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The Summer of Sondheim


WASHINGTON--It has been the kind of binge that can leave you a little delirious, this summer-long Sondheim Celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. You want to slow down time, take it all in, soak up every note, for this is the theatrical lap of luxury. Don't bet on seeing its like again for a while.

The ambition of the project has been dizzying. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and festival artistic director Eric Schaeffer didn't simply say, "Hey, let's put on a Stephen Sondheim show"; they said, "Let's do six." (The chosen six, in order of appearance this summer: "Sweeney Todd," "Company," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion," "A Little Night Music.") And then they said, "Let's do 'em three at a time."

There is no significant precedent for this style of producing--a single musical is often enough to ruin one's health, reputation and relationships--so the whole shebang could easily have been a catastrophe.

Instead, it has been a triumph from the moment Brian Stokes Mitchell, singing gloriously as the throat-slitting Sweeney Todd, rumbled that "there's no place like London," then hooked up with an inspired Christine Baranski as a droll, casually murderous Mrs. Lovett. Thirty minutes in, you could sense that this massive six-ship flotilla was likely to be snugly harbored.

Of course, the Sondheim Celebration seemed like a great idea from the moment it was announced 18 months ago. At minimum, it promised to fill a basic, gaping need: getting Sondheim's shows on a major stage. For all his acclaim, Sondheim simply hasn't scored the popular successes you might expect from someone with an unparalleled facility for musicals. The original "Company" didn't last as long as "Applause"; "Follies" was severely outdistanced by "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Grease"; "A Little Night Music" tallied one-third the performances "Pippin" did; and so on.

It's an odd and deeply unsatisfying track record, given that Sondheim is the indisputable giant of today's American musical theater. John Kander and Fred Ebb have seen their "Cabaret" and "Chicago" return to New York for multiyear stands, while the daring musicals that made Sondheim's reputation in the 1970s have yet to make triumphant reappearances on Broadway. This relative inattention to landmark shows is a situation that Kaiser rightly describes as "shocking."

If Sondheim had been getting his due all along, this opportunity wouldn't have been available to the Kennedy Center. But it was, and one measure of its significance is that people have flocked here from every state in the Union--and from 28 countries--to take advantage of this rare chance.

The sheer volume of work has been part of the appeal. So has the scale of the productions, which promised to present the shows with some approximation of their original physical magnitude (they were often epic). Another lure: the attractive roster of performers, in whose hands, more perhaps than anyone else's, the fate of this festival has rested. This is to take nothing away from Derek McLane, who came up with a design scheme that delivered two rotating repertories of three distinctive-looking, smooth-running productions.

This has indeed been a celebration of Sondheim, not a director-driven "rediscovery" or "reevaluation." Audiences hoping that previously undetectable patterns would be revealed by this repertory were probably disappointed. Anyway, Sondheim implicitly defused that expectation during his public conversation last spring in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall when he expressed his reluctance to write music he's heard before; in other words, he likes wholesale reinvention each time out (in case we hadn't noticed).

"It's mind-blowing, seeing all the different styles," Schaeffer says. And he reports that Sondheim's reaction to the first "triad" weekend--in which each of the first three productions was performed--was this: "It's hard to believe that I wrote all those shows."

Because of this relentless ingenuity, Sondheim already stands as the most exhaustively analyzed composer-lyricist of the last half-century. Perhaps for this reason, the festival's directors have not tried to reinvent these works by, say, setting "Sweeney Todd" in late-20th century Bosnia or the antebellum South. Another possible reason for the straightforward approach: These shows, unlike the plays of Shakespeare, are not omnipresent and begging to be done differently. They are simply crying out to be done, and done well.

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