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

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The festival, which concludes in late August, features new productions of Sweeney Todd, Sunday, A Little Night Music, Company, Passion and Merrily We Roll Along (an undeservedly neglected piece, which closed after only 16 performances when it debuted on Broadway in 1981). The bill also includes cabaret concerts by major Sondheim interpreters Mandy Patinkin and Barbara Cook.

Cook, 74, performs in Mostly Sondheim, a program that highlights songs such as “In Buddy’s Eyes” (Follies) and “So Many People” (written in his early 20s) and also features songs that Sondheim says he wishes he’d written, including those by Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen that Sondheim selected for a concert at the Library of Congress in honor of his 70th birthday.

At the performance I attended, Cook recalled that a journalist asked her to describe Sondheim in one sentence. “All of a sudden the name Picasso popped into my head,” she said, adding of Sondheim: “Nobody could imagine the journey he’s taken us on—he won’t play it safe.” Also like Picasso, Sondheim makes demands on the audience. “You have to hear some of Sondheim’s songs several times before you understand what he’s getting at,” Cook said.

The Kennedy Center’s $10 million Sondheim festival originated with its president, Michael M. Kaiser, whose favorite Sondheim musical, like mine, is Sunday. The artistic director is 40-year-old Eric Schaeffer, who has staged numerous Sondheim revivals at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Schaeffer’s conversion dates to when he was a high school drama student in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania (a town best known for producing Cadillac bodies), and saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway. “I was blown away,” he recalls. “The characters just came out at you—you felt like you were living the terror they were living. I had never felt that before…. Steve goes to levels and depths that are unique.”

In April, the Kennedy Center staged a sold-out conversation between Sondheim and former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich. The composer touched on subjects from writing lyrics for Ethel Merman in Gypsy, to his artistic influences, to the movie he would most like to turn into a musical (Groundhog Day). The most pro-vocative question, given Sondheim’s stated belief that Broadway composers rarely create valuable work after age 50, came from an audience member: “What do you still wish to accomplish?”


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