Believe It: 25 Years of Signature Theatre
“Sometimes, it’s hard to believe it all,” said Eric Schaeffer, the Artistic Director of Signature Theatre, which has begun its 25th anniversary with a characteristic production—in terms of the theatre’s history—of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” now running through Sept. 21.
This anniversary season will be full of what you might call Signature’s signature, its outlook, viewpoint, production history, interests, mission and style, and yes, there will be some emphasis, to paraphrase the late Robin Williams’s riff from “The Birdcage,” on “Sondheim, Sondheim, Sondheim” throughout the year.
Sondheim provided the theatre and Schaeffer with its breakout hit back at the start of the 1991-92 season, when it mounted an electric, critically acclaimed production of “Sweeney Todd,” Sondheim’s dark and exciting take on the murderous barber of Fleet Street. “It was just our second season, and that, for sure, jumped us right out into the public eye. It’s still a little startling when you think about it.” The show won a slew of Helen Hayes awards, which was a big deal for a theatre that was only in its second season, operating out of a renovated garage in an iffy neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia.
“You’ve got to remember a little of what theater in Washington was like twenty-five years ago,” Schaeffer said. “Outside of Woolly Mammoth, which was always edgy, and reveling in plays by new playwrights, it was pretty much a large-venue scene,” Schaeffer said. “In terms of musicals, certainly, and straight plays, we were doing something different, and we still are.”
Schaeffer clearly has an affinity for Sondheim, whose often dark, daring works don’t necessarily travel well into the hinterlands. “I think he’s unique in the history of American musical theater—certainly what he did was a departure from what came before. You never know what he’s going to do next. I mean, who else would write a musical about a serial killer in Victorian England, about presidential assassins, a very dark version of Grimm’s fairy tales, and the life and loves of the French Iimpressionist scene.”
The theatre was started 25 years ago by Schaeffer and Donna Magliaccio and has consistently pioneered all kinds of theater efforts. It’s stated mission was “to produce contemporary musicals and plays, reinvent classic musicals, develop new work, and reach its community through engaging educational and outreach opportunities.”
It’s fair to say that Signature has done just that, mounting plays by new authors, serving up Sondheim (and Sondheim-like) musicals, and workshopped and fully formed new musicals (“Giant,” a musical version of the George Stevens film class and Edna Ferber move comes to mind), as well as providing new playwrights, many of them local, a venue to explore their work.
There’s more. In 2007, Signature moved to new digs in Shirlington Village, a spiffy space with a main stage and two black box theaters. The relocation caused a certain amount of economic revival in the area, much as Arena and Studio, and Woolly and the Shakespeare Theatre have done in their respective neighborhoods. It attracts about 70,000 theatergoers a year.
Schaeffer been a true theatrical pioneer. He directed key productions in the hugely successful and celebrated Sondheim festival at the Kennedy Center a number of years ago. He’s been a champion of collaboration. Recently Signature’s co-production of “Hello Dolly” with Paul Tetreault’s Fords Theater shared a Helen Hayes Award for best resident musical. The rewards have been many—320 Helen Hayes Award nominations and 82 Hayes Awards.
“I think the collaboration, working with others, and with authors, encouraging new scripts, keeps everything exciting,” Schaeffer, who’s now working on a production of “Gigi” for the Kennedy Center’s theater season, said.
In December, the curtain goes up on the world premiere musical version of the hit movie, “Diner,” by pop-rock star Sheryl Crow and film director Barry Levinson. A revival of the musical “Elmer Gantry” and “Sex With Strangers,” a new play by Laura Eason directed by Aaron Posner hit the boards in October.
And in 2015, there will be “Simply Sondheim” in April. It’s an original tribute and revue created by Schaeffer featuring six Signature performers and a 16-piece orchestra celebrating the gifted American genius and in many ways, Signature’s inspirational soul. Signature has done 23 productions of Sondheim works over the years, including this second go-around with “Sunday in the Park with George.”
The George in question is impressionist painter Georges Seurat, famous for his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which is the focus of the musical. The musical, by Sondheim and James Lapine, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the few musicals to ever win that award.
“Sondheim’s creations were different from anyone else,” Schaeffer said. “That’s also what we’re trying to do—new and original shows, new ways of approaching old shows.”