A GoPride Interview

Brenda Didier

Brenda Didier interview with ChicagoPride.com

Wed. September 7, 2011  by Michael J. Roberts

Brenda Didier

Michael J. Roberts interviews Jeff Award winning choreographer and director Brenda Didier

Hot off her Jeff Award winning production of ‘Cats' and the Navy Pier spectacle Cirque Shanghai Extreme, choreographer and director Brenda Didier talks about Porchlight Music Theatre's new production of Stephen Sondheim's ‘Putting It Together' and how this review of the composer's best songs is being reworked into a modern day Chicago story taking place in the West Loop.

MJR: (Michael J. Roberts) How did you come about getting the offer to direct "Putting It Together" ?

BD: (Brenda Didier) John Heuring, the managing director of Porchlight Music Theatre gave me a call back in March and offered the show for me to direct and choreograph and I thought it would be a great project to deconstruct.

MJR: "Putting It Together" is basically a compilation of Sondheim songs done in a review format. Since most of the songs are known to the audience in a different context, that being from the show they originated from, what is the greatest challenge as a director to make these songs accessible in a new setting?

BD: Well, you hit the nail on the head Michael. That is ‘the' challenge for me. That was also the challenge in the original production of "Putting It Together" back in 1993 when Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie worked on the production. Sondheim wanted it to be more then just a review like the prior ‘Side By Side By Sondheim', so they decided to do it under the guise of a cocktail party and what happens to these two couples at the party. The songs were picked to lend themselves to the couples relationship and journey through the night. So the foundation was already laid for us. Our challenge is the make it accessible for now in Chicago and what is happening in our world. So it has been a challenge but it has been a fun challenge. The changes that we made our really clear. For instance, the song ‘Pretty Women' from ‘Sweeney Todd' for the Sondheim enthusiast is going to be different. I keep telling this to our actors as well. That song worked one way in Sweeney and now it is our song for this production. That is the one thing special about Sondheim, his music and lyrics are timeless and you can take his songs out of context and make them work for something else.

MJR: That is very true and really unique unto Sondheim. You are never going to hear ‘Don't Cry For Me, Argentina' in another context as you would ‘Ladies Who Lunch'.

BD: Exactly! I don't want to give a lot away, but the long ‘Lovely' from "Forum" is taken a whole new way and is now a ballad and very sweet. Here it is about having money, class and fitting in. That is going to be the beauty of it for the audience in revisiting these songs. And for people that don't know Sondheim that well, this is the perfect way to get introduced to a myriad of his material. The people that don't know Sondheim that well are going to come away with a great appreciation of his lyric writing.

MJR: I have always said that even though Sondheim is wonderful composer, I think he is even a better lyricist.

BR: I agree 100%. I get ‘Sondheim headaches' after every rehearsal from the complicated nature of the lyrics. Those lyrics allows us to penetrate into the lives and story of this couple so we are making the show much deeper. The review with Carol Burnett was lovely, the review with Julie Andrews was lovely but we are making this much more than a review.

MJR: I just read an interview with Porchlight's new artistic director Michael Weber who wants to make some substantive changes to the organization including having equity actors as well as making the productions more Chicago-centric. This new production of "Putting It Together" takes place in Chicago's West Loop. Is this part of his vision as well?

BR: Absolutely. This is the first show out of the gate with Michael at the helm. We talked a lot about the show and where we should locate it and together we collaborated on this idea that it would take place in Chicago and in a hipper area. Also, the Theatre Wit space that we are in has this incredible exposed light brown brick wall which lends itself perfectly to a loft setting. We wanted it to be assessable to the twenty-something's who relate more to this couple then say a wealthy couple in the Gold Coast.

MJR: Tell me about your cast.

BR: Well, we have the great Adam Pelty is also going to be directing ‘Tick, Tick…Boom' later this season who came in and sang and blew us all away. He is teamed with McKinley Carter who is just utterly amazing. Also, working with our musical director Austin Cook has been an great experience. We have decided to make the musicians part of the party and so they are an integral part of the whole experience.

MJR: How has this compared to some of your other projects?

BD: I must say this same been the hardest and most challenging project I have ever worked on. Other things I have done like Cirque Shanghai are like a piece of cake compared to this. I equate this more to like a thesis for a PHD. I've recently directed "Chess" and "Cats" and those shows, especially "Cats" are dance driven. I am a story teller through movement. Blocking a show is not usually difficult. But when you find actors like McKinley and Adam you really have to give a motivation to the actors for every single cross and every single thought they make. So it has been challenging but great.

MJR: How has your experience as a cancer survivor changed how you take on a project like this and future works?

BD: I think any artist, whether you're a writer, designer, choreographer....when you put yourself into your work and you bring your life experience with you, and you share that with whoever you are working with you are sharing pure honesty, and that is what will ultimately show up in the final work. You are telling a story with honesty and clarity and that talks to people and reaches people.

Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off its 17th season with Stephen Sondheim‘s ‘Putting It Together' September 2nd-October 16th at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are available at www.theaterwit.org or by calling (773) 975-8150. For information on dance instruction by Ms. Didier, please visit


Interviewed by Michael J. Roberts. Michael J. Roberts is theatre editor for the ChicagoPride.com covering Chicago's diverse arts and entertainment scene.