Portland Opera's Christopher Mattaliano on How He Met Stephen Sondheim through a Fan Letter

And why he’s putting on a Sondheim celebration at the Alberta Rose.

By Jack Rushall March 31, 2016

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Christopher Mattaliano: "I fell in love with Sondheim’s work about thirty years ago, and I’ve been an enormous Sondheim fanatic since then."

Image: Pamela Domela

Portland Opera general director Christopher Mattaliano is in the middle of Sweeney Todd rehearsals—and as you might guess, he’s holding a foam finger for legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Mattaliano likes Sondheim so much that he’s paying tribute to the man behind Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and the lyrics to West Side Story—in the form of a commemorative show.

Mattaliano has teamed up with local musical director Nick Fox in order to showcase some of Sondheim’s biggest hits—all in one compact evening on Tuesday, April 5 at the Alberta Rose Theatre. We caught up with Mattaliano ahead of the show to find out what’s so great about Sondheim, and how it feels to meet your idol.

Do you remember your first exposure to Sondheim? 

I believe the first Sondheim show I saw professionally was the original version of Sweeney Todd on Broadway in 1979. I grew up in New Jersey, and I lived in New York for a number of years. I was fortunate that many of Sondheim’s major musicals premiered in Manhattan. I’ve seen Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Assassins. The others I’ve seen in revivals. I fell in love with Sondheim’s work about 30 years ago, and I’ve been an enormous Sondheim fanatic since then.

What differentiates Sondheim in your opinion from other composers or lyricists? 

There are other brilliant lyricists, but Sondheim’s words are one of his greatest gifts, his greatest contributions. He’s an unqualified genius of musical theater, and I know a lot of people throw those words around. As one gets to know his music, his musical ideas and his melodies are more unforgettable. Finally, his sense of theater—his understanding of dramatic timing and dramatic tension—are also great. He’s unsurpassed in all of the above; he’s one of the giants.

How did you choose the tunes for the Sondheim show? How did you narrow it down?

Nick Fox and I started by making out individual lists. We would try to list Sondheim’s shows by certain categories, such as favorite Sondheim love songs, or songs about loneliness, or the dark side emotionally, or any other category – even those that can’t be categorized. We divided him very arbitrarily. The most difficult thing was what to leave out: we could easily do a full evening without repeating one number. Act I is about love songs and Act II is about comedy and loneliness. It ends with a section of Sunday in the Park with George. And there will be four numbers from Sweeney Todd.

You’re obviously a big Sondheim fan. Did you ever get to meet him?

Yes! I was living in Manhattan and I wrote him a fan letter; he’s an avid letter writer. He lived in the East 40s in Manhattan, and I told him how much I enjoyed his music and how much he meant to me. We chatted on the phone first and he took an interest in me. We had some people in common. We ended up meeting at his apartment. The invite was very unexpected—it was a great thrill for me personally.

As I was an aspiring opera director, we had a wonderful conversation. We talked about his next show that was coming up, and I got to see the workshop of Sunday in the Park with George before it opened on Broadway. I developed an occasional professional friendship with him. I still have the handful of letters we exchanged. He’s a very generous and gracious man.

Sondheim is probably one of the most performed musicians of our time—how will this show be different? Why should Portlanders be paying attention? 

It’s not that often that you get a full evening of Sondheim’s music. This is an opportunity to sample one of the living legends. If you have an interest in singing or playwriting, or lyrics and music—and how they can be bled together—this will be a feast. It’s a great introduction to the world of Stephen Sondheim and his brilliance. You gotta go!

A Sondheim Celebration is on Tuesday, April 5 at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Portland Opera's Sweeney Todd runs June 3–11.

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