FST Cabaret Shines a Spotlight on the Songbook of Stevie Wonder

He was an accomplished musician by age eight and made his recording debut at twelve. He is a 25-time Grammy winner and has been inducted into The Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Songwriters Halls of Fame. He even helped make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

This Season, FST is celebrating the songbook of the one-and-only Stevie Wonder. Featuring such songs as “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Superstition,” and “Isn’t She Lovely?,” A Place in the Sun: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder showcases the artistry and impact of his expansive body of work.

“Stevie Wonder’s music has always been about bringing us all together,” said Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “He fearlessly approached social issues in his lyrics, which, in lesser hands, could be divisive. But he did so with love and warmth and brought us all together.”

This original FST Cabaret wasn’t always a tribute to Stevie Wonder. What would eventually become A Place in the Sun first started out as an idea for a more general Motown Cabaret.

Joshua Pyram and Ben Senneff. Photo by John Jones.

“We listened to hours of Motown music, but we slowly realized the standout for us was Stevie,” said contributing writer Sarah Durham. “Don’t get me wrong. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Smokey Robinson — they’re incomparable artists. But Stevie not only had a canon of his own work – he also wrote for all of the artists I just named.”

Head writer Jason Cannon agrees. “Stevie Wonder is iconic and pervasive,” said Cannon. “His music is timeless. As I was digging into the research for this show, I realized just how many hits there were. And not just hits, but songs that are woven into our lives and cultural identity.”

The first step on this project was to hit the books and learn everything possible about Stevie Wonder, his music, and Motown.

“My Motown encyclopedia is totally dog-eared,” said Cannon. “No joke — I visited Hitsville in Detroit and got the official Motown encyclopedia.”

After that, the Cabaret Development team experimented by putting songs in different orders and looking for larger themes. It was like working on a giant puzzle.

Once there was a first draft, it was FST’s Resident Pianist, Jim Prosser‘s turn. Prosser performed the music for the team so everyone could actually hear the show-in-progress for the very first time.

Sean Holland II and Ben Senneff. Photo by John Jones.

“We got to hold an in-person sing through, take notes, go back to the draft, add here, take out here, add an emotional moment there,” explained Cannon. “I had seen so many FST Cabarets, so I had a basic framework and understanding to lean on, but this was my first time as a Lead Developer, myself.”

Like Stevie Wonder, cast member Joshua Pyram has been performing since he was young. Pyram, who describes Wonder as a musical magician, is thrilled to be bringing this music to Sarasota audiences.

“Stevie’s music is so timeless to me,” said Pyram. “He had this ability to cut to the heart of a story—stories which were mostly his own life experiences. He was a master at really painting those pictures.”

“When I listen to Stevie Wonder’s music, all I can think of is joy,” added fellow cast member Ben Senneff. “Even in his more melancholy songs, there’s still this overwhelming sense of delight and playfulness. His passion for creafting meaningful melodies and exploring new and interesting directions through harmony and rhythm never fail to raise my serotonin levels.”

Ben Senneff. Photo by John Jones.

Ultimately the cast and creative team’s wish for this show is that everyone has a rollicking good time and leaves with a recharged appreciation for Stevie.

“Stevie Wonder’s story was born from a common place of hardship and struggle, which the world relates to every day,” added Pyram. “Regardless of his age, his impairments, or social standing, Stevie showed us that if music truly moves you, then there are no boundaries between you and the magic that you can create.”

A Place in the Sun – A Tribute to Stevie Wonder begins playing November 16 in FST’s Goldstein Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.