Sondheim!

A summer festival showcases the wit and artistry of the musical-theater master, drawing "nuts" from all over

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And so my conversion was complete, accomplished in accord with that hoary truism of spiritual growth: when the nut is ready, the teacher appears.

Stephen Sondheim has had a cult following practically from the time he was a schoolboy pianist on Manhattan’s Central Park West, scampering through the “Flight of the Bumblebee” with his speedy right hand. Over the past half century, a period in which the now 72-year-old composer has written music and words for some 500 songs and more than a dozen major musicals on such far-flung subjects as the Westernization of Japan and the psychopathology of revenge in a 19th-century London barbershop, Sondheim has been embraced by a small army of fanatics. Music professors, therapists and aspiring composers pore over his work. There’s hardly an internal rhyme or hemidemisemiquaver that hasn’t been parsed in the quarterly journal, The Sondheim Review. Web sites like sondheim.com are filled with the impassioned chat of devotees discussing the life and work of the man they call “the master.” As New York magazine once asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”

With seven Tony Awards, an Oscar for a musical score (Dick Tracy) and a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday), “the master” has won about every award a musical dramatist can win. Most critics, even the sourpusses who accuse him of putting the head before the heart, and carp that he doesn’t write melodies—that his shows, in the words of John Lahr in the New Yorker, “substitute the prestige of pain for the prestige of enjoyment”—would nonetheless not quarrel with the cultural critic Thomas Adler, who nearly 25 years ago called Sondheim the “single most important force in the American musical theater.”

And yet Sondheim has never quite escaped the ghetto of cult enthusiasm. Sondheim has always been an acquired taste. He’s never achieved the sort of popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber or had a megahit on the order of a Cats. Probably his best-known song is “Send in the Clowns,” which he knocked out in a single bleary-eyed session for A Little Night Music, but his tunes don’t often appear on the hit parade.

While popularity is hardly a measure of artistic merit, it evidently matters to Sondheim, who has written a lyric comparing the sought-after “sound of an audience losing its mind” to “the Pope on his balcony blessing mankind.” And Broadway babies still hope, against increasing odds, that commercial Broadway theater can once again support something besides witless pop operas and corporate cookiecutter confections. Sondheim has said that he was resigned to never being widely popular. Lately, however, there are signs that public taste is morphing in his direction.

When the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. opened its box office this past February for its summerlong “Sondheim Celebration,” ticket buyers jammed 40 phone lines, clicked on the Web site 55 times a second and stood in long lines outside. Ticket sales shattered the one-day record, previously held by Beauty and the Beast. OK, 10 percent of the buyers were from Sondheim cult headquarters—New York City. But tickets also went to people around the country and as far away as Sweden and Japan.

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