John Abernathy

Sondheim Is on John Abernathy's Mind... And Part of his Life in Upcoming Cabaret Show

John Amodeo READ TIME: 6 MIN.

"My introduction to Sondheim was really Barbra Streisand's Broadway albums," recalls cabaret singer John Abernathy, "because she always did a lot of Sondheim on her Broadway albums. I'm a big Streisand fan." This disclosure comes after Abernathy admits that Sondheim was otherwise not very prevalent in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he was raised. "It's a small town," he continues. "We had theater but not Sondheim. I do remember ['A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the] Forum,' but no 'A Little Night Music' or 'Company.'"

Though Sondheim's death nearly two years ago was indeed earthshaking, the aftershocks continue in waves of tributes, revivals, and memorials, and Abernathy is riding that wave. Abernathy has been living in Rhode Island for the past several decades now and has found that as he became more and more familiar with Sondheim's work through his own early life as an actor, Sondheim's songs resonate with him in profound ways. When put together in a certain order, they help tell the story of his own life, and his love of theater and music. He premiered "Art Isn't Easy: A Sondheim Cabaret" at the Arctic Playhouse's Cabaret Club this past April to a sold-out house with multiple ovations. He will now reprise this show at Josephine's Cabaret in the Club Café's Napoleon Room on Saturday, October 28, 2023.

Abernathy's path to cabaret performing has been rather circuitous. The son of a chemical engineer who worked for Eastman Kodak, then Kingsport's biggest employer, Abernathy studied chemical engineering in college and like his father, worked for Eastman Kodak in Kingsport. "I've been singing since I was a kid. I was in all the choirs," reveals Abernathy. "The first show I ever did was in 6th grade. It was 'Peter Pan,' and I played John. I did theater all through Junior High, High School, and when I went to college, I went practical." Though he enjoyed studying chemical engineering and working for Eastman Kodak, he continued to do theater, and discovered that he didn't have the same passion for chemical engineering as he did for theater. "I left Eastman Kodak and Kingsport, and did theater full time for about seven years, around the country, but mostly in Chicago," concludes Abernathy. Edge had a chance to talk with Abernathy about his upcoming show, his exes, his husband, and Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist in 1976. (Photo by R. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

EDGE: If you were doing most of your theater work in Chicago, what brought you to Rhode Island?

John Abernathy: By coincidence, my ex got into Trinity Rep Conservatory for his masters, that was then connected with Rhode Island College. Now their program is with Brown. That's why I ended up moving to Rhode Island. What's funny is that I was born in Framingham, MA. My father was in sales for Eastman, and we lived in a few different places shortly after I was born, settling in Kingsport.

I love New England. When my ex and I broke up, I decided to stay, because I loved it. I have a whole network of friends. One of them was Jay, and at the time, I didn't know he would one day become my husband.

EDGE: What was the first Sondheim musical you ever saw?

John Abernathy: It would have to be "... Forum," but also "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," all of which I've seen as a kid. I've done "...Forum" twice and played Hero.

EDGE: With such a rich and varied collection of songs in the Sondheim oeuvre, how did you make your song choices?

John Abernathy: It's difficult, because I could have done a three-hour show with all the songs I wanted to sing. I had to let some of my favorite songs go to get it down to an hour. But for me, it was about the story I was telling, so if the song didn't help tell the story, I cut it. There are 24 songs from 14 shows and one film. I wanted it to be varied.

John Abernathy

EDGE: Your director is Ida Zecco, herself an accomplished cabaret performer. How did Zecco's directing help shape the show?

John Abernathy: She sees the things that I don't, she will call me out. She will ask all the right questions. "Why are you singing this song? Why now? What do you want the audience to feel when you sing this?" In the show, she will sing with me on a couple of songs. We have fun, too. When we rehearse, we have a great time. When we're done, we have lunch, maybe a little wine.

EDGE: Who will be your accompanist in the show?

John Abernathy: Jim Rice. He can play anything and beautifully. He's my rock. I don't have to worry. I know he's with me.

EDGE: Have you thought of recording this show?

John Abernathy: No, I haven't. Good idea! Maybe we should. I love this show. I lover performing it. I love that the audience gets it.

EDGE: Is an entire evening of Sondheim too much for people?

John Abernathy: I think not. The story is the most important thing.

EDGE: What would you say is the underlying theme in your show?

John Abernathy: It's about making your artistic choices. There is a full story. What's important to me is there must be a story. Marriage, love, life, how I entered the theater. I'd like to say the universal theme is optimism. While Sondheim has a lot of dark music, there is always a hint of optimism there. And I'm an optimist, so I'm always looking for that in the music. But if I had to sum up my show in one word, at its heart, it's about "passion." Finding it, going for it, and keeping it.

John Abernathy will perform "Art Isn't Easy: A Sondheim Cabaret" on Saturday, October 28, 2023, 4 P.M. at Josephine's Cabaret in the Napoleon Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. For Reservations, visit Club Café's website.

by John Amodeo

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

Read These Next