The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Women in the World of Sondheim: A Cabaret Performance, a one-woman musical revue conceived by and featuring theater senior Katie Welsh. The revue explores the individual and collective journeys of twelve female characters in the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. Directed by faculty member Suzanne Agins, with musical direction by theater senior Emily Whitaker, the cabaret will investigate how the women that populate Sondheim’s work differ from the women of Golden Age musicals, how they are uniquely characterized as morally ambiguous and insecure, and how they grapple with serious decisions. The performances will take place on Friday, May 8 at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, May 9 at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, May 10 at 3:00 p.m. in the Wilson Black Box at Wilson College on the Princeton University campus. A talkback led by Princeton professor and musical theater scholar Stacy Wolf will follow the performance on May 8. This event is free and open to the public.
Welsh’s interest in musical theater began before coming to Princeton. Once enrolled she quickly discovered the Lewis Center’s Music Theater Lab and Professor of Theater Stacy Wolf, whose research focuses on American musical theater and performance studies and who became Welsh’s advisor and mentor. She took Wolf’s course “Isn’t it Romantic? The Broadway Musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim” her freshman year and had the opportunity to hear Sondheim speak at McCarter Theatre. “I knew I wanted to continue to study musical theater as a performer when I came to Princeton,” notes Welsh, “but I did not know that I would also have the amazing opportunity to study it as a scholar.” Welsh possesses a great intellectual and artistic passion for Sondheim’s work and has explored his musicals both as a performer and a scholar over the course of her Princeton career. “I approach musical theater from the perspective of a singer and the perspective of a scholar. In fact, I like to call myself a ‘singer-scholar.’”
Other musical theater courses Welsh has taken include performance classes like Broadway director John Rando’s “Acting and Directing in Musical Theater” and Broadway director John Doyle’s “Development of the Multi-Skilled Performer,” to analysis classes like Tamsen Wolff’s “Curious Aesthetics: 20th Century American Musical Theatre.” She has also studied acting, community-based theater, performance for actors and dancers and lighting design at the Lewis Center, as well as music theory in the Department of Music. She has also participated in master classes by guest artists such as Tony-nominated composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Broadway actress Becky Ann Baker, and Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director Paul Bogaev. Last year she received an Outstanding Work by Underclassman Award from the Program in Theater. Her junior research papers included “The Sound Inside You: Musical Expression of Interiority in Guettel and Lucas’s The Light in the Piazza” and “The Not-So-‘Far-Off’ Kingdom of 1980s America: Anti-Feminist Backlash in Into the Woods.”
During her junior spring semester she took Wolf’s seminar, “The Musical Theatre of Stephen Sondheim: From Process to Production.” “We studied ten different Sondheim musicals and, therefore, dozens of Sondheim characters,” recalls Welsh. “As the class progressed, I found myself really thinking analytically about what it meant to be a woman in a Sondheim musical. When I began my research, I was excited to find 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.”
For the cabaret, Welsh gathered, assembled, and organized the songs and wrote the material that will be shared between songs that provides information on each of the characters she is exploring musically.
Welsh’s senior thesis in the Department of English is also an examination of Sondheim’s characterizations of women through written analysis. She plans to pursue a career in performance and intends to spend the year after graduation training in theater and music in preparation for M.F.A. program auditions.
Stephen Sondheim is perhaps the most well-known living American composer and lyricist. Abandoned by his father at a young age, he became the surrogate son of acclaimed golden age lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, whose mentorship had a profound influence on Sondheim, especially in developing a love for musical theater. Sondheim is the winner of an Academy Award; eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater; eight Grammy Awards; a Pulitzer Prize; and the Laurence Olivier Award. His most famous works as a composer and lyricist include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, and Assassins. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Sondheim is praised for the thematic and dramaturgical diversity of his work, the power of his lyrics, and the unparalleled ambition and complexity of his music.
Suzanne Agins, the director of Women in the World of Sondheim, is a Lecturer in Theater at Princeton and a freelance director who specializes in new work. Her recent work includes the world premiere of Radiance by Cusi Cram for the LAByrinth Theater Company. She made her off-Broadway debut with the critically acclaimed world premiere of Jailbait by Deirdre O’Connor for the Cherry Lane Theatre. Her other recent directing projects include: Alligator by Hilary Bettis (Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference); Fuente Ovejuna: A Disloyal Adaptation by Cusi Cram, inspired by Lope de Vega’s play, at Princeton University (developed with LAByrinth Theater Company); The Burden of Not Having a Tail by Carrie Barrett (Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference); Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels at Dorset Theater Festival; Wing It, a new musical inspired by Aristophanes’ The Birds, by Gordon Cox and Kris Kukul (world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival); and Lascivious Something by Sheila Callaghan (Cherry Lane Mentor Project). Agins holds an M.F.A. in Directing from the University of California, San Diego, is the recipient of a 2006 Princess Grace Directing Fellowship, and is a member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and the Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab.
The production team includes lighting design by Sydney Becker ’17 with Matt Volpe ’16 as stage manager.
The Lewis Center’s Program in Theater annually presents a major, professionally produced play, as well as a number of student senior thesis productions throughout the year. Closing out the current season are productions or Gao Xingjian’s avant-garde masterpiece The Other Shore; [The Title of This Piece Has Been Redacted], a workshop reading of new musical set in East Berlin in 1970s by senior Sam Kaseta; and a developmental reading of a new investigative theater piece about student mental health at Princeton, based on interviews conducted with students and faculty entitled, I’m Fine, I’m Better, Don’t Worry About Me by senior Joseph Labatt.