Amazing Journey

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     Sondheim Has His Shrine, and It's Not on Broadway

The New York Times
August 18, 2002
By John Rockwell

LOOMING over the Potomac, with its faux-monumental 1960's architecture, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts doesn't look much like Richard Wagner's wooden theater in Bayreuth, in bucolic Upper Bavaria. But this summer it has become a pilgrimage site just like Bayreuth, the faithful flocking to festive productions of the Master's well-loved works. Except that here and now, the Master is Stephen Sondheim.

Mr. Sondheim is on a roll, one that transcends his core audience of avant-Broadway devotees. Classical and opera critics were much in evidence as, indeed, was anyone interested in American music and American musical theater, increasingly irrelevant subcategories like "musical" and "opera" aside.

Along with the six shows here (including "Passion," "Merrily We Roll Along" and "A Little Night Music," which close the celebration over the next week), one can cite the striking Japanese-language version of Mr. Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" at the recent Lincoln Center Festival (to be reprised at the Kennedy Center early next month) and a solid account of "Into the Woods" on Broadway as well as planned productions of "Assassins" (a stillborn child from 1991) and the new "Gold" next season. And Bryn Terfel is scheduled to take on "Sweeney Todd" at the Chicago Lyric Opera in November, if he doesn't back out again, as he did with the New York Philharmonic's concert performances two years ago.

In 2000, the annual Musical America directory named Mr. Sondheim composer of the year. Later there was a reception for the winners in a party room at Carnegie Hall. By all accounts, everyone showed up, many to honor him. There were uptown mandarins. (Mr. Sondheim studied with Milton Babbitt, who is a closet Broadway baby himself but also the most mandarinlike of the extreme dissonant musical tough guys.) There were downtown Minimalists and progressives of one stripe or another. There were the new Broadway composers of operalike musicals and musical-like rock songs. There were jazz stalwarts. In short, Mr. Sondheim had become the consensus candidate, the person everyone suddenly recognized as the right man for the job, the job being "best" American composer.

Of course, the very idea of "best" is a little silly, and "consensus" implies bland compromise. What was so striking about hearing all this Sondheim over a short span was being reminded how restlessly inventive he has always been, how he never settles into formula — even formula of his own making. The eight shows heard in recent months pretty much cover the Sondheim canon. ("Follies" is the major omission, along with the early, atypical "Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.")

Their range reveals the diversity of Mr. Sondheim's art, for all the consistency that underlies it: his haikulike musical materials, his enormously clever way with words (which makes ready appreciation of his work abroad, or ready translation, almost impossible), his impassioned seriousness of intent, his brilliance in finding collaborators, particularly book authors, to flesh out his ideas.

Just think of the differences, of subject and style: bright, bitter comedy in "Company" and "Merrily We Roll Along"; lush waltzes and European romantic complexities in "A Little Night Music"; nothing less than Japanese culture and its encounter with the West in "Pacific Overtures"; horror and operatic grandeur (leavened with Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque wit) in "Sweeney Todd"; profoundly intellectual yet emotionally telling explorations of the roots of art in "Sunday in the Park With George"; fairy-tale magic in "Into the Woods"; dark operatic intensity again in "Passion." Although Mr. Sondheim never repeats himself, never fulfills easy expectations, he rarely fails to satisfy a growing audience's yearning for challenging musical theater.

Yet exactly where is that growing audience coming from, and where will it be able to see and hear these works? Their appearance at the Kennedy Center carried symbolic value but also gave hints as to their future.

The Kennedy Center, often self-importantly, thinks of its business as bestowing the imprimatur of excellence. Its annual Kennedy Center Awards, which cover the full range from classical to every kind of popular culture, are easy to dismiss as an excuse for a television variety show and an advertisement for the center. But the Sondheim celebration was more substantive.

Logically enough, its primary purpose was to celebrate Mr. Sondheim. More insidiously, it might have purported to welcome him into the classical pantheon. As it happens, however, the center has had a long (if recently faltering) history of Broadway-style production, and its Eisenhower Theater is a real Broadway-size house, not an operatic barn like the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, where Beverly Sills tried to present musicals in the 1980's.

The celebration served a secondary but not unimportant purpose: it announced the arrival of Michael M. Kaiser as the center's new president in the flashiest, worthiest manner. Mr. Kaiser, best known as a clever administrator, put his artistic stamp on the center with a flourish. And if his success owed much to his artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, and the rest of the celebration team, he knew enough to hire them in the first place.

Whatever its underlying intentions, the celebration was an admirably achieved affair. Despite the excellences of the Broadway productions, most by Harold Prince, and despite the natural tendency to compare everything else with those originals, these productions stood up nicely on their own.

The sets, all by Derek McLane, ranged from functional to ingenious to beautiful. If there was a problem among the various directors, it was a tendency (primarily by Christopher Ashley in "Sweeney Todd" and "Merrily We Roll Along") to slight seriousness in favor of yuks. But Mr. Schaeffer's own work, in "Sunday in the Park" and "Passion," was exemplary, and it helped certify those shows as particularly bright jewels in the Sondheim crown. The instrumental support was superb. Mr. Sondheim said that this was the first time he'd enjoyed a full orchestral complement since Broadway. And the casting was even better.

Which brings us to the ingenuity of how these shows were produced. The center may have been offering Broadway shows, but they were presented operatically, as it were, with limited runs in repertory. In a wrap-up article about the celebration last Sunday, a Washington Post critic wrote that "there is no significant precedent for this style of producing." Only if one limits one's perspective to the commercial theater.

Mr. Sondheim's career problems just start with writing shows that are often too smart to assure a long run. Producers, in this age of enormous costs and long runs of corporately conceived or Lloyd-Webberian shows, have been increasingly grudging about giving Mr. Sondheim a chance, especially in revivals. In a recent symposium he remarked that from now on, he'd prefer to work with nonprofits.

From one who had been a Broadway baby back to his babyhood, that was an illuminating reconsideration. Mr. Sondheim's whole life has been spent in thrall to Broadway. Despite the efforts of well-meaning critics and opera administrators to absorb his work into the operatic tradition, he insists that his shows are shows, and should be presented as shows.

But they aren't being so presented, at least at the highest level. The job has been taken over by regional theaters and schools, and by Europe, where the opera houses are small and the unlikelihood of competition from commercial productions encourages the American producers to relinquish the rights. In Europe, "Sweeney Todd" is a staple, but the other shows — despite linguistic difficulties — are beginning to make their way.

Mr. Kaiser's achievement was to conceive this Broadway celebration on operatic terms. By running the shows in repertory, he could assure a wide audience a considerable variety of work over a short time. By limiting the runs, he seemingly had his pick of stars — John Barrowman, Lynn Redgrave, Alice Ripley, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski, Raúl Esparza, Melissa Errico, Blair Brown, Douglas Sills, Randy Graff, Barbara Byrne, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, Michael Cerveris and others — who might have been unwilling to commit to open-ended runs. The sheer richness of the casting — the vividness of the personalities and the vocal ranges both quasi-operatic and conversationally simple — was amazing.

The use of a single set designer made economic sense, with little loss in scenic variety or allure. For all those who remembered the opulence of the Broadway originals, there were others, encountering these shows live for the first time, who found the Washington productions amply opulent.

Not every nonprofit producing organization has a theater like the Eisenhower; Lincoln Center, for example, lacks one. Putting these shows in the hands of opera companies, where they get lost in theaters with 2,700 seats or more, is not the answer.

Maybe what we and Mr. Sondheim need is a summer festival in a plausible theater devoted to the best in operas and musical theater, irrespective of genre. We need to hear the best in musical theater, old and new, no matter the derivation of the particular work or the amount of dialogue or the singing style.

Or maybe we should confine our festival to American musical theater. Or maybe we should follow the Kennedy Center model completely, and wish for Mr. Sondheim to have a festival of his very own. His own Bayreuth.

In the meantime, New York can look forward to an all-star concert of highlights from the Kennedy Center productions on Oct. 21 — in Avery Fisher Hall, another barn — as well as to "Assassins" and "Gold." In the meantime, when it comes to newly considered schemes to keep these masterpieces of American musical culture alive, Mr. Kaiser has shown the way.


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