Amazing Journey

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Sondheim: Exit Smiling

Washington Post, 8/27/02; Page C01

By Peter Marks

At the Festival's Close, Ovations All Around for Its Brightest Star
Stephen Sondheim gets his due Sunday night from the "Night Music" cast and audience. (Scott Suchman)

Send in the cleanup crews. After 93 performances of six musicals for nearly 98,000 paying (and mostly cheering) customers, the curtain came down Sunday night on the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, a summer-long immersion in the muscular rhyme schemes and haunting melodies of America's greatest living musical theater composer.

Befitting an enterprise of operatic scope -- about 200 actors took part in the $10 million festival, the most lavish in the center's history -- the closing night audience in the Eisenhower Theater gave the cast and crew of "A Little Night Music" such a seismic ovation that it could have been measured on the Richter scale. In an unusually inclusive final curtain call, dozens of normally overlooked offstage folk, from ushers to dressers, were invited to the stage to share the final moments with the cast of "Night Music," the last of the six shows to close.

But it was the presence of one man among the throng that sent the audience over the top: Stephen Sondheim appeared onstage and the crowd bellowed its approval. Dressed in a navy blue polo shirt and khaki pants, the 72-year-old composer looked simultaneously proud and sheepish as he acknowledged the applause but resisted the crowd's apparent wish for him to take a solo bow. Kennedy Center officials said Sondheim had to be coaxed onto the stage, though there seemed to be nothing grudging in his beaming visage.

The curtain call was a wordless counterpoint to a summer that confirmed for Washington audiences Sondheim's consummate skills as both a wordsmith and a musician. And not just Washington audiences: The festival evolved quickly into a required destination for the New York theater world and Sondheim aficionados across the nation. Like desperate Deadheads, the composer's fans descended on the Kennedy Center. In the line at the box office Sunday night, people hoping for last-minute cancellations had come from as far as Florida and Montana.

"I think it's been incredible," said Devon Clark, an actor who sings for his supper at a dinner theater in Fredericksburg, Va., as he sat on the terrace before the show. He and his sister Diandra, a pediatrician from Tampa, had bought tickets to several of the offerings, including this last night of "Night Music." "These shows," Clark added, "have raised the bar for how a lot of Sondheim is done in a lot of other places."

Sondheim might not have taken too much issue with Clark's analysis. At a cast party outside the Eisenhower's balcony after the show, the composer munched on canapes and professed himself thrilled at the way his repertoire was handled. "It was like showing off a baby," he said, adding that he had spent quite a bit of time with the cast and crew of each production. "I came down for each run-through and each set of dress rehearsals and occasionally the opening night."

He was happy, he said, with the overall response to the festival -- which included works as diverse as the brooding "Sweeney Todd" and the breezy "Merrily We Roll Along" -- and especially pleased about the new things he had learned about shows he has watched countless times. In particular, he pointed to Eric Schaeffer's rethinking of "Passion," a musical that had won the Tony Award but never the hearts of audiences or critics, and to Sean Mathias's "Company," in which Sondheim said he saw the central character of Bobby, played by John Barrowman, as if for the first time.

"The whole point of that show is a boy growing up," Sondheim said as fans hovered, hoping for an autograph. "I knew that's what it was about, but I was never able to articulate it until I saw him do it."

Sondheim is legendary for his devoted stewardship of his own work; he often sits in on rehearsals of major revivals and is even known to tinker now and then with a lyric or two. This project was no exception. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said that the composer has been a major part of the process since he and Schaeffer, the festival's artistic director, started talking about it two years ago. Derek McLane, who designed the sets for all six productions, said that Sondheim even invited him and the musicals' directors to dinner at his house in Manhattan.

"I remember the first time I called Steve and said, 'Here's the idea,' " said Schaeffer, the artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington. "Steve said, 'Do you think they would really do it?' I said yes, and he said, 'Okay.' "

From such prosaic phone conversations do complex festivals grow. Kaiser, who stood on the Eisenhower stage next to Sondheim during the curtain call, said after the show that not only were most of the performances sold out, but revenue from ticket sales had exceeded expectations. (The shows, performed in two cycles of three productions each, took in more than $6 million; the rest of the festival budget was raised from private sources, officials said.)

Kaiser said the Sondheim experience confirmed for him the crucial role the Kennedy Center can play as a producer of material, and not merely as a booking house. "I have big plans," he said. "We're going to do a lot of self-producing. The luxury I have is I don't have to do it all the time." The center's theaters will still be available for tours and visiting companies, he added. As for another major festival, Kaiser said one might be in the works for the 2003-04 season, though it may involve a discipline other than theater.

Though the critical response to the Sondheim Celebration was by no means uniform -- and truly, a couple of the productions were uneven -- one of the highlights of the project was an uncanny sense of casting. And the work of several performers is likely to have a lasting impact on their careers. Among the most incisive were Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker as the tormented hero and his pragmatic lover in "Passion"; Raul Esparza as the idealistic lyricist in "Merrily We Roll Along"; Barrowman as the playboyish Bobby and Alice Ripley as a deeply addled Amy in "Company"; and Randy Graff, dead-on in the foolproof role of Charlotte in "Night Music." (Sondheim said that he thought that Christine Baranski's turn as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" was revelatory.)

For some of the actors, playing Sondheim in Washington was a restorative experience. Max Woodward, director of theater programming for the Kennedy Center, said T-shirts had even been distributed, bearing the words "Camp Sondheim 2002." Esparza said he got to spend hours with Sondheim, going over the nuances of playing George, the artist at the center of "Sunday in the Park With George." Of her time with the composer, Blair Brown, cast as Desiree in "Night Music," said: "He never made you feel that someone else had ever played your part, even if hundreds of people had."

Cerveris, a versatile performer who has appeared in the Broadway productions of "Titanic" and "The Who's Tommy," said he was a bit of a burnout case before being cast in "Passion." But a month of rehearsals and 15 performances later -- the life cycle of each entry in the festival -- he feels a renewed sense of purpose about his work.

"To be a part of helping people to see a misunderstood show is the greatest job I ever could have had," he said.

As Cerveris spoke, the cast party began to wind down. Like all sets, Camp Sondheim had to be struck. Actors and stagehands embraced. Graff said she was headed back to New York to look for work. Esparza was due back in the cast of "Cabaret" on Broadway. Late into the evening, Sondheim was still wedged behind a banquet table, now virtually picked clean of munchies, talking to well-wishers. And Cerveris sat amid it all, slightly disconsolate at the brevity of his encounter with "Passion." (Many commercial producers came to see the shows, but so far there are no plans to move any of them.)

"Fifteen performances," the actor said, shaking his head. "We're looking to open any day now."


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