Past Master: Stephen Sondheim

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For decades now, fans of American musical theater have been fretting about the death of the genre. As globo-spectacles like Mamma Mia! and Beauty and the Beast crowd out daring new artworks, "where," ask these anxious theatergoers, "are the young Sondheims?" There won't be any. Not because high-brow musical theater is dead, but because the old Sondheim keeps on being new. Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 79, continues to dominate the genre he has constantly reinvented, first with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome 
 Robbins on West Side Story in 1957, Company (1970), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984).

Having written his first musical at 15, under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim is frequently cast as the last of the genre's greats. But far from being a relic from a golden age, his work continues to gain new audiences and interpretations. This season saw major revivals of A Little Night Music in London and West Side Story on Broadway — where there's been at least one Sondheim show playing annually for the past five years. Add in smaller venues, there are hundreds — even thousands — of revivals of his shows in any given year. (See the top 10 plays and musicals of 2008.)

And there may be more to come. Sondheim's "nibbling" at a couple of new shows with his two longtime collaborators, John Weidman and James Lapine, and is writing an annotated retrospective of his lyrics. But breaking fresh ground can be hard going, says Sondheim, whose latest work, Road Show — based on the lives of huckster brothers behind Florida's ill-fated 1920s real-estate boom — was more than a decade in the making. "You think every time you pick up your pencil it's going to be a little bit easier, but it isn't," he says.

Road Show had a limited run and mixed reviews when it opened in New York City last winter, but that's an old tradition with Sondheim. Many of his original productions were commercial — and critical — flops the first time round. Critics found him cold, audiences found him élitist, and producers wanted tunes people could hum. Much of Sondheim's career has been spent waiting for everyone else to catch up. And they usually do. This season, fans in the U.S. can see productions of his works from the Midwest to Florida, or take their pick from hundreds of versions of what Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine once joked was their "pension" — the (relatively) feel-good Into the Woods. There's also a gutsy Broadway West Side Story, with many of the lyrics rendered in Spanish. (Read "What's Wrong with This Spring's Broadway Plays?")

Meanwhile, London is playing host to a Sondheim at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, where director Trevor Nunn is teasing out the nuances in A Little Night Music, Sondheim's 1973 adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. Often performed as a light soufflé of a show, Nunn has turned the musical, which runs until July 25, into a Chekhovian meditation on desire and death. (See pictures of London.)

Earlier this spring, a London fringe theater put on a sellout production of Saturday Night, about young Brooklynites gambling on the 1929 stock market, which Sondheim penned when he was 24 and saw performed on stage first in 1997. "I take it as an encouraging sign that the shows are worth looking at a second time," Sondheim says. "Most musicals, you look at them a second time, they're not as good as they were the first time." His own endure, he believes, because "I write with better librettists. They're better playwrights than the librettists of most musicals."

Others give the credit to Sondheim himself. Director Nunn compares the lyricist's poetic gift and humanism to Shakespeare's. Both men, he says, are "fascinated with the contradictions of human beings, with their complexities and ambiguities. As with Shakespeare, there's heightened poetic expression in Sondheim, but when you dig into it, you find it's in touch with something real." The song "Send in the Clowns" contains not just pretty lyrics, but musings perfectly pitched for the character of Desirée, a glamorous actress pushing 40 and facing what may be her last chance for love. "The cadence, the vocabulary, the incidences in the music, a pause he's written in" — all conspire to create minutely observed characters, says Nunn.

For the first five days of Night Music rehearsals, Nunn had the cast speak — not sing — the lyrics. He found that, unlike the numbers in most musicals, they didn't stop the show, but rather carried it on, each song a little scene in its own right, deepening the characters while advancing the plot. "I approach characters like an actor approaches them," says Sondheim. "With the risk of only slight exaggeration, by the time I have written a score I know the book better than the author does. I've examined every word, and why [a character] says it."

Like the aging chanteuse in his paean to theatrical longevity, "I'm Still Here," Sondheim has survived through musical vogues and eras. The Broadway where he started out in the '50s is no more. Once the majority of Broadway audiences were New Yorkers; now they are mostly tourists. Rock and pop have moved into the mainstream, edging out movie and show tunes as the world's musical lingua franca. Sondheim's not bitter: "Pop made people listen to lyrics more." He is regretful, though, that orchestras have shrunk — no new Sondheim show has had a full orchestra since 1981, and as smart and innovative as the new chamber-piece productions of his shows are, "you can always pare down a big orchestra, but not build up," he says. (See pictures of New York.)

But small, in many ways, has been good for his art. Moving off-Broadway — which he did with Sunday in the Park with George, his groundbreaking work on painter Georges Seurat — proved something of a relief to Sondheim. "I remember being very exhilarated," he says. "I found it liberating. It was nonprofit, so I could indulge myself. We were less worried about the commercial aspects of the piece."

But even as his shows have shrunk, Sondheim casts a long shadow, making it difficult for potential "new Sondheims" to grow. At the same time, globalization has boosted the McMusical: crowd-pleasing, corporate-franchised extravaganzas like The Lion King, which play seamlessly from Peking to Peoria. Sondheim, with his precise relationship with the English language, doesn't travel so well, with the exception of West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. "Amateur companies tell me that when they're doing a Sondheim, that's often the hardest of them to sell," says Lynne Chapman, of the U.K.-based Stephen Sondheim Society. "When they're doing middle-of-the-road stuff, they can sell it several times over."

"You know who else theater companies say that about?" asks Night Music director Nunn. "Chekhov." When it comes to Sondheim, debate about the future of the musical misses the point. He occupies a place in the pantheon not of musical theater, but of theater itself.

See the top 10 plays and musicals of 2008.

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