Among the most talented and well-known writers in musical theater is the legendary Steven Sondheim. His music and lyrics have helped shape contemporary American culture and even the late Jonathon Larson of “Rent” fame invokes Sondheim’s name in his works as a veritable theatre god. Now, the works of Sondheim are available to mid-Michigan theatre buffs at the BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing.
As the narrator points out, “Side by Side by Sondheim” is really more of a show than a play. There is no plot that laces the tunes together, rather the celebrity narrator introduces each segment and gives some background as to where the songs came from and how Sondheim gathered his inspiration. Known for his diverse subject matter and incredibly different shows, Sondheim’s songs span a broad range.
The story of Sondheim’s childhood is one rooted in music. After his parents divorce, young Sondheim and his mother moved to Bucks County, Penn., into the same neighborhood as musical theater great Oscar Hammerstein II. While observing Hammerstein writing “Oklahoma!”, Sondheim began to take interest in the craft. In the late 1950s he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story” and Jule Styne on “Gyspy,” setting off his long trail of success.
[Applegate] For the most part, the thirty musical numbers – that’s right, thirty – are grouped with other songs from the same show to help give the two and a half hour performance a feeling of cohesion. There are only three singers, a narrator and a two-man “orchestra” to deliver the show. And of course, in true Sondheim style, the numbers cover a broad range of subjects and go back and forth from comedic to dramatic, sometimes within the same song.
Going from the torn Puerto Rican community of “West Side Story” to the burlesque shows of “Gypsy” cannot be easy for any actor or actress, but the BoarsHead’s trio composed of Jeff Applegate, Shannon Locke and Sarah Wallace pull it off very well.
New York City theater veteran Applegate, who plays Man, likens the experience of preparing for “Side by Side by Sondheim” to boot camp, “Sondheim is not easy stuff to learn and study,” he said. “Basically we prayed a lot for two weeks.”
As for the technical side of the show, the minimalist stage is set with three chrome stools against a screen of a repeated black and white print of Sondheim arranged in various shapes. The screen hides the orchestra of accomplished musical team of Jeff Kressler, MSU alumnus, and Dave Bacon. The backdrop for the whole show is the simple New York skyline, also in black and white.
“It was a fun revue of one of the greatest musical writers of our time,” said marketing senior Lisa Kraus.
[Locke]Now with more than 60 titles and joint-projects to his name, Sondheim continues to produce incredible works and open the theater to new audiences. Sondheim’s most recent success on Broadway has come with the introduction of the musical “Assassins”, a story about the American dream and those who live on the margins of society.
According to “The Guide to Musical Theatre”, “Not everyone feels comfortable watching Lee Harvey Oswald singing along with John Wilkes Booth [in “Assassins”], but, in stretching the possibilities of the musical, Sondheim is seeking to prove that the form has just as wide a range as a straight play. And for that we should all be grateful.”
“It was an absolute joy to do Sondheim,” said Shannon Locke, whose official title in the play was Woman 1. “The fact that we have the opportunity was a gift; a gift that I would gladly take any day.”
“Side by Side by Sondheim” runs at the BoarsHead Theatre inside the Center for the Arts (425 S. Grand Ave, Lansing) through February 6. For show times and ticket information visit or call the box office at (517) 484-7805.

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