The Music Issue: The Sondheim variations

Sexy gay pianist Anthony de Mare’s love of showtunes spurred his experimental concert tour inspired by the music of Stephen Sondheim

DeMare

I’M STILL DE MARE | The gay pianist and showtune addict will tackle Sondheim at his Cliburn Concert.

GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS  | Contributing Writer
gregoryisaacs@theaterjones.com

Dark, handsome and obviously buff, Anthony de Mare’s charm oozes out of his publicity photos. Smiling at you from behind his piano, he seems to have just said “Hello” and is waiting for you to answer.

Wishful thinking, at best. De Mare is happily partnered to Tom Spain, a publishing executive; they live in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York with their Pomeranian, Cowboy. (“He is actually a very large dog, for a Pom,” says de Mare with a laugh.)

It’s unlikely he’d have time for you anyway. De Mare is in the middle of an ambitious concert project that started in Canada last spring and has already taken him to New York City, Chicago and more. On Saturday, he’ll play that concert, Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim for the Piano, at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth as part of the Cliburn Concerts Series.

The concert is a natural fit for de Mare, acclaimed as an interpreter of contemporary music. In fact, if was his idea.

Already a big showtune fan, de Mare organized this project, which enlisted 36 composers to create short, solo piano pieces based on the music of Stephen Sondheim — not arrangements, mind you, but original compositions that use a Sondheim song as a cantus firmus. It’s the fulfillment of a concept that has been brewing in him since childhood.

“I was always a fan of Sondheim,” he says. “I trained as a dancer and pianist and always felt at home in theater. Besides, it was one of the best ways I could think of to be able to play this music in concerts.”

The concert ends up being something of a showcase for gay musicians. In addition to de Mare and Sondheim, among the participating composers who are openly gay are Ricky Ian Gordon, Eve Beglarian, Fred Hersch, Nico Muhly, Eric Rockwell, Rodney Sharman and Jake Heggie. “And there are a couple of others I am not so sure about,” he adds with a chuckle.

De Mare left the parameters open for the composers, giving them as much freedom as they needed. But he did have some policies about what he wanted to play.

“I didn’t really want any of the songs to be deconstructed, making them unrecognizable,” he says. “I told them to maintain the melodic material even if it is a loose reference to the song. I also asked them to make the pieces no shorter than three to four minutes, and no longer than eight or ten.” (Most run four to eight minutes.)
That may sound like an easy assignment, but it wasn’t.

“Many of the composers told me this turned out to be a very challenging assignment because the songs are so perfect just as they are,” he says. “It is hard to do something original without doing something completely different.”

For example, minimalist composer Steve Reich tackled “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. “You know right off the bat that it is Reich, but the melodic material is still there,” he says. “David Rakowski had only one song in mind, ‘The Ladies who Lunch’ from Company. It was not originally on my list, though it is one of my favorite songs from the show. It is so character driven I didn’t think it would work as a piano solo. But he brought it to life brilliantly with all its bitterness and core of disappointment — he gets there without the lyrics.”

The program at the Modern will be held in the intimate lecture hall at the museum — an ideal venue for a piano recital. Shields-Collins “Buddy” Bray, a fine pianist himself, will serve as moderator, initiating a discussion about the pieces. De Mare will play about 13 of the 36 musical meditations commissioned, but even he isn’t quire sure which ones.

“I am still deciding,” he says.

I vote for “I’m Still Here.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Sorry? No, ‘Grateful’

John Bucchino calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend and Stephen Sondheim his mentor. So how come he’s not a huge fan of musical theater?

I WRITE THE SONGS  |  Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

I WRITE THE SONGS | Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

………………

AN EVENING OF CABARET
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Nov. 17. 7:30 p.m.
$50. Theatre3Dallas.com.

………………

If you look at John Bucchino’s web page, you’re immediately struck by how, under “biography,” he lists only the compositions he’s written and recordings made of his songs and awards he’s received. No date of birth, no hometown, no pet peeves. It’s as if his life story can be expressed through his work alone.

And the thing is, Bucchino doesn’t really disagree with that.

“I guess I do feel that way,” he says with a sudden flash. “I figure on a website, it’s not about me as a person but me as a songwriter. I do feel the work — especially It’s Only Life and the albums — are incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable insights into me. Ninety percent of them are directly from experiences in my life. I’m so wrapped up in what I do — probably unhealthily so — but I’m perfectly open. I need to get those two things in a better balance.”

In fact, doing so might make for a good song.

It’s not as if Bucchino doesn’t have a fascinating story of his own. One of the most respected composers of cabaret songs for more than two decades, he broke into Broadway with the acclaimed 2008 musical A Catered Affair, which wraps up its regional premiere at Theatre 3 Saturday. But that’s hardly your last chance to experience Bucchino. On Nov. 17 — his birthday! — he’ll perform his one-man show at Theatre 3, and the next day, previews of his revue It’s Only Life begin in the Theatre Too space. It’s a mini-festival of Bucchino in Uptown.

It’s surprising — to Bucchino, especially — that he’s become a staple of Theatre 3’s schedule, since he personally never had much interest in musicals. Even today, while he numbers Stephen Sondheim as a mentor and calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend of 25 years (he even claims credit for getting Wicked made; more on that later), he doesn’t really “get” lots of theater references. In fact, he never intended to be a composer at all.
“When I started writing songs, my goal was to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I started out playing piano at age 1; it became my favorite toy and still is. I just started noodling around with songwriting, which naturally evolved out of playing piano in high school. I figured I’d be a [piano playing pop star] a la Elton John or Billy Joel. But noooobody was interested in me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t on my radar that other people could sing my songs, but that’s what took off.”

His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook (“It doesn’t get better than Barbara Cook — her version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ just knocks my socks off. But her version of anything knocks my socks off”), Kristen Chenoweth, Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone; he wrote the music for a children’s book by Julie Andrews and her daughter; he calls Grateful probably his most important work. The song was also a watershed for him.

“It was Saturday. I was cleaning house and suddenly found myself at the piano playing the chorus for ‘Grateful’ and I just started to cry. But that’s as far as it went for month. Then came the sweat of crafting these lyrics and bridge around this perfect chorus,” he says.

Bucchino invited his friend Art Garfunkel over to listen to it and give feedback. As soon as it was over, Garfunkel said, “Don’t give that to anyone else: It’s mine.”

“From that reaction, I knew something was going to happen with it,” he says.

Still, his ascension to Broadway was a long one.

“I didn’t really know about live theater. I kind of thought of pop songwriting as somehow cooler — theater writing as less complex and two dimensional,” he says. “But Stephen Schwartz is the one who encouraged me to write for the theater.”

How can a gay guy involved in music not be a theater queen? Bucchino seems unfazed by the idea. He says he “wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim” when Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist called to say he was “really excited by my work.” But then came the pressure to produce something he wasn’t wholly conversant in. “It became terrifying to write for musical theater, because all these lofty people were encouraging me.”

A Catered Affair is his only show to open for a Broadway run, but his song cycles have been staples of regional theaters; Theatre 3’s Terry Dobson has been an especially enthusiastic supporter. (“I’m still not a musical theater geek just because I’ve done it,” he says.)

So how does he take responsibility for Wicked?

“Holly Near [for whom he has been a long-time accompanist] and I had gotten a gig to do a lesbian music festival on Maui. Stephen [Schwartz] was working on [the score for the animated film] Prince of Egypt in Los Angeles. I told him to come with me and we could hang out. He did. We were on a snorkeling trip with Holly and her partner and she said, ‘I just read the most interesting book.’” It turned out to be Wicked. When she described it to Schwartz, he immediately saw the potential to become a musical. “So if I hadn’t invited Stephen to vacation with us, it would never have happened!” Bucchino crows.

Bucchino acknowledges some have called his songs “not immediately hummable,” but that’s a good thing.

“That’s because you haven’t heard them before. I’d like to think that’s a reflection of my unique voice. What I go for in my writing is surprising inevitability — a chord progression or turn of phrase that makes you say, ‘I didn’t expect it to go there but, gee! How satisfying.’ I think the songs that are immediately memorable are derivative or formulaic in a way,” he says.

He also strives for a timelessness of sentiment, which is why, although often recorded by gay artists, his songs are usually gender neutral.

“If you look at the love songs on the Grateful CD, because I had not come out or to terms with my sexuality, I just decided not to use pronouns. There are no ‘he’ or ‘her,’ but ‘you.’ Maybe that’s a copout but also makes them more universal. We’re all people — gay or straight, male or female, we all go through the same stuff. I’m trying to reach that commonality which transcends gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes I wish my art were more overlapping into commerce, but I’m happy doing what I do.”

What’s the word? Oh, right: Grateful.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

‘Gypsy’ in her soul

B’way legend and gay icon Patti LuPone brings her powerful pipes to Dallas

concerts-1ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

You might not have seen her name above the title on a movie or welcomed her every week into your house via the boob tube, but when it comes to the stage, there are few contemporary performers who rival Patti LuPone.

“I’m not a movie actress — I think I’m a hard sell in the movies,” LuPone says matter-of-factly. (She is, however, about to shoot a film in New Orleans, playing  J-Lo’s mom.) While the Juilliard-trained actress has met her greatest success in musical theater, it’s her acting chops that have transformed songs like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from Evita — her first Tony Award) and “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy — her second Tony). The latter was a career highlight: The most ferocious role for a woman ever written for an American musical. Two years after it closed, she’s still happy to talk about it.

“It was great,” she beams. “Arthur [Laurents, the director and writer] assembled a spectacular cast — we really were a triumvirate. I don’t think you can act alone. You need partners on stage.”

That the production took place “was really done as a tribute to Arthur’s partner of 50 years, Tom Hatcher,: she says. “Tom had just died, and he’s the one who told Arthur to do West Side Story and Gypsy. Arthur agreed to do it basically to keep him alive. He wanted it to be different than the last one and really have an acted show.”

Although the entire principal cast won Tonys, Laurents did not.  “How could the director not win!” LuPone says, voice filling with outrage. You sense it’s such emotional readiness that has made her a Broadway icon.

LuPone brings that legendary power to the stage of the Meyerson this week, with what she calls a “piano and voice only” concert (no orchestra), titled Gypsy in My Soul. “It’s a collection of songs including some showtunes,” she says.

When an actress so identified with certain composers, especially Stephen Sondheim, performs in concert, she can run the risk of being compelled to perform songs that no longer interest her. That’s simply not the case with LuPone.

“Songs never become old hat to me, “ she says categorically. “Because audiences want to hear one, so I do one — not even because I have to; I want to. If they are really good songs you want to sing them.”

LuPone has, in one venue or another, run through almost the entire Sondheim repertoire: Mama Rose, Passion, Company, Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd (another Tony nomination — “I actually got rotator cuff problems from carrying around that tuba”). Really, only two have eluded her.

“I wanted to play Desiree [in the revival of A Little Night Music, which closed earlier this year on Broadway]. I contacted Trevor [Nunn, the director], who didn’t contact me back,” she says, with a sting. “Really the last Sondheim role for me is the Witch in Into the Woods, which I was originally offered! After it left San Diego they offered it to me; I said I d like to play Cinderella, so I came in and auditioned for that. Then they said, ‘We still want you to play the Witch.’ Then negotiations fell apart.”

Her resume is littered with shows — some huge hits, some personal triumphs.

“I loved Women on the Verge,” she says of her last Broadway venture, which closed quickly last year (though not before landing her a sixth Tony nom). “I think there’s a lot of creativity [on Broadway] now, but I’m sick and tired of the spectacles. My biggest complaint is the sound level: I’d rather be brought to the stage than pushed back in my seat.”

And she’s always looking ahead. “Mandy [Patinkin] and I are coming to Broadway for nine weeks [soon], then we will go out on the road both together and separately. Then there’s stuff happening that I can’t say because I’m not supposed to,” she teases.

You might expect she’d find a pace more suitable for a 62-year-old, but LuPone denies that the demands of eight shows a week wear her out.

“I have Italian peasant energy,” he says. “Even at my age, there is this abundance of energy, especially songs that are physically demanding. I am exhilarated by them.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas