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     Taking Refuge in Sondheim's Rare Civility

The New York Times
November 3, 2002
By Stephen Holden

The Sondheim Celebration," the Kennedy Center's Oct. 21 concert spectacular of highlights from its six-show all-Sondheim summer season, was one of those incandescent communal experiences that the musical theater promises but so rarely delivers. As more than two dozen singing actors lined up on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall to perform the finale, "Sunday" (from "Sunday in the Park With George"), the waves of love rolling between the audience and the performers brought tears to many eyes.

"Sunday," an ode to Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," specifies the very qualities that Mr. Sondheim has always aspired to put into his songwriting: design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony. As the chorus sang of passing "through arrangements of shadows towards the verticals of trees," those arrangements became a metaphor for the collective triumphs and defeats, loves and deaths of everyone present.

Oddly, the one quality not mentioned in the song's roster of artistic virtues is feeling. For "Sunday," like all of Mr. Sondheim's ballads, is steeped in a mood of what might be called civilized heartbreak. Or as "Beautiful," an exquisite ballad from the same show (wonderfully performed by Linda Stephens and Raúl Esparza) describes it, the acute sadness of "Sundays disappearing as we look."

"The Sondheim Celebration" brought back memories of another nostalgia-drenched Sondheim evening in the same hall 17 years earlier, when an all-star cast sang a concert revival of "Follies." Barbara Cook, who performed "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" in that revival, returned to reprise them two weeks ago and stamped them with even deeper understanding of their depiction of romantic love as self-delusion.

It's curious how when the songs of Broadway composers are anthologized in concert, only Mr. Sondheim's conjure such an intense poignancy. "The Sondheim Celebration," like "Follies in Concert," had the feel of an elegant, happy-sad farewell party put on in the face of imminent darkness. Much of this feeling emanates from the songs' obsession with the passage of time and the awareness of Mr. Sondheim's formidable songwriting craft as a bulwark against the surrounding chaos. The images, rhymes and motifs are so firmly chiseled that you can almost feel them straining to resist the deluge.

The obsession with time in Mr. Sondheim's songs is both musical and literary. The fundamental contradiction of his songs — which lends them their aching tug — is their juxtaposition of a delirious late-19th-century Romanticism with a modernist despair. Where the music enshrines Puccini-esque romantic dreams, the lyrics dash those dreams. But in the most powerful songs, the music's sweetness trumps the lyrics' bitterness. At the core of a concert that included more than 30 songs stood a dozen ballads whose melodies have the stature of the most famous Puccini arias and Bernstein ballads from "West Side Story."

Here's a deeper contradiction. The modern musical comedy may be a populist American art form. Yet four of the six shows in the Kennedy Center's summer season — "Sweeney Todd," "Passion," "A Little Night Music" and "Sunday in the Park With George" — have period European settings. And their music, with its Ravelian harmonic subtlety, yearns for the salons of early 20th-century Europe.

Mr. Sondheim's obsessions with time and the raw truths that time reveals lend his songs a special relationship to those who perform them. Where the ordinary theater song defines a character or advances a story, Mr. Sondheim's songs often turn the characters into omniscient philosophical mouthpieces. A song like "The Miller's Son" (from "A Little Night Music") allows its narrator to rush headlong through several lifetimes as she imagines possible futures with different husbands.

That's why a singer who successfully puts over a Sondheim song seems like a wise, empathetic oracle. It is also why a gathering of singers performing his work feels like a colloquy of intellectuals letting their hair down. The only comparable artistic ethos I can think of is the enchanted, anxiety-ridden Manhattan of Woody Allen's 1970's and 80's films, with their swirl of romantic love, high culture and gallows humor. Actors long to appear in Mr. Allen's films for the same reason that singers are eager to perform Sondheim. He makes them seem supremely articulate.

Some choice moments from "The Sondheim Celebration": Melissa Errico and Mr. Esparza made "Move On" (from "Sunday in the Park With George"), an eloquent evocation of the need to accept change and move forward in life. As Miriam Shor, Hugh Panaro and Mr. Esparza rollicked through "Old Friends" (from "Merrily We Roll Along"), the song left indelible observations: "Good friends point out your lies/ Whereas old friends live and let live/Good friends like and advise/ Whereas old friends love and forgive." And John Barrowman, pushing "Being Alive" (from "Company") to the edge of a sob, captured with an unmatched intensity the locked-in anguish and frustration of a commitment-phobe desperate to lose himself in a relationship but too fearful to let go.

The biggest revelation was the power of four songs from the 1994 show "Passion," sung by Rebecca Luker, Michael Cerveris and especially Judy Kuhn. With their radically stripped-down lyrics and short melodic phrases, "I Wish I Could Forget You" and "Loving You," sung with a quiet, compressed fervor, captured a scary emotional nakedness.

When "The Sondheim Celebration" came to an end, I had the sinking feeling of having to leave one of the best parties ever given. For the world of Mr. Sondheim's songs, like Mr. Allen's Manhattan, doesn't exist outside. It can be visited only at an event like this. If that world is far from happy, it may be the last shimmering refuge of ultimate civility in a barbarous age.

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