A SONNET FOR SONDHEIM – Because I Could Not Stop For Death

a Sonnet for Sondheim article by Allan Sko / cover image by Andrew Sikorski

a Sonnet for Sondheim – an evening of Sondheim songs alongside poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson – is set to sizzle at Belco Arts Centre this June-July, and for a number of important reasons. 

Number 1 – Lexi Sekuless

For starters, it is a new production by erudite theatre figure Lexi Sekuless; a graduate from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama who has shared the stage with the likes of Miriam Margoyles, Tamsin Greig, and Jemma Redgrave, as well as being the Co-Producer and Co-Artistic Director of the free Shakespeare by the Lakes season. 

Lexi Sekuless
The lovely Lexi Sekuless – photo by Esh-Photography

Secondly, the show is also, of course, a loving dedication to legendary American composer, songwriter, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who sadly died in November last year. His life is now celebrated by a talented team comprising actors Katerina Smalley and Jay Cameron, Tim Sekuless, pianist Carl Rafferty, Martin Everett, and Lexi herself. 

Forging a new opportunity for Canberra creatives

But it is also, rather crucially, one of the first co-productions for the shiny new Belco Arts venue, and thus an important bellwether piece for how the place operates, and collaborates, with Canberra creatives in future.

“It’s really fun to work with the Belco team,” Lexi enthuses. “They’re gorgeous. They were recently given a big injection of cash for infrastructure funding, so they’ve got this new venue. But they know the importance of the program that fills it. Now that it’s open, this is the first co-production that they’ve done. 

“It’s really nice to be talking to them about how we can develop a model that Belco Arts applicants can use going forward,” Lexi continues, “so that they can connect with the independent theatre makers and help support them via this amazing venue. Belco Arts are meeting a need, which is co-producing and trying to grow Canberra theatrical offerings.”

Switching focus to the show itself, I asked Lexi if Sondheim’s passing contributed to picking him as the focus, or whether it would have been a natural choice regardless.

The late, great Stephen Sondheim

“That’s a good question,” she ponders. “Definitely, his passing means he’s certainly been on my mind. Of the strong musical members of the group, we had already been talking about how to mark Stephen’s passing. So yeah, it played a big part.”

Getting the team together

It’s a grand way to pay tribute, celebrating a life, and the work, via performance. As such, Lexi has assembled a dream cast to herald the homage via the best show possible.

“We’ve got Katerina Smalley and Jay Cameron,” she explains. “We’ve done lots of stuff together, like Lakespeare productions. And we’ve done small shows using some of Jay’s original compositions. We’re also joined by my lovely big brother Timmy, who I’m able occasionally to get to tread the boards. And I’m in the show as well.

photo by Andrew Sikorski

“There’s also a lad called Martin Everett, who’s in Sydney now, but for most of the pandemic lived in Canberra. He was in Kinky Boots. Martin and Kat are a really good duo.”

And, of course, there’s the irrepressible Carl Rafferty on the piano.

“Given that the whole thing is scored via a grand piano, I needed a very strong pianist. And Carl’s got the skills in that area,” Lexi extols. “Also, his understanding as a producer means that everything’s about the sonic considerations. All the language is heightened in some way. It’s all organised, either in verse form, or in musical form. 

“So we have total scoring and underscoring by a beautiful grand piano. To have that new theatre filled with such a glorious sound; it’s pretty exciting.”

With the subject set, and the crew assembled to bring it together, next was the delightful yet arduous task of selecting which songs and poems to use from the blushing cornucopia available. Not to mention the frighteningly large number of potential combinations.

A love letter to Sondheim

“We wanted to get a full palette,” Lexi explains. “We started with a wish list of favourite Stephen songs, with a thought both on the composition of the show, and also mindful of the fact that he’s passed. 

“As such, the show developed into a love letter to Sondheim, but also a love letter to the industry. It would have been easy to get stuck in a space of melancholy. Not only are we touching on someone’s passing, but there’s the fact of the trying couple of years that everybody has had. 

“So we looked at why we keep going. How do we keep going? And the idea of love, and love powering what you do as a performer. “

Exploring the idea of resilience, and where you find it, I venture?

A scintillating selection of sentimental sonnets

“Yeah, definitely,” Lexi enthuses. “And of course, that’s where the sonnets fit in the best. I’ve actually included only one of good old Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the rest are by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

Not to mention Emily Dickinson.

“Yes, I wanted to bring in a few more female voices for balance,” Lexi explains. “The idea of ‘Tribute’ was emerging as a big theme, and her love letters fit perfectly; the underscore of a Sondheim number is playing and this powerful sonnet comes in. It’s quite beautiful.”

Lexi also reveals just how fortunate we all are regarding the inclusion of certain Browning pieces.

“Those Sonnets from Portuguese, those 44 love sonnets that she did; they were close to never being published,” Lexi says. “They were hidden for years in her private notebook and nearly lost to Time. We’re so lucky to have them in there.”

photo by Andrew Sikorski

The stage is set

So the stage – both literal and metaphorical – is set for a truly memorable show, with an admirable amount of work put in by a very special hive mind of Canberra creatives. Expect a loving homage to Stephen Sondheim, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dicksinson, and William Shakespeare. Expect the plight of the performer, personal stories, confessions and love triangles peppered among Sondheim songs from Passion, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George.

But also expect an exciting new co-lab venue opening up opportunity, made possible by this very production. As Lexi concludes:

“The main thing is that yes, there is this one show, but this is also about the legacy of Belco Arts, and looking at what can be created and forged by Canberra creators. It’s pretty special that they are doing this.”

a Sonnet for Sondheim is on at Belconnen Arts Centre from Wednesday, 29 June – Saturday, 2 July at 8pm each night. Tickets are $45/$40 via belcoarts.com.au/sonnet-sondheim/

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