The last time we talked to supreme Broadway artist Stephen Sondheim

In the occasion of Zach Theatre‘s first fully staged musical by Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which opens May 30, we republish this Nov. 8, 2009 story that includes my interview with great man himself. 

Stephen Sondheim in 1976. AP

Stephen Sondheim, the creative force behind 18 major musicals, might be the greatest artist Broadway has ever produced.

Consider his music, lyrics and theatrical collaborations over the past 50 years. He transformed the way words go with music during the musical’s so-called Golden Age (“West Side Story,” “Gypsy”). He later fused music and lyrics into darker material (“Company,” “Follies” “A Little Night Music”), which led to his mature theatrical masterpieces (“Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) and even his lesser gems (“Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins”).

Critics believe his work will survive centuries, if not millennia.

“Sondheim – more than any other composer or lyricist – has given us music and theater that is memorable, challenging, intelligent and inventive, yet emotionally and intellectually satisfying,” says Rick Pender, editor of the Sondheim Quarterly, a national magazine devoted to its namesake. “I do not see this kind of multifaceted genius in any other Broadway artist.”

Sondheim is not so sure about his legacy.

“I wouldn’t make any pronouncements,” he said recently in a rare telephone interview. “Who knows if musicals will be done? Who does the musicals from 100 years ago? They are ridiculous. The songs are good. Not the musicals. You want to listen to an Irving Berlin tune, but not see an Irving Berlin show.”

(“Annie Get Your Gun” might be an exception.)

Thursday, the nine-time Tony Award winner – who also earned an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize – will make his first Austin appearance. He will extend a cycle of public conversations started two years ago with The New York Times opinion writer and former theater critic Frank Rich. At the Long Center, his colloquy partner will be Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires.

Local musical aficionados can hardly wait for the verbal exchange.

“Sondheim represents everything that is good about American musical theater,” says Austin director Michael McKelvey, who recently staged an award-winning “Sweeney Todd.” “He is always original and thought-provoking, a composer with a grasp of all that Western music can deliver.”

Born in 1930 in New York City, Sondheim wrote his first musical as a student whose schoolmates included the son of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder artist had collaborated with composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers to produce classics like “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” In one of the happy coincidences of theatrical history, Hammerstein became a sort of surrogate father and oversaw the development of Sondheim’s tender aesthetic.

Although he studied music seriously, it was Sondheim’s lyrics that first drew the attention of Broadway professionals. And, in the postwar period, words made an emphatic point. Hammerstein had already linked the songs closely to the action, so that audiences actually paid attention to them.

“The next big change came with the rock revolution,” Sondheim says. “People started listening to lyrics. Nobody really listened to Cole Porter’s lyrics, except the clever, comic ones. After the pop revolution, people had a lot to say: There was anger and passion – (expletive) the establishment. Before that, lyrics were generally anodyne: ‘I love you darling,’ and all that. I’m oversimplifying, but “”

Sondheim’s lyrics were so adept, so clever, so crucial to each show’s emotional progress, he was recognized as a singular wordsmith.

“I am continually in awe of the multiple emotional layers and thoughtfulness of Sondheim’s work,” says Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley. “The recent spate of stripped-down productions, fewer orchestrations and chorus members, have revealed new truths for his fans and have become new, meaningful works on their own, instead of feeling lesser.”

More than 60 years after penning his first lyrics, Sondheim has collected them in a two-volume book that will include recollections and commentary.

“There are a lot of lyrics and a lot of comment,” jokes Sondheim, one of the few theater artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Reviewing thousands of lyrical lines – all stored in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – were there any surprises?

“Honestly no,” he says. “Every now and then, I would glow with pride and delight, or wince with shame and embarrassment. But I’m a slow writer. I worked on these things meticulously, so there are not a lot of surprises left. I really know every word.”

Although he had been writing musicals for 25 years, Sondheim did not make his mark as a composer until 1970, with a string of grown-up hits: “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”

“My first exposure to the fully formed Sondheim was when I bought the original cast album of ‘Follies’ in the 1970s,” says Long Center managing director Paul Beutel. “The raw yet soaring emotion of songs like ‘Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ – so perfectly captured in music and lyrics – just wiped me out.”

Although musical devotees call these “Sondheim shows,” the artist always emphasizes his collaborations with writers and directors (Harold Prince, James Lapine, etc.) and, especially, his prized orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, whose full-

orchestra sound undergirds Tim Burton’s movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”

“He is a most generous man, a mentor who is always ready to lend his support – creative, emotional and intellectual – to the work of others,” Sondheim Quarterly’s Pender says.

Recently, two of Sondheim’s collaborators, George Furth and Larry Gelbart, died.

“George was an actor,” Sondheim says. “Music meant nothing to him. So writing with him was interesting. That’s one reason the songs don’t always fit into the script. They are commentary; raisins in the cake. But George’s dialogue is extremely brilliant. It’s dialogic.”

Gelbart, his collaborator in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” adapting the Roman comedies of Plautus, understood music, he says.

“In ‘Forum,’ the songs are respites from the farce,” Sondheim says. “And ‘Forum’ is a very tight farce. The songs are breathing places. Otherwise the comedy would be relentless.”

One reason Sondheim’s shows – almost never big profit machines – are regularly revived is they provide peerless opportunities for performers.

“Sondheim’s work demands that a performer be equally gifted as an actor and as a singer,” says director Steakley. “Sondheim’s melodies and harmonies, as well as the speed of his complicated lyrics in passages of songs, are rigorous for a singer to master. Equal to this is the emotional investment and honesty required to convey his character’s multilayered states of being.”

Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Raul Esparza, Audra McDonald and Elaine Stritch are among the prime Sondheim interpreters. One of Sondheim’s special muses, Lansbury, was in one of his early musicals, and she’s slated to play aged Madame Armfedlt in the upcoming Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.” British director Trevor Nunn’s restaging of “Night Music,” transferred from London to New York, is simpler than earlier versions.

“The tone is Chekhovian,” Sondheim says. “That’s implicit in the piece anyway. It’s about shadows. But it’s still a comedy, done with chamber music in a chamber style.”

One musical that made a definite impression in high school and college drama departments is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which deals with the fraying of youthful ideals in a tale told backward. Yet it lasted only 17 performances in its first Broadway run. Later, Sondheim and Furth tinkered with it, and Lapine revived it on the road.

“We are satisfied with it now,” Sondheim says. “The problem – and this was true in the source Kaufman and Hart play – the lead is an unsympathetic character you get to like. James dug into it a little more, without softening it. Just helping audiences out. It may never satisfy them. People are turned off by unsympathetic characters. I like them, when something interesting happens to them.”

Although he was pleased with the movie version of “Sweeney Todd” – and he’s in negotiations for films of “Follies” and “Into the Woods” – he’s not ready to make generalizations about the return of the movie musical, or the success of youth-oriented shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” movies.

“Mine are not that kind of musical,” he says. “They are not as freewheeling, when the stories are just excuses for the numbers.”

Sondheim is also uncomfortable talking about his legacy, though he would include the composing teams of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), as well as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”), as ones that will tend to endure beyond our time.

A notorious perfectionist, Sondheim, at 79, can look back with some pleasure on his work.

“Every now and then I see something of mine and say ‘that was good,’ he says. “It takes a long to not to be neurotic about it. Usually, I see only what’s wrong. Now I accept what’s good.”

‘Seminar’ is a vicious satire with no easy answers but plenty of laughs

Some plays have become classics of the stage because they have a fierce moral center. Others have succeeded through the ways in which they deliberately comment on the lack of such a center in contemporary society.

Theresa Rebeck’s acclaimed 2011 black comedy “Seminar,” succeeds because it refuses to give any character the moral upper hand, creating a text of vicious highs and lows that critiques, to quote Sondheim, “the art of making art.” Its new staging in Austin by Jarrott Productions does a superb job of bringing out the ferocious nature of the text, balanced by a great deal of successful comedy and nuanced characters that manage to remain just this side of likable.

“Seminar” follows four young New York writers who have each paid $5,000 to take part in an exclusive writing seminar helmed by a savagely acerbic teacher. With a heady mix of sex, desire, finances and power dynamics, the play follows the group through several classes, chronicling the relationships, careers and love triangles (quadrangles? pentagons?) that develop.

Director Bryan Bradford’s take on the play is stylish without being flashy. The majority of the action takes place in one Upper West Side apartment, and the stark white set designed by Michael Krauss (and subtly lit by Chris Conard) reflects the blank page that these writers are using to create both their stories and their lives. The transitions between scenes are quick-paced, thanks to simple but clever costuming by Colleen PowerGriffin and spirited sound design from Craig Brock, which means that the energy of the story never falters, creating a tight, dense, 90-minute play.

Given the relatively simple staging, much of the weight of the production falls upon its cast of five actors, all of whom are up to the task. One gets the feeling here, moreso than in many other productions, that each actor is absolutely convinced that their character is in the right at all times, and indeed an argument can be made that even at their most sadistic moments, every person on stage is making an accurate point. In this way, the performances underscore one of the text’s key messages — that both life and people are complicated things, and to accurately capture that reality means to show individuals in both their best and worst light.

As the well-connected Douglas, Devin Finn is delightfully obnoxious, countered with an almost puppy dog-like naivete that makes him endearing nonetheless. In contrast, Regan Goins’ portrayal of provocative sexpot Izzy is so straightforwardly self-aware that it’s hard not to admire her bluntness. Brooks Laney and Sarah Zeringue, as Martin and Kate, are given deeper layers by the text, which each of them mines to create well-rounded characters with dark edges. Zeringue, in particular, is so good at portraying ingénue-like tropes that the revelations of her own ethical breaches are devastating even if they are fairly obviously telegraphed by the play itself.

Finally, as the frequently mean-spirited writing teacher Leonard, Colum Parke Morgan shines, bringing charm and depth to a character who could simply read as a cackling villain in less deft hands. Instead, Morgan plays Leonard as the only character on stage who isn’t constantly convinced of his own moral self-righteousness, which gives him a freedom to be harsh, playful and even quite charming while still expressing some particularly callous truths.

Jarrott Productions’ presentation of “Seminar” is ultimately itself a classroom on character power dynamics, as mastered and presented by a good script and a great cast.

“SEMINAR”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with additional 7:30 p.m. performance May 21, through June 3
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $18-$25
Information: jarrottproductions.com/seminar.

Shakespeare meets sitcom: ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ brings laughs to Zilker Park (and it’s free)

Shakespeare in the park may be quite difficult to produce and present — and sometimes watch — but Austin Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” displays once again the company’s formula for a successful evening of Shakespeare under the stars. By focusing on Shakespearean comedies — last year’s show was “The Comedy of Errors” — artistic director Ann Ciccolella has created an atmosphere of witty, whimsical entertainment that can withstand a distracted, and sometimes distracting, audience laid out on blankets and camping chairs.

Nick Lawson, left, and Toby Minor in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

This year’s free production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Zilker Park is perhaps even more successful than “The Comedy of Errors,” thanks to the way in which co-directors Ciccolella and Gwendolyn Kelso have chosen to focus on the play’s inherently episodic comedic scenes with a unique concept that weds the story to a 1950s sitcom aesthetic.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” tells the story of John Falstaff as he attempts to woo two married women. In these “merry wives,” though, the jolly, rotund and witty knight has met his match, as they continually outwit and humiliate him. With such a comedic setup, the play rather naturally lends itself to the conceit of Austin Shakespeare’s production, which utilizes gorgeous costumes (designed by Benjamin Taylor Ridgway) and sets (designed by Patrick W. Anthony) that deliberately evoke the charm of shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

Though the production could stand to buy into this concept a bit further — the verbal delivery is classic Shakespearean, rather than leaning into the unique linguistic style of such old-school sitcoms — it works marvelously for what is ultimately a somewhat frivolous piece of the Shakespeare canon. In fact, because of its frivolity, and its focus on sex farce and middle-class relationships, the play holds up remarkably well to modern eyes, and this format takes full advantage of the text’s lighter nature. By crafting a deliberately episodic approach to the play, Ciccolella and Kelso account for audiences whose minds may wander to the nature or the stars around them.

Gwendolyn Kelso, Toby Minor and Babs George in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Though filled with strong performances, the true standouts of the production include Babs George and Kelso as the titular “merry wives,” who excel at broadcasting the text’s ironic humor with a wink and a smile. Nick Lawson, as Master Ford, is similarly adept at the show’s broad comedy, particularly when his character becomes increasingly worked up as the story unfolds. Finally, Toby Minor delights as a very physical version of Falstaff (owing, no doubt, to Minor’s expertise in the physicality of stage combat) that hones in on the buffoonish qualities of the character, a good fit for this sitcom-inspired production.

Austin Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is, by design, a piece of light, over-the-top springtime entertainment to be enjoyed in the beauty of Zilker Park, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through May 27
Where: Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Drive
Cost: Free
Information: austinshakespeare.org

‘Cry It Out’ looks at motherhood, friendship and what it means to have it all

Theatre en Bloc’s regional premiere of playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out” is an exploration of parenting, motherhood and self-definition, couched in a suburban comedic drama. It is equally a play of ideas and a deep study of several interesting characters, with a wicked and wacky sense of humor that makes for an engaging, entertaining whole.

Contributed by Errich Petersen

“Cry It Out” begins by focusing on the burgeoning friendship between two neighbors, Jessie and Lina, who only seem to share one thing in common — they are both new mothers. That shared experience, though, proves enough to overcome several socioeconomic differences, until the pair is confronted by the even bigger gulf between them and their wealthy neighbors Mitchell and Adrienne.

As the play unfolds, we see deeper into the layers of each of these four characters, particularly in terms of how they relate to being parents. “Cry It Out” makes no case for any one particular response to the drive to “have it all” but rather gives a fair hearing to parents who want to stay home and those who want to work, and looks at the double standard that complicates such a question for mothers versus fathers.

The cast of this production is adept at grounding these issues within nuanced characters. Jenny Lavery, as Jessie, and Lee Eddy, as Lina, truly showcase the deep emotional connection and friendship between the two women, which makes for a stark contrast to the deliberately disconnected performances by J. Ben Wolfe as Mitchell and Christin Sawyer Davis as Adrienne.

Both Wolfe and Davis are given some intensely dramatic speeches by the text, which shows off their talent, but Lavery’s and Eddy’s roles are somewhat quieter and more layered. It’s in the development of this relationship between the two women that director Lily Wolff shines brightest. Wolff is extremely talented at getting actors to actively listen to one another on stage, and it is this intense connection between Lavery and Eddy that provides an emotional core to the more political discussions of parenting throughout the play.

The text also has an extremely strong sense of place. It nails the nuances of the ways in which class differences on Long Island influence, and are in turn influenced by, geography, and it perfectly captures the tensions between Long Island and “The City” as well as the north and south shores of “The Island.” This is, in fact, where Eddy particularly stands out. Her at turns hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Lina as a hard-nosed islander is a pitch-perfect representation of a denizen of the south shore of Long Island that goes beyond the typical stereotypes of such a woman.

Much like parenting itself, “Cry It Out” is both joyful and harrowing and comes to no easy conclusions. It is a remarkable portrayal of both a strong friendship and of the depths of emotion that come from the life-changing experience of child-rearing, put together in a package designed to make you laugh until you cry.

‘CRY IT OUT’
When: 8 p.m. May 10-11, May 13-14 and May 16-20
Where: Zach Theatre’s Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey Road
Cost: $15-$70
Information: theatreenbloc.org

The real and surreal blend as ‘Trio’ makes its world premiere in Austin

Much of playwright Sheila Cowley’s recent work has been an exploration of theatrical forms that combine traditional, dialogue-based drama with dance and movement. The first play she began this process with, “Trio,” has finally received its world premiere here in Austin, after a seven-year development process.

“Trio,” from Filigree Theatre, runs through May 6 at the Santa Cruz Theatre. Contributed

The play, which is the concluding production of the Filigree Theatre’s inaugural season of work, is about two actors, Leslie and Tim, who are developing a new play for children about slaying monsters. As the story unfolds, we learn that Leslie’s personal monster is the specter of her hospitalized mother’s potential death, while Tim’s is his own inability to face reality. Their already strained dynamic is put further on edge when Tim’s old college roommate (and possibly former lover) Fletcher arrives to help fix the lighting in the old garage where they are rehearsing.

The heart of “Trio” is the conflict between Leslie’s grounding in the extreme reality of her mother’s illness and Tim’s refusal to accept any form of reality, even the nature of their own relationship. Fletcher seems to flit back and forth between both worlds, creating a love triangle that is based less on personal attraction and more on shared worldview.

As this love triangle develops, another trinity remains constantly on stage — a group of silent performers who move, dance, clown, react and sometimes even summon major changes in lighting, mood and tone.

It is unclear whether the trio of silent performers is actually a part of  Leslie, Tim and Fletcher’s world or just a subconscious manifestation of their desires, but “Trio” fully leans into these confusions and contradictions to explore an emotional reality more than a naturalist one.

RELATED: Planning, artistic vision guide Filigree Theatre through first season

Director Elizabeth V. Newman’s previous work for Filigree Theatre has been more realistic in nature, whereas “Trio” veers much more into the realm of the surreal and utilizes a variety of tried-and-true theatrical magic tricks to turn masks, wooden swords and ordinary pieces of fabric into conduits of wild creative energy. It is easily the most kinetic and visually impressive production of Filigree’s season, serving as a welcome display of the diverse types of works that the fledgling company is prepared to produce.

Just as Tim and Leslie provide the core conflict in the play, in this production Ben Gibson (as Tim) and Chelsea Beth (as Leslie) serve as the show’s heart. Gibson’s manic performance deliberately jumps between moods from beat to beat, creating a man-child obsessed with make-believe and joy who would rather escape into a world of monsters than face the scarier truths of the real world. He is perfectly counterbalanced by Beth’s neurotic portrayal of Leslie as somebody trying desperately to escape from that real world but constantly pulled back into it.

The production doesn’t ultimately quite strike the balance between the real and the surreal that the play demands and that could truly make it soar — there’s a little too much logic applied to dreamlike situations at some points, as well as some confusing tonal shifts that lead to nagging questions rather than suspension of disbelief. But it serves as an excellent proof of concept for both Cowley’s exploration of form and Filigree’s expansion of the types of works they want to produce. Austin audiences should look forward to more from both parties in the future.

‘TRIO’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through May 6
Where: Santa Cruz Studio Theatre, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: 512-496-5208, artful.ly/store/events/14703

 

David Bowie tribute and a concert of freedom songs among shows coming up

You already know which Broadway musicals are coming to Austin’s Bass Concert Hall next season — yes, including “Hamilton” — but unless you attended the onstage party last night, you don’t know about the rest of the Texas Performing Arts season.

Related: Broadway smash”Hamilton” part of 2018-2019 season.

‘Amarillo’ from Teatro Linea de Sombra. Contributed by Sophie Garcia

The University of Texas presenting group’s director, Kathy Panoff, who reports that subscriptions for the Broadway in Austin series are unsurprisingly strong, cheerfully introduced the dance, classical, world and other Essential Series selections to several dozen fans. Then she introduced Stephanie Rothenberg, a member of the Broadway cast of “Anastasia,” who sang two numbers from the show. Reminder: Among the name producers for this stage version of the animated movie are local backers Marc and Carolyn Seriff.

(I wondered if the Austin group flew in talented Rothenberg and indeed they had, just for two songs. She’s a “swing” member of the New York cast, which means she can take over several parts, including the title role, but also could fly away for the night.)

Without any further delay …

2018-2019 Texas Performing Arts Season

Voca People. Contributed by Trambarin Yan

Sept. 12: Voca People. An a cappella group from Israel completely reconfigures popular hits.

Sept. 14: Reduced Shakespeare Company. The original creators of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)” bring back the hilarious work that made them famous.

Sept. 21: Fred Hersch Trio. Ten-time Grammy nominated pianist brings the real jazz deal.

Sept. 28: Taylor Mac. Extravagant drag performer messes with the audiences during “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged).”

Oct. 5: Yekwon Sunwoo. UT likes to book the top talent from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and this is the 2017 winner.

Ragamala Dance Company performs “Written in Water.” Contributed by Bruce Palmer

Oct. 18: Ragamala Dance Company. It’s hard to believe this is the first major Indian dance troupe to play Bass, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Panoff said. They’ll perform “Written in Water.”

Nov. 1: “Blackstar: An Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie.” Lots of excitement about this take on the great man.

Nov. 8: Jordi Savall. Early music promoter returns to Austin, this time with a global vision in “The Routes of Slavery.”

Nov. 9: Pavel Urkiza and Congri Ensemble. The Cuban guitarist and composer interprets classic Cuban songs in “The Root of the Root.”

Drag performer Taylor Mac digs into the history of music. Contributed

Nov. 13: Circa. Australian contemporary circus troupe presents “Humans.”

Nov. 14-Dec. 2. “The Merchant of Venice.” There’s usually one or two selections from UT’s department of theater and dance in the bill; this season it’s a take on Shakespeare.

Nov. 16: “Private Peaceful.” Verdant Productions and Pemberley produced this staging of Michael Morpurgo’s book on World War I, directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade.

Jan. 30: Michelle Dorrance Dance. Trust UT to bring in the best of the dance world; this tap troupe introduces “ETM: Double Down.”

Feb. 5: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. This sliver of the storied orchestra was founded in 1988.

Terence Blanchard collaborates with Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company. Contributed by Henry Adebonojo

Feb. 8: “Songs of Freedom.” Drummer Ulysses Owns, Jr. leads a group interpreting Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone as part of the center’s series on protest arts.

March 27: “A Thousand Thoughts.” The Kronos Quartet team with Oscar-nominaed filmmaker Sam Green for this live documentary.

April 11: “Caravan: A Revolution on the Road.” A collaboration between Terence Blanchard E-Collective and Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company with projections and installations by Andrew Scott.

April 13: UT Jazz Orchestra with Joe Lovano. American saxophonist joins the college ensemble as part of the Butler School of Music’s Longhorn Jazz Festival.

April 11: Trey McLaughlin and Sounds of Zamar. They saved the blessing for last with this Georgia-based gospel group.

Winning the Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards

Forget the Oscars. Never mind the Tonys. Pay no attention to the Grammys.

Give us the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

Contributed by Cathie Sheridan.

Sure, last night’s ceremony at the Long Center clocked in at just under four hours. Nevertheless, we loved almost every minute of this energetic toast to 38 participating high schools and their remarkable talents.

Some quick observations and then some winners. Playbill’s Tyler Mount was the show’s best emcee yet. Fast, funny and on target with his “paid segues” and promos. Despite the total running time, the show, which highlights dozens of slickly produced musical numbers and video selfies from Broadway pros, felt tighter, more on time this year.

RELATED: Tyler Mount returns to Austin for high school musical theater awards.

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan just about stole the show and earned the evening’s only unadulterated standing ovation. He showed up to read municipal proclamation — usually a dull task — but donned a little, regal hat and performed a magnificent version to the tune of King George III‘s “You’ll Be Back” from “Hamilton.”

To use a show biz term: He killed! Killed! He should come back every year.

Enough is enough: Here are the top winners. A full list will come later this morning.

Best Production: “Adams Family,” Dripping Springs High School

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Katie Haberman, Dripping Springs High School

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Stone Mountain, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

Check back for more winners.

Texas State’s ‘Ragtime’ shows why musical is so timely today

The late-1990s musical “Ragtime” has never been considered a major, “important” work of American theater, in the way that shows like “South Pacific,” “Rent” or “Hamilton” have. However, a new production of “Ragtime” by the Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance proves that it should be, and is a must-see for any fan of musical theater.

Emma Hearn, Ben Toomer and Trevor Berger star in ‘Ragtime’ at Texas State University. Contributed

Based on the historical novel of the same title by E. L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” tells the story of three groups of Americans (a wealthy white family living in the suburb of New Rochelle, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter living in the tenements of New York and respected African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lover, Sarah) in the first decade of the 20th century. Like the novel it comes from, the musical — with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens — explores the massive social changes America was undergoing at the turn of the century, with these different groups and families weaving in and out of one another’s lives in increasingly deep ways.

When it was first produced, during the relatively peaceful era of the late ’90s, the full impact of “Ragtime” may have been perhaps muted. Seen through the lens of today’s world, though, the power of the text speaks directly to our contemporary problems. As director Michael Rau explains in his program note, “The conflicts over immigration, wealth inequality, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black lives are as present in this story as they are in our society today. This is a piece that explores the foundations of our society and the fractures that divide America. But most importantly, this musical offers a vision of America that contains both despair and the possibility of a better future.”

Though audiences and reviewers at the time of its initial production may have found such a hopeful ending somewhat trite, in light of the much darker and more disturbing tone of a good deal of the play, that vision of a more just, more united, and more diverse future is a potent message for today.

RELATED: Musical ‘Ragtime’ is an American classic

The other reason “Ragtime” has a checkered history of major productions is that, quite simply, it is a huge show. The musical demands a tremendous cast, period costuming and a set that can represent dozens of different locations. As Rau and his designers have shown, though, “Ragtime” can (and perhaps should) be stripped down to allow the powerful songs to take prominence over the scenery. Costume designer Marissa L. Menezes does the heaviest lifting when it comes to setting the tone for the time period, while scenic designer Brandon M. Newton’s mobile set of three tall platforms, three stairways and an occasional piece of flown-in backdrop, aided by lighting designer Annalise V. Caudle’s expressive illumination, simply and effectively create a number of evocative settings.

In addition, a stripped-down production works so well here because of the immense amount of talent to be found on the stage. Against a powerful orchestra under the helm of music director Austin Haller, the student performers form a delightful ensemble, particularly in the larger dance numbers created with an historical eye by choreographer Kiira Schmidt-Carper.

Among the main characters, Trevor Berger’s Tateh taps into the humor and sadness of the Jewish immigrant experience without ever resorting to stereotyping, while Emma Hearn as Mother gives a tight, controlled performance that shows a woman undergoing massive shifts beneath the skin while holding herself together on the surface.

The standout performances in this production, though, are Anna Uzele as Sarah and Ben Toomer as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Though each of them has their own show-stopping solo, their duets have a unique power that is equally reliant upon their on-stage chemistry as it is their individual charisma as performers.

Texas State’s production of “Ragtime” is not only a beautiful, moving and important piece of musical theater on its own, but it is also a powerful reminder of an oft-overlooked show that has aged into a crucial commentary on present-day America.

‘RAGTIME’
When: Through April 22
Where: Harrison Theatre, Texas State University, San Marcos
Cost: $8-$15
Information: txstatepresents.universitytickets.com, 512-245-6500

Meet the 2018 Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductees

The Austin Critics Table recently announced the latest group to be inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame.

The five honored Austinites have contributed to the city’s cultural scene over the course of many years. They will be inducted 7 p.m. June 4 at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research Blvd. The event is free. Following the inductions, the arts critics will give out awards for the 2017-2018 season. Lots of awards.

RELATED: Giving City toasts Austin Critics Table Awards

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Anuradha Niampally. Contributed by Austin Dance India

The honored are (with the informal journalism group’s identifiers):

Norman Blumensaadt (Different Stages) – company founder, artistic director, director, actor

Kathy Dunn Hamrick (Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, choreographer, dancer, educator

Michael and Jeanne Klein (Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, Ransom Center, et al.) – patrons, board members, civic leaders, arts advocates

Anuradha Naimpally (Austin Dance India, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, dancer, choreographer, educator

Your ‘Book of Mormon’ $25 ticket prayers have been answered

“The Book of Mormon,” the hit Broadway musical about latter-day missionaries in Africa, returns to Austin and Bass Concert Hall April 17-22. The folks at Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts don’t want you to to miss a beat, so they have instituted a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets.

‘The Book of Mormon’ returns to Bass Concert Hall as a season option. Contributed by Joan Marcus.

Here’s how it works: Two and a half hours before each performance on the University of Texas campus, box office staff will start to accept entry cards with each person’s name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) that they wish to purchase. One person; one entry. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show a valid ID.

Again: Limit of one entry per person and two $25 tickets per winner. In New York, this kind of lottery, which was also used for them musical “Rent,” has attracted as many as 800 entries for some performances.

By now, any Broadway buff knows this 2011 show created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, known variously for their creative work behind “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” Although it mocks the Mormon religion, it does so with just enough good will to attract LDS fans.