Arden continues valued Sondheim obsession with ‘Into the Woods’ this spring

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Terrence J. Nolen and Stephen Sondheim are pictured.
Mark Garvin

Arden Theatre’s Steven Rapp, the company’s director of marketing and communications, and its associate artistic director Jonathan Silver, have plenty to say about their capo de collaborator, Terrence J. Nolen.

On the subject of the Arden’s co-founding Producing Artistic Director, Rapp said, “Terrence stands in the eye of the hurricane and invites everyone to join him.”

Silver stated, “Terrence is chill in the face of producing theater at all times, to say nothing of the added pressure of a pandemic. The unknown doesn’t faze him, and that resolve trickles down to the whole of Philly’s artistic community.”

Yes. They were talking about coming back to live stages in 2022 after a two-year Covid break. Additionally though, Nolen and company were dealing  with the death of one of their own—the theater company’s driving light and aesthetic beacon, composer-playwright Steven Sondheim.

Sondheim passed away in November 2021, and his mystical musical ‘Into the Woods’ will close the Arden’s 2022 season, with its run from June 2 to July 3.

“Because he pursues the truth so rigorously, and has this astonishing ability – through the combination of music and lyrics – to capture the complexity of what it is to be alive, as well as life’s contradictions that exist in all of us: this makes Sondheim valuable and unique,” said Nolen at the time. “For so many of us who love him so, it feels as if he was writing about us or to us. Just listening to recordings alone, there are these moments… these ‘aha’ moments, where you would recognize that feeling. Or you would hear something you knew, but never had it expressed before or so succinctly.”

Nolen has felt this charge about all-things-Sondheim ever since he was a high school youth visiting the Forrest Theater, and witnessing the composer’s diabolically decadent ‘Sweeney Todd’ with Angela Lansbury. “I saw that production, and it rocked my world,” says Nolen. “I couldn’t believe that musical theater was capable of doing that. It was deeply moving, wickedly funny and epic in every way, while, at the same time capable of great intimacy.”

With its music and lyrics by Sondheim and its book by James Lapine (Sondheim’s collaborator on ‘Sunday in the Park’ with George), ‘Into the Woods’ also does that, as it nobly, but often cynically, peers into what it means to offer a traditional fairy tale the legitimacy of a happy ending, and the responsibility which follows.

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That Nolen and the Arden include Sondheim in each of its seasons – some productions on more than one occasion such as ‘Into the Woods’ – brings us to the continued potency and invention of the composer’s work.

“Like any great writer, Sondheim’s work, in repeated viewings, grows as we grow, changes as we change,” says Nolen. “It has the capacity to speak to us differently and our ability to hear it is different. It is a validation of who we are and that are our joys and confusions and who we are, is shared by him.”

Talking about doing ‘Into the Woods’ in 2022, Nolen mentioned doing it in previous seasons with an in-the-round setting, and “with the audience in the middle of the music,” stated the director. “I loved hearing that score from such a different perspective.”

Now, in 2022, Nolen believes that Sondheim and Lapine’s ‘Into the Woods’ can speak to audiences in many different ways, while relating to the isolation and fear of the pandemic.

“That the notion of going through the experience of loss that the characters do in the musical – and that there is so much struggle – makes sense to who we are now. There is a re-balancing, a re-calibration of what the world must be at the end of that show, but moving forward with hope, that is directly related to who we are and must be now. Given what we’re all going through, ‘Into the Woods’ will become extremely meaningful.”

Considering that Nolen and I had this conversation before the currency of the Ukraine/Russian conflict, and the possibility of world war, perhaps ‘Into the Woods’ means just that much more.

“With the passing of Sondheim, exploring his work and becoming part of his world is an incredible gift,” says Nolen. “For the audiences to hear – from the opening notes of ‘Once Upon a Time’ and those first chords, through to ‘No One is Alone’ – this will be an inspiring and deeply moving theatrical experience. And, most certainly, a very personal one.”

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