Turning Sondheim On Sondheim Into A Regional Production

For the past six months, I’ve worked with video designer Peter Flaherty on converting the massively video-heavy show Sondheim on Sondheim from its original format of numerous moving video screens into something that can be produced by regional and smaller theatres.

In its Broadway incarnation, the show required an enormous amount of equipment; 54 NEC X462UN television screens, 22 Dataton Watchout computers, an extensive stage automation package, and several miles of cabling. We used 12 Terabytes of data and a team of six working on the video components. Sure, for a special Broadway production honoring the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, that is something that might be feasible, but for a regional or college production, that is simply impossible. We wanted to turn Flaherty's design into something that Music Theatre International could license to theatres unable to produce something so extravagant but still want to stage this Sondheim retrospective.

After a few meetings, we had decided that we would make two new versions of the show; a "professional" version with all of the original content that ended up in the Broadway production, mostly untouched in its original ProRes codec, organized and arranged so a new video designer could come in, look through the content, and be able to make a new design out of the pieces that we used on Broadway. Since this version would be aimed at experienced video designers, we felt that we should do minimal changes and updates to the content, instead favoring giving the new designer complete control over how the content would be used. The "professional" version contains very large files with more than enough resolution to make a new single or multi-screen production.

We also wanted to make a more straightforward "single-channel" version of the show, which required re-editing and re-imagining a lot of content to fit into a single 1080p stream. After reviewing the content, we had recalled that a fair amount of animation in the video was specifically designed for the screen arrangement in Studio 54. That meant many things that were created for the original production just don't naturally make a standard rectangular composition because they were designed for three different screens on three different parts of the stage.

In these cases, we chose the best possible arrangement and, in some cases, used content that didn't make it into the Broadway production. Flaherty and I worked with programmer Pablo Molina to create a standalone Mac OS X video player app using Cycling 74’s Max 6 with Jitter. The application is on an OWC Mercury Elite Pro mini Solid State Drive for incredible speed and reliability. This version of the show is designed for productions that only require a single screen and can be run with a single video projector and Mac computer.

Personally, I'm testing out the "pro" version of the show currently in Cleveland with Playhouse Square and Great Lakes Theatre as we prepare to mount the first regional theatre production of Sondheim on Sondheim. We're using a full stage black scrim, a standard cyclorama, and large center screen as our projection surfaces. We use four Watchout version 5 computers and a pair of Christie Digital Roadster HD18K projectors supplied by WorldStage.

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