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 KennedyCenter 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.
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.