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Schooled in Sondheim

by Marilou Carlin10/16/2012

Alum and Sondheim Expert Alex Gemignani Conducts Student Production of Sunday in the Park with George

Musical theatre students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance launched their 2012-13 performance season with the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Sunday in the Park with George (Oct. 11-21) with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Considered by many to be the world’s greatest living musical theatre composer, Sondheim represents the ultimate expression of the genre. With complex music, intricate melodies, urbane lyrics, and multi-faceted characters, Sondheim musicals are the kind that performers can sink their teeth into… and be challenged by.

Fortunately, the students that were cast in Sunday in the Park with George had a mentor with an impeccable Sondheim pedigree: Alexander Gemignani (BFA ’01), who returned to Ann Arbor to conduct the show. Gemignani appeared in four Sondheim productions in New York in recent years including Broadway revivals of Assassins (2004), Sweeney Todd (2005–06) and Sunday in the Park with George (2008), and starred in the original production of Road Show at the Public Theatre in 2008. In addition, he is the son of Paul Gemignani, who was music director for all of Sondheim’s original Broadway productions since A Little Night Music in 1973. “I was exposed to Sondheim’s work basically from birth,” said Gemignani. “It’s in my dad’s and my DNA.”

Alex Gemignani was invited back to campus after music director Cynthia Kortman-Westphal (professor of musical theatre) took a leave of absence to spend the fall in New York as assistant music director for a new Broadway show, A Christmas Story. (The show, which opens in November, has music and lyrics by SMTD alumni Justin Paul and Benj Pasek). She did much of the musical preparation for Sunday and then shared credit with Gemignani for music direction. “They called me out of the blue and asked, ‘do you want to do this?” said Gemignani. “I said, ‘absolutely’!’ It’s a dream, absolutely incredible. After one rehearsal I was having so much fun.” 

Although most of his career has been spent on stage rather than in the orchestra pit, Gemignani has been conducting for as long as he’s been performing, albeit usually from a piano. Comparing it to acting, he says that it’s different in terms of actual mechanics, but both are all about collaboration. “If you’re an actor who is willing to collaborate with a conductor, that can be a really rewarding process,” he said. “So coming at it from the other side of the table, I was really anxious to learn what the kids wanted to bring to the score and what I could bring to the score having worked on it before.”

Although he knew Sondheim as boy, Gemignani said that many years went by when he had no interaction with the composer. The relationship was rekindled when he landed a part in a revival of Assassins in 2001, just weeks after his U-M Senior Showcase performance in NYC. The show was slated to go into rehearsals that fall, but then the worst and most inconceivable thing happened: the attacks of September 11. The show was canceled. It finally made it to Broadway in 2004, with Gemignani playing John Hinckley. His three other Sondheim shows followed in quick succession. “To come back as an actor and audition and get these parts and be able to work on his material, I got to rediscover them,” he said. “Now I was getting to define things for myself and learn them as an adult.”

Like so many musical theatre artists, Gemignani describes Sondheim as a far cut above every body else. “There’s nobody like him, prior or present,” he said. “He writes from character better than anybody else. The music is reflective of the characters’ state of mind and whatever situation they’re in. His style never overrides the dramatic context. There’s always layers and layers, it’s never just one thing you’re hearing. Sophisticated is a good word, but that almost suggests that it’s inaccessible, and I don’t think that’s true. I think he asks for his audience to participate, and that’s my favorite kind of theatre, to ask your audience to bring something to the table. He’s able to cut these really clear, really wonderfully complex characters, and yet still have themes that anyone can hold onto.”

For the student actor acclimating to Sondheim, Gemignani said the hardest thing is to not treat the material like it’s “precious.” “I think we can exalt the work critically, but in the performance, it just needs to serve the drama of the story. You can’t dwell on the fact that Steve is so incredible, and have that become the reason that you’re doing the show. I think that’s hard for students. You don’t want to dishonor the work, or discredit it in any way, but the initial instinct is to treat it with kid gloves. Ultimately if it stays in that place, treated so preciously, some of the magic of his work is lost.”

Gemignani said his father has been “amazingly supportive” of his son in his new role as conductor. He even loaned Alex his original score for Sunday, with his own notes erased, which the younger Gemignani thought “was great and very generous.” Whether he might follow in his father’s footsteps on a more permanent basis remains to be seen. Right now he is just excited to be spreading his wings and grateful to have the ability to wear multiple hats in the musical theatre world. “The big term in our house is ‘flow like the water,’” he said. “You never know what’s gonna be around the bend.

past news

November 2012
June 2012
August 2011

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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower