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Putting Him Together

An oral portrait of Stephen Sondheim, on the eve of the mammoth 'Sondheim Celebration.'

April 28, 2002|PATRICK PACHECO

In Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George," the protagonist based on artist Georges Seurat sings, "They have never understood, and no reason that they should...." Indeed, the innovative pointillist painter, who died at 31 in 1891, was controversial and little understood by the art establishment during his brief but productive life. On the other hand, Sondheim--who, with librettist-director James Lapine, created the character with whom he is most closely identified--is widely acknowledged to be the greatest living theater lyricist-composer. But that understanding continues to evolve with revivals of his dense, richly textured and challenging productions, the majority of which neither succeeded commercially on Broadway nor, for that matter, received unqualified critical praise.

Beginning May 10 and running through the summer, Washington's Kennedy Center offers an unprecedented look at the composer's canon in its "Sondheim Celebration," which includes six full revivals in repertory--"Sweeney Todd," "Company," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion" and "A Little Night Music"; a "junior" version of "Into the Woods," performed by schoolchildren; concerts by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin; and assorted other programs.

Adding to the feeling that everything is coming up Sondheim is the Broadway opening this week of a revival of "Into the Woods," starring Vanessa Williams, which played the Ahmanson Theatre earlier this year. And the Lincoln Center Festival this summer will include the New National Theatre Tokyo's acclaimed production of "Pacific Overtures." The Japanese-language revival will then travel to the Kennedy Center.

"When it came to picking who would direct these productions [in repertory], the one thing that Stephen said at the beginning was, 'Let's really think about fresh ideas, let's look in all directions and not go with the usual suspects,'" says Eric Schaeffer, who with Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, is organizing the festival, and who will be directing "Passion" and "A Little Night Music." His fellow directors include Christopher Ashley ("Merrily We Roll Along," "Sweeney Todd"), Mark Brokaw ("A Little Night Music") and Sean Mathias ("Company"). "From the get-go, [Sondheim] wanted no remounts."

The roster was in part a result of economic considerations but mostly reflected the passions of the people involved. "We were sitting around in his living room in Manhattan, and Michael really wanted 'Sunday in the Park,' Steve wanted 'Sweeney,' and I wanted 'Passion' and 'A Little Night Music,'" he says. "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Company" did not require elaborate sets and had not been revived recently in the United States. One of the last on the list to be cut was "Anyone Can Whistle," the odd, short-lived 1964 musical starring Angela Lansbury as an evil mayor. "I think Stephen was a little disappointed. I think, once again, he thought he'd get another shot at making the show better."

The chance to get it better is irresistible to any artist but most especially to Sondheim, who, according to his many collaborators, often tinkers with even his most successful works, such as "Company," "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," as well as such problem children as "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Passion." He will get another crack at "Assassins" when that work, written with John Weidman about John Wilkes Booth and others, is revived next season at New York's Roundabout (it was canceled in the wake of Sept. 11). He will also get another shot at "Gold!," which, under the title of "Wise Guys," had an unsuccessful workshop, directed by Sam Mendes, three years ago. The show, about the pursuit of the American dream by a pair of rascally brothers, premieres next year at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, reuniting Sondheim with collaborator Harold Prince after two decades.

At 72, Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down, acceding to a plea that in "Sunday in the Park" is directed at George: "Show us more to see." On the occasion of the "Sondheim Celebration," a host of collaborators were asked to recall him, and thereby create an oral collage of Stephen Sondheim, the man and the artist.

"Sweeney Todd"

(May 10-June 30)

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