Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Sondheim Celebration Revisited

This month in Charlottesville, two Stephen Sondheim musicals are being revived:

At the Ash Lawn-Highland Opera Festival, West Side Story opened on July 8 and continues in repertory through August 13. And the Heritage Repertory Theatre will open Sunday in the Park with George on July 21, with nine performances through July 29.

Back in 2002, as the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration approached, I interviewed several experts on Sondheim and the musical theatre, one of whom was the University of Virginia's Robert Chapel, who is directing HRT's Sunday this summer. (I am looking forward to seeing this show, because it will be the first time I have seen a Sunday not directed by Eric Schaeffer -- and I have seen three previous productions over the past 18 years: The Arlington Players, Arena Stage/Signature, and Kennedy Center.) Note that, in this interview, Chapel lists Sunday in the Park with George as his favorite Sondheim musical "because of what it says about what it means to be an artist."

Given the fast approach of this ambitious production, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit that article, which also includes responses by GayPatriot's Dan Blatt and My Stupid Dog's Tim Hulsey in their pre-blogging days.

This article appeared as the centerfold in The Metro Herald on May 3, 2002:

A Sondheim Celebration: The Experts Speak
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

This year [2002] in Washington, DC, the Kennedy Center is presenting an unprecedented series of events and performances celebrating the life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a 1993 Kennedy Centers Honoree. The Sondheim Celebration—from May through September—includes new productions of six of Sondheim’s Broadway musicals, a Japanese production of Pacific Overtures, concerts by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin, and a special children’s version of Into the Woods.

The Metro Herald sought out the opinions of several experts on theatre, music, and Sondheim himself to set the stage for this unusual enterprise, which has attracted worldwide attention. (The Kennedy Center reported ticket sales from 47 states and more than a dozen foreign countries within hours of the box office opening.) The participants are:

Karen Berman, Adjunct Professor of Theatre and Artistic Advisor of the Theatre Program, Georgetown University
B. Daniel Blatt, Hollywood-based screenwriter and (like Stephen Sondheim) an alumnus of Williams College
Robert Chapel, Professor and Chair, University of Virginia Department of Drama, and Producing Artistic Director, Heritage Repertory Theatre
Timothy Hulsey, doctoral candidate in American literature at the University of Virginia, who contributed a review of the new opera, Little Women, to The Metro Herald last summer
• Michael H. Hutchins, creator of “The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide” Web site, and civil employee of the U.S. government

• • •

Metro Herald: Stephen Sondheim’s career has spanned more than five decades, he has won critical acclaim and major awards (including Oscars®, Tonys®, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Kennedy Center Honors), yet his is not a household name, like Rodgers & Hammerstein. To what do you attribute this split in Sondheim’s levels of success?

Karen Berman, Georgetown University: Interestingly, Oscar Hammerstein was a family friend who took the 15-year-old Sondheim under his wing for a short time. Sondheim, in fact, dedicated his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to his mentor. Sondheim’s work contrasts quite a bit from his mentor, however, in that Sondheim is caustic rather than warm and fuzzy, rebels against rhyming lyrics, and progresses towards opera rather than simply musical theatre. While the critics find this daring and precocious, audiences have found his work distancing. He often asks his audiences to analyze characters and events rather than to become emotionally attached. His work is harder to listen to, and you certainly can’t go out humming and singing many of the tunes like you can with Hammerstein. The Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, however, has the power to create a household name out of Sondheim.

B. Daniel Blatt, screenwriter: I think it’s because Sondheim’s songs are more classical than catchy. You can easily sing along to a Rodgers & Hammerstein song, but not so much to a Sondheim song. Also, I think Sondheim’s songs are a bit dark, more internal, sadder at times. In many ways he is closer to classical music than he is to popular music. You participate in a Sondheim song with your emotions; it’s a much more personal experience. . .

Robert Chapel, University of Virginia: Stephen Sondheim has spent his professional life focused on change and growth in his work—I do not believe he has been the least bit concerned with popularity. By this, I do not mean to imply that he hasn’t wanted his shows to be “hits,” but his constant exploration of new forms in regards to various stories, themes, and musical genres seems to have taken precedence over the necessity for finding accessible music that would appeal to the masses. That is not to imply that Rodgers & Hammerstein were primarily concerned with this—Oscar Hammerstein was one of Sondheim’s closest mentors, and I’m sure Sondheim was deeply influenced by their shows.

Timothy Hulsey, University of Virginia: When Rodgers & Hammerstein were writing shows, Broadway was a much more important part of pop culture than it is today. Remember that forty years ago, musical theater was broadcast on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now it’s on PBS.

In some respect, most of Sondheim’s career has been a response to the marginalization of theater (including the Broadway musical) as a cultural form. Sondheim began his career as a more mainstream lyricist, but eventually grew into the avant-garde. His choice of material and musical expression consistently challenges our idea of musical theatre, and a lot of his shows probably wouldn’t have happened if Broadway were still the hit-parade machine it was in the ’50s and ’60s.

It might also help if someone made a decent movie out of one of his shows, though it hasn’t happened yet.

Michael Hutchins, “The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide”: This goes back to the ageless argument about whether success is determined by popular appeal or the quality of the work. In literary terms, how can the works of such household names as Harold Robbins, Danielle Steele, and Sidney Sheldon stand up to the relatively obscure Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom?

Sondheim’s critical success means merely that the high quality of his work is recognized within his chosen field by those who appraise his work (and by those who make it their business to dole out awards). His otherwise obscurity only reflects the narrow appeal of musical theatre in the average American household. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s name recognition today is based almost entirely on the film and television adaptations of their works.

With only a handful of exceptions, the Hollywood musical has been dying for the past 40 years, approximating the era of Sondheim, whose work has rarely been transferred to any medium other than the stage. And the Broadway stage, at that. (Remember that great line in Gypsy when Mama Rose is told that “New York is the center of everything.” She replies, “New York is the center of New York.”) I’m fully aware that there are many local and regional productions of his work (the Kennedy Center celebration is a testimony to that fact), but the frequency with which they are performed is entirely out of proportion to the quality of Sondheim’s work.

There is a misconceived notion that Sondheim is “difficult” or “too cerebral” when, in actuality, 90 percent of his work is totally accessible to the average theatregoer. This notion has prevented theatre companies from taking a chance with Sondheim when concerns for the bottom line supercede the goal of artistic achievement. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, a recent production of Company in Atlanta practically sold out its entire run. Sondheim surely does not write in a vacuum, because he wants his shows to have an audience. Why otherwise choose to work in musical theatre? But, I honestly feel that he is not writing to please the audience. If he can move them emotionally or intellectually, he’s done his job. He’s not failed just because they don’t leave the theatre humming his tunes.

Metro Herald: One could argue that the only composer for musical theatre who rivals Sondheim today is Andrew Lloyd Webber (born, coincidentally, on the same day as Stephen Sondheim, March 22, but 18 years later). Yet their styles are very different. What distinguishes these two composers, and what explains their different appeals to audiences?

Berman: Because of the many mainstream criticisms that Lloyd Webber’s work represents different plays set to the same tune, I shall opt out of this question of comparison.

Blatt: I think Lloyd Webber has simpler melodies and he chooses more popular stories to showcase his songs. Sondheim chooses stories that are psychological, introspective. Lloyd Webber takes popular, classical stories and heroines. Phantom of the Opera had long been a popular French story; it served as the basis for a few movies. Sunset Boulevard was based on a classic movie. Evita Peron had been beloved by the Argentinian people. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat comes from a Bible story. But, murderous barbers?

Note that one of Lloyd Webber’s unusual choices for a story, Whistle Down the Wind, based on a group of children who think that an escaped convict is Jesus, did not enjoy the popular success of many of his other musicals. . . It seems that this story is more like one from Sondheim’s repertoire (while West Side Story adapted from Romeo and Juliet has done quite well).

Chapel: Again, Sondheim has spent his life exploring different musical forms. I do not believe Lloyd Webber has—his music, while at times extremely melodic, has a sameness to it and does not come close to the complexity that Sondheim’s music conveys. While Lloyd Webber can be extremely pleasant to the ear, Sondheim, while many times being pleasant to the ear, is always challenging to the mind—Lloyd Webber, not always.

Hulsey: Some people say that Lloyd Webber is more emotional, while Sondheim is colder and more calculating. But I’ve always found that Sondheim moves me deeply, while Lloyd Webber leaves me cold. Perhaps that’s because Lloyd Webber tends to present uncomplicated emotions with a sort of inflated grandeur (LOVE! TERROR! ANGER!). Sondheim, on the other hand, is subtler, sadder, and perhaps even a little wiser than that. There’s a song in Company called “Sorry/Grateful” that expresses Sondheim’s basic ambivalence very nicely: “Good things get better, bad get worse./Wait, I think I meant that in reverse.” I can’t imagine anything like that in a Lloyd Webber show.

Hutchins: Yes, one could argue (and aficionados of both composers often do), but let’s not continue to beat that dead horse. It’s actually quite simple. Lloyd Webber’s music has the greater appeal because it appeals to a greater audience (duh!). No one can argue with a great melody. Perhaps Sondheim’s music requires more effort on the part of the listener. Perhaps Lloyd Webber’s intentions toward the audience differ from Sondheim’s. I personally feel that Sondheim makes a greater effort to make sure that his music serves the characters of the work. He does not write “songs” for their own sake. He writes musical numbers for characters to sing.

Metro Herald: Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II and served “apprenticeships” with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, and other giants of the mid-20th century musical theatre. Has Sondheim had any protégés or, if not, who among current composers and lyricists have been most influenced by Stephen Sondheim and his work?

Berman: Sondheim’s sometimes dark and nightmarish themes have influenced all of postmodern theatre and musicals. His disjointed style, lack of storyline, societal barbs, questioning of meaning, and intellectual approach have had an impact on an entire era of MTV generation composers and lyricists. His existential questions about “who am I?” are pertinent in a world where truth is relative. Today’s composers and lyricists no longer feel compelled to write linear storylines and most of the Broadway musicals touring the DC area reflect this new thought.

Chapel: I have no firm data in regards to the answer to this question, [but] I would say that all young composers and lyricists are influenced by his work. Most young composers and lyricists that I have known believe he is the finest composer/lyricist of the 20th century, so of course they are influenced. I would say, specifically, that Michael John LaChuisa and Andrew Lippa (who competed with their respective “Wild Party” musicals a year or so ago) are both directly influenced by Sondheim’s work. But this is an assumption—it would be best to ask them.

Hulsey: My god, who isn’t? There’s a cabaret song by Alan Chapman called “Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim,” and it’s absolutely true: Anyone who’s writing in the American musical theatre today (except, of course, Mel Brooks) is clearly influenced by Sondheim. I could drop a few names here—Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Mark Adamo—all young composers of opera and musical theatre who write in a Sondheimesque idiom. But ultimately, as good as these composers are, they’re not the best measure of Sondheim’s influence. I think everyone who hears and truly understands a Sondheim musical, regardless of the setting, is inspired and influenced by it, which is how we know we’re in the presence of good art.

Hutchins: I haven’t kept up with the current crop of musical theatre writers, so I really can’t say how Sondheim’s influence has manifested itself. I know that the late Jonathan Larsen considered Sondheim to be an influence though you never would have been able to tell from his work (Rent). Other names that have been tossed around include Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChuisa, and Jason Robert Brown, though I’m not familiar with most of their work.

Metro Herald: Which of Sondheim’s plays do you think will still be successfully performed 50 years from now, and which do you think will be set aside (if not forgotten)? Why?

Berman: Certainly, his debut as a lyricist at the age of 27 writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story will be remembered for ages to come. The lyrics contemporize Romeo and Juliet in a universal way, which will remain relevant for many generations. The gruesome Sweeney Todd about a murderous barber, which some have decried as meaningless, may in fact gain stature as we turn more and more to Court TV for our fix in viewing trials of famous murderers.

Blatt: Well, since Sondheim addresses universal themes . . . Gypsy and West Side Story. I think Company will be performed and perhaps Into the Woods. Sweeney Todd may be set aside. But, this is all idle speculation. . . . We don’t know what the world will hold in the next 50 years.

Chapel: Remembered: West Side Story (one of the greatest musicals ever written—about a universal theme of human beings learning to live side by side with one another); Gypsy (an extraordinary book, a slice of Americana, and a story about a particular form of American theatrical performance, a wonderful score with wonderful Sondheim lyrics); . . . Forum (just very funny—Sondheim’s first, except for Saturday Night, as composer/lyricist); Follies (brilliant score—another history of past American theatre); Sweeney Todd (brilliant opera—grand guignol, bigger than life, wonderfully crafted with fantastic, bigger than life, characters); Into the Woods (wonderful music coupled with world-famous fairy tales that will be around as long as human beings are).

Probably forgotten: Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, Passion. Of these, Company, Pacific Overtures, and Sunday in the Park are exemplary—but their stories/themes are possibly too time specific. The rest are simply not as wonderfully crafted as his other shows. Some contain characters, especially Merrily and Passion, that we simply cannot root for.

Hulsey: I think we’re just discovering that for ourselves. A few of Sondheim’s musicals have already been pretty much set aside—Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures, for example. Sunday in the Park with George will eventually fade from memory, not because it’s a bad show but because it’s so difficult to stage. And although the score from Follies will live, it will survive as a concert piece, simply because no one can afford to do it any more.

Since I think community theater is the best hope we have for preserving American drama (musical and otherwise), the Sondheim shows I think will be performed forever are the ones that community theater groups have already picked up: Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. (I suspect we may eventually see Passion on that list, too.)

Hutchins: Considering only the works for which he wrote both music and lyrics, Sweeney Todd has the greatest chance of surviving the 21st century. It’s a work that, both musically and dramatically, is ageless. Others that may prevail include A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George. The appeal of Into the Woods to a younger audience could keep it around awhile. Such “modern” pieces as Assassins and Anyone Can Whistle will date badly as the century progresses. And though I hate to say it (because it is one of my favorite Sondheim scores), Company will fall by the wayside as well. The only way it works (even today) is by presenting it as a period piece.

Metro Herald: Of all the actors who have created principal roles in Sondheim’s musicals over the years, who do you think has had the best “fit” to Sondheim’s style, attitude, and demands?

Berman: In my view, Bernadette Peters, who created the principal role in Sunday in the Park with George, has the vocal dexterity, intricacy, intelligence, and range to meet the demands of Sondheim. She can appear aloof and detached, and yet bring you inside the character.

Blatt: Didn’t he himself say Bernadette Peters? Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury also deserve mention. Honestly, I don’t think there is any individual singer or actor who has had the best fit, but there have been a number of amazing performances by a number of very talented individuals in Sondheim performances. I would also list Victor Garber among that number . . .

Chapel: Ethel Merman as Mama Rose; Elaine Stritch in Company, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George.

Hulsey: That’s a tough one, because Sondheim has written so many different kinds of roles for so many different kinds of voices. Basically, anyone who can carry a tune and interpret a lyric can find at least one good Sondheim song that will show him or her off to best advantage. As for my favorite single Sondheim interpreter, I have to go with Bernadette Peters—no matter what she sings, she’s just fabulous.

Hutchins: If we do not consider Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett (since the role was written especially with her in mind, and it will be the one that most people think of first), I’m going to go out on a limb and choose Donna Murphy’s Fosca (from Passion). It’s a demanding role that requires such a delicate balance between hysteria and, well, passion that few actors can pull it off. Murphy more than met the challenge. Being a fan of Judy Kuhn’s work, I am greatly anticipating her performance of the role in the upcoming Kennedy Center Celebration.

Metro Herald: Suppose you were given the opportunity to perform any of the roles in any Sondheim play. Which role would you most want to play, and why?

Berman: I love art and I love the theatre, and I’m intrigued at how the visual and performing arts are interwoven into themes in which we question how art is made. Sunday in the Park with George does this, and I’m fascinated at how the costume designers created this ingenious world. I wish I could sing like Bernadette Peters and become part of the Seurat painting that inspired the musical by simply standing in the costume.

Blatt: I never really thought of performing any Sondheim role, and I can’t sing that well any way.

Chapel: Pseudolus in Forum, because it is the ultimate comic turn; Sweeney Todd because he is the ultimate operatic villain; George in Sunday in the Park with George because he is the ultimate questioning artist.

Hulsey: Sweeney Todd. He’s a ragged baritone, and I’m a ragged baritone. I’d also like to play the Baker in Into the Woods someday, although that’s about as far from Sweeney Todd as you can get.

Hutchins: Being single (and “being alive”) I’d like to try my hand as Robert in Company. It’s a role that has been called a “cipher” amidst the other characters in the piece, but I think the right performer (with a good director) can bring a lot more to the part than is apparent in George Furth’s dialogue. And besides, now that it’s been restored to the score, Robert gets to sing “Marry Me a Little,” one of Sondheim’s greatest cut songs.

Metro Herald: What is your favorite Sondheim song, and why?

Berman: Besides the favorite of many, “Send in the Clowns,” which is one of his more melodic, emotional, and hummable songs, I’d have to say his song “The Ladies Who Lunch” is my favorite. I heard it first when I was a rebellious teen searching for my place as a woman in society. From his musical Company, the song seemed a bitter diatribe against the boredom of an older generation of housewives. When I am up working late into the night, I still use the phrase to satirize women who have time to make luncheons their life’s priority. (Maybe I’m just jealous.)

Blatt:Being Alive.” It successfully captures the longing of a lonely person for an intimate, romantic relationship. The meaning of a relationship.

Chapel:Move On,” from Sunday in the Park with George, because it is the ultimate answer for any artist—“do your work, be true to yourself, do not worry what people say, move on to the next project. You can’t control how people perceive your work and an artist shouldn’t spend his time worrying about this—only then, will you be free to do your best work.”

Hulsey:Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along. There are two versions of this song: One has happy lyrics, suitable for weddings, and the other has bitter lyrics, suitable for messy divorces. Given a choice, I always perform the bitter version—and if there’s a better two-minute audition piece in musical theater history, I haven’t found it.

Hutchins: This will change based on the time of day, the phase of the moon, my mood, etc. . . . Put a gun to my head and I’d choose “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along. It has a gorgeous melody (take that, all of you who claim that Sondheim is “un-hummable”), and has the simplest lyrics (for those who claim his lyrics are too intellectual or pretentious) that passionately reveal the character’s inner turmoil.

Metro Herald: What is your favorite Sondheim musical, and why?

Berman: This is a difficult question, as my favorite seems to change as I change over the years. I think this is a positive reflection on the work of Sondheim. I was so impressed the first time I saw Sweeney Todd. It was at a community theatre in Arlington, and Sondheim Celebration producer Eric Schaeffer worked on the production, although I don’t remember if he directed or designed it. Later, I remember talking to Eric when we both worked together at Source Theatre Company (he was the technical director), and he told me he was ready to move out on his own. I believe the idea of Signature Theatre was in its infancy, and now he’s producing this entire festival of Sondheim.

Blatt: Tough choice between West Side Story and Gypsy. Well, the songs in Gypsy are better for singing along to . . . but West Side Story is such a universal story of love and societal factors working against it.

Chapel: I’m not sure I have only one—West Side Story and Gypsy are two of the greatest musicals of all time—but I’m not sure they are purely “Sondheim” musicals. I guess if I had to choose only one—I would choose Sunday in the Park with George because of what it says about what it means to be an artist.

Hulsey: The next one, because I haven’t heard it yet.

Hutchins: For the strength and brilliance of its score, for the amazing range of styles of its musical numbers, for the emotional depth of its characters, how can anyone choose any work other than Follies?

Metro Herald: Is there a book about Stephen Sondheim or his work that you would recommend to readers of The Metro Herald?

Berman: My favorite way of exploring theatrical and musical works is by watching the behind-the-scenes action by way of videos. I recommend the videos Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which documents Sondheim and Hal Prince directing a recording session of the musical, and Follies in Concert, following Sondheim’s direction of Mandy Patinkin and others. It is fascinating to watch the artists at work.

Blatt: The biography by Meryle Secrest is quite good.

Chapel: Sondheim, by Martin Gottfried.

Hulsey: No. Books about artists tend to have limited appeal to people who aren’t artists. Besides, all of Sondheim is in his writing, so the best place for you to discover him is in the shows themselves.

Hutchins: For a basic overview of his life, one can’t beat Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co. (it sorely needs an updated edition.) For a deeper approach to Sondheim, try Joanne Gordon’s Art Isn’t Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim, a scholarly, yet readily accessible, examination of his work and their productions. Unless you have a degree in musicology (or are a Sondheim fanatic of the highest order), steer clear of Stephen Banfield’s Sondheim's Broadway Musicals.

In the past four years, we have seen Tony-nominated Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Assassins (which also has a sold-out production this summer at Signature Theatre, reviewed here by Tim Hulsey), plus a West End revival of Sunday in the Park with George this year (competing against the likes of Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins). The latest Sondheim musical, Bounce, never made it to Broadway despite largely successful tryouts in Chicago and Washington. What would our experts have to say now, given a chance to do so? (They are welcome to comment in the space below.)

My previous posts on the works of Stephen Sondheim include several 75th birthday tributes last year and an interview with the author of How Sondheim Found His Sound, Steve Swayne. (I have a few more old reviews and articles in the can, waiting for the right moment to be reposted.)


Tim said...

If I were giving this interview today, I would recommend Steve Swayne's book How Sondheim Found His Sound. Everything you need to know about Sondheim is in his work (this is true for nearly all great authors, by the way), and nobody offers a more thorough analysis of that work than Swayne.

Tim said...

I should also add that Sondheim's "next" musical, the one I was looking forward to, turned out to be Bounce. The show may have too many disparate elements to succeed as a whole, but the score itself is superb. With Bounce, Sondheim provided a concise summary of his art, and gave his blessings to the next generation of Broadway composers.

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