Theater director: Play to honor Sondheim’s memory

Peterson notes his significant effect on Broadway


Ellie Barnes

Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” will be performed as this year’s spring musical.

Ellie Barnes, Reporter

Broadway lost one of its most influential figures of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim, last November.  

Even those who are not familiar with theater have heard, and maybe seen, popular productions such as “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods.” Sondheim was the creative mind behind those brilliant Broadway musicals. 

Theater director Ms. K.T Peterson has selected “Into the Woods” as the play for the spring musical this year. Though this play was not originally intended to honor Sondheim, Peterson wants it to be a tribute to his memory. Peterson said, “This (play) was written in the ‘80s and people still do it all the time and will (continue to) do it all the time.”

For Peterson and many others, Sondheim has been an inspiration. Peterson said, “He made a lot of us want to do what we do, that’s for sure. I write musicals as well, and he has always been a personal influence to me, although I don’t know who he hasn’t been an influence on. He’s just ubiquitous with wanting to do storytelling of music in the American form of musical theater.” 

Before Sondheim emerged, much of musical theater was formal, with pleasing music and dance numbers. “I think there’s a certain perception coming out of (musicals). It has to be beautiful, it has to be melodic. Women have to be very smooth and elegant. But I don’t think Sondheim agreed with that,” Peterson said.

In most of his plays, Sondheim has people arguing and fighting. Peterson said, “Some of the melodies are discordant, choppy and difficult. The messiness is what I really like about his work.”

However, the chaotic rhythms and complex themes in Sondheim’s musicals don’t agree with all audiences. Peterson said, “The lyrics are fast. He’s not for everyone. You know a lot of people can’t stand him, I hear that. It’s very quick, very fast. He doesn’t let you breathe. But that’s what’s exciting.”

Yet another aspect of theater that Sondheim completely changed was the focus on characters. Freshman Kathryn Kirschner, who will play Milky White in “Into the Woods” talked about her favorite part of the production. She said, “I feel like (the musical) focuses a lot more on personal characters instead of group numbers and dancing like other musicals.”

It is evident that Sondheim concentrated on the personal stories of the characters in his play. Peterson said, “The subject matter is part of it but also the way that he lets people express themselves. For me, what I like about it is I think Sondheim expresses frustration beautifully.”

This emphasis on the imperfect ways of people and life is one of the motives that caused Peterson to choose this musical. Referring to the last couple years of challenges on the Hill, Peterson said, “It’s hard to be a person today, and on top of Covid it’s hard to process grief.” 

Some of that grief and confusion come naturally with growing up. “Into the Woods” is about the change from childhood to adulthood. Peterson said, “I mean this transition is messy and ugly and confusing, because life is. And it’s hard, it’s really hard. And I acknowledge that it’s very hard right now in particular for a lot of people. And I wanted to give students an opportunity to feel all that and be all that and be authentic.”

With this honest representation of humanity displayed on the stage, Sondheim’s works capture audiences’ attention. Peterson said, “For me (the reason) why Sondheim was so important to so many people was because he was a storyteller and engaging with the audiences and demanding. He demands the audience pay attention. Because if you don’t, you will miss something. So that makes you lean in and pay attention.”

On a final note, “Into the Woods” will open on April 28 and shows will continue through the weekend. Tickets are free to all students and faculty. Kirschner said, “Everybody should come watch it. We have been working really hard on it.”