Savoring Sondheim

LONDON — As if news of a new West End theater to bear his name were not enough (click here to read ‘Mackintosh: Master Builder’), London is looking toward a season of Sondheim: “Sweeney Todd” at the Royal Opera House, opening Dec. 15, followed in January by a revival of “Passion” at the Bridewell Theater, the London venue that first staged “Saturday Night.”

Before both of those, however, comes the June 30 bow at the Donmar of “Pacific Overtures,” that venue’s fifth Sondheim production to date.

Former Donmar a.d. Sam Mendes directed “Assassins” and then “Company,” followed over time by a John Crowley-helmed “Into the Woods” and then “Merrily We Roll Along” from Michael Grandage (since appointed Mendes’ successor) that trumped its commercial competitors to win the Olivier for best musical.

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“Pacific Overtures” is “quite different, obviously,” says Sondheim, speaking well before news broke June 25 of the playhouse that reps Cameron Mackintosh’s permanent bequest to the composer.

This time around, the Donmar is collaborating with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to revisit American director Gary Griffin’s vision of the piece.

Griffin’s 2001 Chicago staging of the musical was skedded for six weeks and ended up running 14, in a 190-seater not substantially smaller than the 251-seat Donmar.

Martin McCallum, chairman of the Donmar board, didn’t see that Chicago revival but was sufficiently taken by a separate Griffin staging “to try,” McCallum tells Variety, “and establish a relationship between him and the Donmar. I just had this instinct about Gary; I think he’s a real find.”

Flash-forward to a new regime eager to push away from the arena trawled so profitably by Mendes while still honoring the past.

“Pacific Overtures,” says Donmar exec director Nick Frankfort, “felt like an exciting thing to do” as a way of bridging the Mendes-Grandage tenures, much as the 1976 Sondheim-John Weidman musical itself assesses the meeting of cultures between East and West.

How do its creators feel about a revival of a show first staged in London under the auspices of the English National Opera in 1987, before playing the Bridewell in a contrastingly intimate production in 1994?

“I love it; I think it’s terrific,” says Sondheim, adding “Pacific Overtures” seems made for its latest home. “The Donmar is essentially a wooden floor and all angles, which is what Japanese theater is. It’s a perfect environment.”

Weidman approves of the arrival at what, after all, is primarily a venue for plays of a show that began life as his first play.

At the time, “Pacific Overtures” ‘ eventual book writer was a law student at Yale when director Harold Prince — with whom Weidman and Sondheim are now collaborating on new tuner “Bounce” in Chicago — first suggested musicalizing his play.

“The way in which the show is relevant is interesting,” says Weidman of a piece whose treatment of issues of U.S. aggression, isolationism and imperialism should have an added piquancy in the modern era of terrorism, not to mention SARS.

Cue in Griffin, a 42-year-old Chicagoan in his British directing debut, having watched his profile rise over five Sondheim stagings to date.

“This show always seems to be catching up to history, or perhaps history has caught up to the show,” Griffin observes. “I’m not sure which.”

The box office should be in line with results so far from a fledgling Grandage regime that has set an impressive attendance record: “The Vortex” played to 95%, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” to 92% and “Caligula” to 97%. (Look for an onward life for that last production.)

“We’re completely thrilled,” Frankfort says, “but we’re not being complacent either,” insofar as the Donmar has never staged a musical during the summer.

With “Overtures” bookings across the 11½-week run “looking encouraging,” Frankfort points to one financial aspect setting this musical apart. At a weeknight top ticket of £29 ($48.50), some $35 below the West End top, deadpans Frankfort, “We’re tremendous value for money.”