones online presence, Pender hopes to reach those readers – 1,000 to 2,000 thousand subscribers, he estimates – with an online publication that’s timely and exciting.
“We are essentially trying to create a 21st century version of The Sondheim Review,” he said, adding his publication has Sondheim’s blessing, if not his investment.
As one would expect, Everything Sondheim (EverythingSondheim.org) will feature interviews with directors, performers and other insiders involved with Sondheim productions, revivals and books all over the world. Academics and other authors and critics also will weigh in, though Sondheim has asked Pender to limit any reviews to productions that have been completed, to avoid hampering ticket sales of current shows.
“He’s a sensitive guy. Early in his career, he was battered by critics and has a very low opinion of them,” Pender said of the lyricist behind “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd,” among other staples of the stage.
“The point he has made to me is if anyone wants a review of anything currently running, they can find plenty online, and why should we add to that?” he said. “The man is 86 and won’t be around forever, and maybe we’ll eventually do things in a more timely manner.”
Everything Sondheim will offer two doorways – a free site featuring a basic level of news and listings and more substantive features only available to subscribers. Pender expects a certain level of Sondheim-driven tourism to fuel interest in his magazine, noting that devotees have been known to travel great distances to see notable revivals.
Pender has a quick answer to those questioning the fresh material that can be generated about a composer well past his heyday.
“There are still tremendous volume of books and scholarly material about Shakespeare, and he died 400 years ago,” Pender said, noting Sondheim’s involvement in 18 major musicals, with hundreds of productions of his shows happening in any given year.
“And Sondheim is not like some theater artists that, once there’s an original production of his work, they want it set in stone,” he said. “He’s been very open to having new interpretations of his work.”
Everything Sondheim eventually will become a nonprofit organization but, for now, it is accepting tax-deductible donations through a nonprofit arts support agency called Fractured Atlas. Nearing age 67, Pender left public relations many years ago to spend eight years as an arts editor with Cincinnati CityBeat. He doesn’t see Everything Sondheim as a second full-time career.
“It was great fun editing this magazine for 12 years, and I didn’t want it to stop, because so many people deeply appreciated it, and I wanted to sustain it,” he said of The Sondheim Review. “I’ve written a business plan for three years and very much hope people on my editorial board will then step up and take it on.”
To donate or sign up: EverythingSondheim.org