Princeton alumna Katie Welsh ’15 originally performed her concert Women in the World of Sondheim at Princeton as her senior thesis, and has recently presented it at New York City venues including the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, the Metropolitan Room, and Feinstein’s/54 Below. She was recently interviewed by Josh Austin for Everything Sondheim. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission. Read the full article online here …
A concert like Women in the World of Sondheim is important because it invites the audience to engage with musical theater in a new way. It pushes boundaries in terms of content — it takes musical theater seriously and treats it as a discipline worth analyzing — and it pushes boundaries in terms of form — it makes the typically personal, anecdotal cabaret patter a site for analysis. The show simultaneously entertains, educates, engages and excites audiences in a way I never dreamed was possible. — Katie Welsh ’15
Everything Sondheim: Before it was a concert, Women in the World of Sondheim was your senior thesis. Why tackle Sondheim and his female characters?
Katie Welsh: During my time at Princeton, Professor Stacy Wolf, a leading feminist musical theater scholar, became my mentor. When I was a freshman, I took her class on gender and sexuality in the Broadway musical, and it fundamentally changed how I thought about musical theater. She asked us to inspect the “heteronormative” narrative (“boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”) and identify the tropes, traditions and stereotypes that have played out (and/or been challenged) over the course of this distinctly American art form’s fascinating history.
By the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to not only continue studying musical theater as a performer but also as a scholar — and specifically as a feminist scholar — and so when I took Professor Wolf’s Sondheim seminar my junior year, I couldn’t help but begin wondering: Who are the Sondheim women? How are they in conversation with one another across shows? Where do they fit in the Broadway canon? When I began my research, I discovered that the Sondheim women were already at the center of an important discussion in the field of musical theater studies. Many scholars were starting to classify “Sondheim’s women” as a new category, a new genre even, of musical theater heroines. I found this conversation exciting, and I knew I had to participate in it as both a singer and a scholar — so I devised Women in the World of Sondheim.
The show ultimately became what I now call an “informative” cabaret. Unlike more traditional cabarets, where the patter between songs is more personal and anecdotal, Women in the World of Sondheim features patter that is more informative and educational — I quote scholars and journalists, touch on the history of musical theater (specifically, Sondheim’s relationship to Rodgers and Hammerstein), lead fun moments of musical analysis and really weave the Sondheim women’s stories together in a new way.
EvSo: When and how did the passion for Sondheim develop?
Welsh: I was first introduced to Sondheim’s work when I was three years old and was allowed to watch the first act — and the first act only — of his 1987 collaboration with James Lapine, Into the Woods. (My mom loves musical theater and was quick to pass that passion on to me!) I studied and loved his shows all through high school and college, but it wasn’t until I took the seminar with Professor Wolf that I found myself deeply engaged with Sondheim’s entire body of work. While I was taking that seminar, I also happened to be singing a lot of Sondheim songs in my voice lessons … I suddenly saw an opportunity to blend my two passions — performance and scholarship — into a single project, and so it became my senior thesis!
EvSo: How did you morph your thesis into a professional concert?
Welsh: Over the past year, I’ve definitely tightened the show’s patter in certain places, but the text as a whole has mostly remained unchanged. What has significantly changed, I think, is how I present the text, specifically the tone of the show. After all, I’m going from performing the show for a roomful of scholars on a university campus to performing it for an audience in a cabaret room or supper club in the city. I’ve had to adjust and adapt to my new environments. I’ve strived to make the tone of the show a bit more informal, more inviting, more “relaxed,” while still maintaining the “informative-ness” of it — I’m striving to make it less about presenting the material to the audience and more about sharing it with the audience. This was always a goal with the show, even when I was performing it at Princeton—but I’m pursuing it even more rigorously now!
The show has inspired Welsh to create new “informative” cabarets. She has already developed and performed a second concert, Love … According to the Great American Songbook, and is currently developing a third show that explores the Broadway ingénue through the decades.