Signature Theatre never intended to become tied to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Yet, with its upcoming production of Assassins, beginning August 11, the theatre marks its 30th Sonhdeim production in as many years—which is more than any other company in the United States.
“Professional theatres in Washington were not really producing musical theatre. And no one was producing Sondheim,” says Signature Artistic Director
Eric Schaeffer of the local theatrical landscape in the early ’90s. “I knew that I wanted our first musical to be Sweeney Todd, and then we grabbed the rights for Assassins after it closed at Playwrights Horizons. It was our audience that then asked the question: ‘What is the next Sondheim?’”
Over the years, the theatre has produced
Company, Into the Woods, Passion, A Little Night Music, Gypsy, Putting It Together, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Anyone Can Whistle, Side by Side by Sondheim, Saturday Night, Sunday in the Park With George, Simply Sondheim, West Side Story, and Road Show.
The casts have starred the best of Signature’s actors, including names that would quickly be known on Broadway, including Norm Lewis, Joshua Lamon, Max Clayton, Brynn O’Malley, and Nancy Anderson.
And Schaeffer sees no reason to break the link now.
“We know that our audiences come to expect his work on our stage every season and we are delighted to oblige,” he says. “And that is how Sondheim musicals have become Signature’s signature.”
30 Times Stephen Sondheim Shows Played the Signature Theatre
30 Times Stephen Sondheim Shows Played the Signature Theatre
“In 1991, we presented our first Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd in an 80 seat theater with a 16 person cast and 18 person orchestra. People still talk about the production to this day,” says artistic director Eric Schaeffer.
“Signature was one of the first theatres to present
Assassins after its premiere at Playwright’s Horizons,” says Schaeffer. “We set it in an art gallery and used over 300 images projected throughout the show.”
Company was the opening show in our new space—a converted auto bumper shop. I remember Marta made her entrance down a firepole from the ceiling and that there was a lot of polyester,” says Schaeffer.
“We converted the entire theatre into a forest for
Into the Woods,” says Schaeffer. “We transformed the theatre into this environmental experience that was scary and beautiful.”
“Our production of
Passion was such an intimate experience for the audience,” says Schaeffer. “We created an old Italian villa and let the audience become immersed in the story with the original full orchestration. It was a haunting experience.”
Sunday in the Park with George with Arena Stage to bring this amazing musical to Washington for its first professional production. It was magical when the white floor split apart to reveal the La Grande Jatte,” says Schaeffer.
A Stephen Sondheim Evening was first a one night concert at the Shubert Theatre in 1973. We presented the same show in our intimate theatre as we reinvented some Sondheim classics and introduced lesser-known songs,” says Schaeffer.
A Little Night Music featured a new orchestration by John Owen Edwards made up of three string quartets, with the orchestra featured on the environmental set of the classic show,” says Schaeffer.
“As part of our 10th anniversary we brought back our first big Sondheim hit
Sweeney Todd that featured Norm Lewis along with Signature co-founder Donna Lilliard Migliaccio,” says Schaeffer.
“Baayork Lee directed
Gypsy featuring Donna Migliaccio as Mamma Rose and frequent choreographer Karma Camp as Mazeppa playing the famous trumpet,” says Schaeffer.
“Having just directed
Putting it Together on Broadway with Carol Burnett, I brought the show to Signature for its Washington debut featuring a company of Signature actors,” says Schaeffer.
Follies probably pushed more boundaries than any Sondheim musical,” says Schaeffer. “We had 136 seats, a cast over 35 and an orchestra of 16—over a third of the audience was either on stage or off. We created dressing rooms to fit the massive cast in any free space we could find in order to bring D.C. it’s first professional production of the masterpiece. It was pure magic, with the cast featuring Florence Lacey and Judy McLane.”
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum we payed homage to the garage with the opening number, containing tires rolling across the stage, and featured the Shakespeare comic Floyd King directed by Gary Griffin,” says Schaeffer.
Pacific Overtures was presented in a chamber version featuring ten actors on an all-natural wood setting to evoke modern Japanese design,” says Schaeffer.
Assassins was presented in a special production where the audience mirrored the set,” says Schaeffer. “A huge American flag dropped and you instantly felt that you were watching yourself.”
Into the Woods opened Signature’s new theatre in Shirlington that featured the voice of Angela Lansbury as the Giant,” says Schaeffer. “The show featured the original orchestration, and leaves and debris fell over the audience as things came apart in Act 2 to create a truly immersive experience.”
Merrily We Roll Along in a stylish design and onstage orchestra that featured Will Gartshore, Tracy Olivera, Erik Liberman, and Tory Ross,” says Schaeffer.
“We hosted a special concert presentation of
Anyone Can Whistle, featuring the full original orchestrations at Schlessinger Hall,” says Schaeffer.
“For our 20th anniversary season, audiences attended the tale
Sweeney Todd once more in a production that featured bodies dropping from body bags over the audience,” says Schaeffer. “Ed Gero and Sherri Edelen starred in the production.”
Side by Side by Sondheim made its debut featuring Nancy Anderson and countless sheets of Sondheim’s sheet music that made up the set design,” says Schaeffer.
A special concert presentation of
Saturday Night was held in 2012 in the Max Theatre starring Geoff Packard and Susan Derry.
“Matthew Scott starred in the new presentation of
Company that featured all contemporary video throughout the production,” says Schaeffer.
Gypsy starring Sherri Edelen and Maria Rizzo brought down the house every night in this sold-out run,” says Schaeffer.
“Claybourne Elder and Brynn O’Malley starred in this new production of
Sunday directed by Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner that took place in Seurat’s studio and proved to be an audience favorite,” says Schaeffer.
Simply Sondheim was a special evening that we got special permission from Sondheim to create and celebrate our 25-year anniversary with an evening of his songs with special vocal arrangements by David Loud,” says Schaeffer.
West Side Story featured an orchestra of 17 along with a cast of 24 where the audience was five rows deep from all the action and dancing in this thrilling experience directed by Matthew Gardiner,” says Schaeffer.
“Gray Griffin recreated his brilliant staging of
Road Show for Washington, D.C., audiences featuring Josh Lamon and Noah Racey,” says Schaeffer.
A Little Night Music featured Holly Twyford, Bobby Smith and Florence Lacey in this magical sold-out musical comedy,” says Schaeffer.
Passion, starring Claybourne Elder, Natacia Diaz and Steffiane Leigh, featured an entire ceiling of flowers cascading over the audience to create the world of northern Italy,” says Schaeffer.
“I’m now in the middle of directing our third production of
Assassins and our 30th Sondheim production overall featuring a cast of Signature favorites,” says Schaeffer.