Amazing Journey

These days, mostly silence from Sondheim
The San Fransico Chronicle
April 7, 2005
By Steven Winn

The great Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned 75 last month. His output of new shows, over the past dozen years, has been small and problematic. "Passion" (1994) was a box-office failure and an off-putting puzzlement to many theatergoers. "Bounce" (2003), a thin, retro-vaudeville musical that never made it to Broadway after years of development, fell flat in its out-of-town runs.

Hold off on the crepe hanging. Even as his own creative powers appear to dim, Sondheim is enjoying a golden age of revivals, reassessments, retrospectives and tributes. "Sweeney Todd," his Grand Guignol masterpiece about a murderous barber, is now equally at home in college theaters and opera houses. Commercially thorny shows like "Follies," "Assassins" and "Pacific Overtures" have enjoyed major New York revivals recently. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., mounted an ecstatically received Sondheim festival a few years back. Last week, in a transfixing "Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast on PBS, a concert version of "Passion" opened deep new dimensions of what may turn out be Sondheim's last great work.

TheatreWorks, locally, continues to work the Sondheim catalog from one end to the other. The Peninsula company goes back "Into the Woods" later this year. That's part of a worldwide trend. Somewhere, in some theater, one of his musicals is always on. Who knew he'd share that form of theatrical immortality with Rodgers and Hammerstein?

The accolades and critical attention continue to swell, even as Sondheim himself seems to recede. He has been thoroughly anatomized by master show business biographer Meryle Secrest. A serious publication devoted exclusively to his work, the Sondheim Review, is now in its second decade of publication. Minor early shows "Saturday Night" and "The Frogs" have been mounted and recorded. The Internet buzzes with news of the many productions, rumors and minutiae that continually replenish the artist's cult status.

And yet, and yet ... it's hard not to sense the creeping shadow of eclipse. It's not just that Sondheim is now, unmistakably, a Broadway senior citizen. Right from the start -- his famous apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein II and the lyrics he wrote for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" -- Sondheim has seemed precociously mature. Wise and mortality-haunted beyond his years, he's made a career exploring themes that others on Broadway rarely touch -- emotional ambiguity, moral ambivalence, the impermanence of love, the terrors of connection, death.

But somehow now, more than ever, Sondheim seems a man out of joint with his time. To a certain extent circumstances have loosened what provisional claim he had on the mainstream. As the price tag for Broadway musicals continues to balloon beyond sane proportion, brand-name revivals and retreads crowd virtually anything new out of the marketplace. With producers relentlessly mining Disney cartoons, ABBA songs, Mel Brooks gags and 25-year- old Monty Python movies for familiar material these days, fresh musical narratives, especially those told with a distinctive voice and sensibility, have virtually no chance of being heard.

Sondheim probably wouldn't have a prayer on Broadway if he were starting out today. Would anyone take a chance on "A Little Night Music" or "Sunday in the Park With George," risking millions, when they could invest in "The Producers," "Mamma Mia!" or "Spamalot"?

In Broadway terms, Sondheim's strange and singular career has made him at once revered and somewhat irrelevant. It also raises hints of larger questions about what becomes of artists and what the culture makes of them as they age.

No artist has ever wanted to go gentle into that good night. "Still, I'm learning," Michelangelo declared at age 87. "If you have creative work, you don't have age or time," said sculptor Louise Nevelson when she was 80. Poets, painters, composers and choreographers often remain productive in their later years. There may even be sound reasons for it. According to a McMaster University study, older people have a better grasp on the "the big picture" than younger ones.

But does it necessarily follow that Mick Jagger should never stop performing or that Clint Eastwood has become an auteurist master in his 70s? Is John Updike a better novelist now than he was in his 40s? Baby Boomers, deeply resistant to the idea of their own aging, may have a strong impulse to hold onto what they know in the arts and insist on a kind of timeless, unchanging immortality.

"Art isn't easy," as a Sondheim lyric from "Sunday in the Park With George" goes. And it certainly doesn't get easier as the years go by. Energy, confidence, nerve, blind willpower and the urge to blow up the store and start fresh give way. In their place comes a growing awareness of life's finiteness, its precious limitations and pain. And that, in its way, can create its own kind of liberation.

Older artists are free to walk away from youth's weighty conviction that all things are possible. Chopin's last mazurkas and nocturnes have a sublime, becalmed simplicity. Monet, Turner and Rothko all went places in their late paintings they had never been before. Shakespeare refined his poetic fire into the tender farewells and reconciliations of "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale."

I hope Sondheim is enjoying this lifetime achievement phase of his long and abundant career. He looked a little pained, as he often does with the press, in an awkward preperformance interview with Leslie Stahl before the Lincoln Center "Passion." Then the camera followed him to his seat in the darkened theater, and the show began.

Streamlined (by director Lonny Price), this dark rhapsody about love's power to redeem and destroy came across with a fury at once desperate and supremely controlled. Everything felt simultaneously fresh and inevitable -- the ravishing physical lust of a soldier (Michael Cerveris as Girogio) for his mistress (Audra McDonald as Clara), the aching tumescence of Sondheim's love music, the bone-deep conviction of another woman (Patti LuPone as the hideous Fosca) that she is Giorgio's soul mate, the curdling irony of the word "happiness" in the lyrics.

LuPone, who is becoming something of a definitive Sondheim performer as she leaves her own diva days behind, was especially fine. "Loving you is not a choice," she sang to Cerveris in that resigned, heartbreakingly hopeful phrase Sondheim gives to Fosca. Her eyes shone inside their dark, ravaged sockets. Fosca was about to die, lose everything. But she had this moment, her simple and profound confession of real love. Cerveris saw and heard what the audience did, too. The truth, in the end, is an unstoppable force, wherever it takes us.

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