An unofficial rule for actors auditioning for a musical is never to do a Stephen Sondheim song.
Joseph Golden, director of opera and organ studies in the Columbus State University Schwob School of Music, decided that after “The Marriage of Figaro” two years ago and a cabaret show last year, it was time for the Schwob School to tackle “Into the Woods.”
“Our students needed to have a Sondheim experience,” Golden said. “We had a huge number of strong students.”
This Sondheim show is about the consequences of fairy tale characters’ wishes. The storyline may be simple, but in the hands of Sondheim, the score becomes almost impossibly difficult.
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“I had to make it clear that this is not a fairy tale,” Golden said.
Several high schools have done “Into the Woods,” but the Broadway Junior version.
This full-fledged production features a cast of 20, Golden as artistic director, Shawn Churchman as stage director and Constantina Tsolainou conducting the CSU Philharmonic.
“We have quite a few freshmen and some transfer students,” Golden said. “There are many I have not worked with before. But we do not have a single weak link in the cast.”
He’s happy to see the return of the collaboration between the Schwob School and the CSU Department of Theater. Costume shop manager Kimberly Garcia has constructed the costumes and associate professor Steven Graver has designed the set.
“Steven has done the most amazing thing with the set,” Golden said. “It is a highly-stylized forest. It is just spectacular.”
Golden, Churchman and Tsolainou have the students rehearsing for nine hours a day, seven days a week for three weeks. In fact, since rehearsals began, they have had one day off.
But Golden said it’s been a good experience for them to grow and stretch their talents.
“They’ve begun to bond just like a repertory company,” he said.
Daryl Blalock, a 21-year-old senior from Augusta, said even though the cast has varying degrees of experience, it has come together.
Joanna Roberts, 19, a rising sophomore from Lawrenceville, Ga., said it’s been fun “working in a cast with a lot of friends.”
Guest stage director
Churchman, originally from Oklahoma, spent 20 years in New York City as a Broadway performer and director. He is just finishing his first year as a college professor, teaching in the Weitzenhoffer Department of Musical Theater at the University of Oklahoma.
“I’m a Sooner now,” he said with a smile.
He thinks the CSU students are “terrific. They’re so enthusiastic and eager to learn. And they are very hungry to perform.”
Churchman was in one of the first productions of “Forever Plaid,” an often-performed musical about four young singers who die on their way to a gig.
He’s never done “Into the Woods,” though it has been one that he’s always wanted to do.
“I’ve had great fun” directing the show, he said. “The difficulty has been to challenge them (the students) without overwhelming them.”
“It’s been a great pleasure having Shawn here,” Golden said. “It’s great to have highly talented people like him drop in like manna from heaven.”
How difficult is Sondheim?
“Difficult? Yes, it is,” Roberts said. This is her second time doing “Into the Woods,” having done it in high school.
“It’s been a lot more compacted,” she said of the rehearsal time. “We’ve had three weeks to learn the material. And the vocal knowledge I have makes it more challenging.”
Aneli Wells, a 22-year-old senior, also from Lawrenceville, also did “Into the Woods” in high school.
She agrees with Roberts, adding in high school, she had three months to learn her role, instead of three weeks.
What helped Branden Shaw, 20, a rising junior from Columbus, was the repetition.
“When we finally got it, we would sing it every day,” he said. “It’s tedious.”
“The repetition definitely helps,” said Kenneth Grant, 21, a rising senior from Fayetteville, Ga.
“Every verse is different. It’s Sondheim …”
Janine deMichele, 20, a junior from Grovetown, Ga., said not only is every verse different, there may be three chord changes in each song.
But Joseph Brewer, a 22-year-old senior from Grayson, Ga., is “having fun emphasizing the words.”
They say the show is funny, sad, happy, with betrayals and commitment issues.
DeMichele is a theater performance major, but takes vocal lessons in the Schwob School, which makes her technically eligible to be in “Into the Woods,” she laughs.
Lindsay Grant, 19, a sophomore from Fayetteville, is taking her cue from Giselle in the 2007 movie, “Enchanted.”
As Cinderella, she’s just looking for a party.
“And I’m apparently snooty,” she said.
Working with a guest director
Grant has enjoyed working with Churchman. He said Churchman will suggest various ways for the cast to approach their roles. Churchman leaves it up to each individual to do the role in their own way.
Of course, if it doesn’t really fit in the play, he tells them. Otherwise, it’s up to each singer/actor.
“He is very detail-oriented,” said Hannah Ventro, 21, a senior from Indianapolis. “He wants you to take it and make it your own.”
“He’s awesome,” said Zachary Bryant, 18, a sophomore from Houston. “He’s very energetic.”
For senior Alicia Thomas, 20, from Augusta, taking part in “Into the Woods” has been an eye-opening experience.
A performance vocal major, she had planned to go to graduate school, but now she’s planning to major in musical theater.
“It (being in “Into the Woods”) has given me a couple of options,” agreed Blalock.