Sondheim’s song and dance

With 11 performances of ‘A Little Night Music,’ the J-Townplayhouse troupe is tackling the New Yorker composer’s music with aplomb.

This is the troupe’s second Sondheim endeavor. (photo credit: HANAN SCHOFFMAN)
This is the troupe’s second Sondheim endeavor.
(photo credit: HANAN SCHOFFMAN)
Aviella Trapido clearly does not settle for easy options.
The 20-something South African-born singer-director is behind the controls of the run of 11 performances of A Little Night Music by the J-Townplayhouse troupe, which are taking place at the AACI until September 18.
The musical, which was first performed in 1973, is based on a score by Stephen Sondheim who, Trapido observes, is not generally the first choice for material when companies consider putting together a new repertoire.
“Sondheim is avoided,” she says, adding that she was also responsible for putting on the New Yorker composer’s musical Company last year. “I think I am a bit of a pioneer when it comes to Sondheim.”
The director is already a seasoned professional and is evidently blessed with the right genes.
“My grandfather was an opera singer,” says Trapido.
“He’s 85, and he’s still singing! Everyone in my family is musical.”
Trapido naturally gravitated towards musical theater, although her move here with her family at the age of 13 almost put paid to her professional and artistic aspirations.
“In South Africa when I was eight, I went to an audition for a professional theater company,” she recalls. “There were hundreds of kids, and I was chosen for a production of The Wizard of Oz. From there I went on to do The Sound of Music. Then we made aliya, and I thought that was the end of my theater career. I didn’t think there’d be much musical theater in Israel. We came in 1988, and I think the musical theater scene here was just starting. I initially thought there would be nothing doing in English, but I am very happy that there is so much available in Hebrew and in English.”
Trapido may be forging a Sondheim entertainment bridgehead, but she says there is plenty more where she comes from.
“I am not alone in this,” she states. “People with real talent are turning out in spades to audition.”
And they need to be skilled, too.
“Sondheim does not write your run-of-the-mill musical,” observes Trapido. “He writes very complex music. You have to be a very good musician, not just a good singer, in order to work with his music. He never writes simple melodies. He’s always got tritones [intervals of three tones] involved. It’s very complex musically.”
Now 84, Sondheim is still very active and, in fact, is aware of the J-Townplayhouse endeavor.
“Our musical director Nir Cohen is one of Sondheim’s biggest fans and has a correspondence going with him,” says Trapido.
It appears that the Oscar and multi-Tony awardwinning composer and lyricist is on board with the current Jerusalem project, at least in spirit.
“When we told him we were doing A Little Night Music in Jerusalem and that we were the first company to do it in English in Israel, we asked him for permission to scale down the music – which was written for a 24-piece orchestra – for a quartet, and he gave us his blessing,” she says.
It seems the octogenarian was even open to the idea of coming over here to catch the J-Townplayhouse production for himself.
“He said he would love to come, but he has a prior engagement,” says Trapido. “But he sent us a lovely letter wishing us luck. It was very exciting and emotional to get the letter from him.”
It must be nice being able to contact the creator of a work you are about to perform. What would, say, Zubin Mehta have given to be able to correspond with Beethoven or Mozart about an upcoming rendition of one of their symphonies? “Stephen Sondheim is a very gracious man, a musical genius and very humble,” states Trapido, adding that Sondheim’s personality and insight come through in his creative output. “I think he really gets the complexity of human nature, and he writes accordingly.”
Sondheim had a good teacher – stellar lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein.
“Hammerstein was the first writer on Broadway who made the song about the story. He learned how to construct a song that took you from point A to point B and told a story,” explains Trapido. “Sondheim took that and built on it. There’s nothing in Sondheim’s work that’s not very well thought out.”
Mind you, that investment in the raw material can also be off-putting.
“I think that because Sondheim is so complex and challenging, a lot of people shy away from him,” she says.
But not Trapido and her cohorts.
The upcoming production is choreographed by Noa Lavi Shoseyov and feeds off a book by Hugh Wheeler.
Inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night – the movie that sparked Bergman’s international film director career – the story line follows the romantic lives of a number of couples. Fun and romance abound throughout.
Trapido has lined up a heavyweight cast for the show, such as veteran singer-songwriter Sandy Cash and Maya Pennington – the latter formerly of the internationally acclaimed a cappella group Voca People – as well as actors and singers from the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance and graduates of the Beit Zvi acting school.
“I don’t think you can do Sondheim without having a deep understanding of music, which I hope I have,” continues Trapido. “The three of us – with Nir and Noa – live and breathe Sondheim, and I think you have to in order to bring out what you want in the show.”
Part of that follows a sexy and romantic line.
“The story is about extramarital affairs. It is about two households that are linked by an affair. The two main characters are Desiree Armfeldt, who is being played by Sandy Cash, and Fredrik Egerman, played by Howard Metz. They had an affair, but it is now 14 years later and they haven’t met again during that time,” explains the director.
The plot constantly thickens, and there is no end of crossed romantic lines across the generations.
Naturally, the show is replete with wonderful musical numbers, such as the hit song “Send in the Clowns,” which was made famous by Judy Collins. It has also been performed or recorded by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Sarah Vaughan.
“We have been working very hard on this, and I have an incredible team and an incredible cast,” says Trapido. “I think everyone is going to have a lot of fun.” • All performances will take place at AACI – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center, 37 Pierre Koenig Street, corner of Poalei Tzedek, 4th floor, Talpiot. For tickets: 566- 1181 or at Discounts are available for groups and AACI members.