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

Most every Stephen Sondheim nut has had a kind of near-mystical conversion experience. Mine happened in New York City in a balcony seat at the Booth Theatre in the fall of 1984. The show was Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s musical drama about Georges Seurat, the making of his pointillist masterpiece and the emotional price artists pay “to get through to something new.” I tried for years to figure out what conjunction of life and art left me sobbing in my not-so-cheap seat and then drew me back a few weeks later to shed yet another liter of tears.

The virtues of the show were patent. Sunday was brilliantly acted, beautifully lit, powerfully staged. Its songs were rich and sharp and wise, attuned to the heartache and evanescence of life: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother, / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.” And the score! A person would have to be deaf not to be swept up in its harmonies, its soaring arpeggios and dreamy, pulsing undercurrents.

Still, my emotional havoc seemed beyond reason. I suppose I was primed for a catharsis, being stuck in an uninspiring job in Washington, D.C. and, like the modern-day George in Sunday’s second act, casting about for new directions. When George and his mistress, Dot, sang the ravishing duet “Move On,” I could hear the very verses of my own doomed love affair: “I chose, and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken, / The choosing was not.” The theater let out, and I staggered into a record store searching for the cast album with the fervor that a teenager today might feel pursuing a Britney Spears single.

Years later, I now see that those rapt hours in the balcony marked a kind of awakening, the end of a protracted adolescence and the beginning of adulthood with its cultivated ironies, bittersweet pleasures and continually more complex forms of folly. To encounter Sondheim’s songs of experience for the first time—to discover the nuances of a mind that could rhyme “Schweitzer” with a slurred “lights’re” in the couplet “Who needs Albert Schweitzer / When the lights’re low?”—was to stand as a hayseed on the threshold of urbanity itself. I was mad to immerse myself in the Sondheim canon: mad to move on. I owe part of my decision to leave Washington for the lyric Oz of Manhattan to the romantic impetus of a Sondheim song from Company, “Another Hundred People”:

Another hundred people just got off of the train

And came up through the ground

While another hundred people just got off of the bus

And are looking around

At another hundred people who got off of the plane

And are looking at us

Who got off of the train

And the plane and the bus...

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 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.

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?”

“Gee, I wish I had a dramatic answer,” Sondheim replied. “The fact is, I really like writing shows. It gets harder as time goes on. I thought I’d get more confident. And you’d think something like this Washington celebration would make me more confident, and it doesn’t. I think the more you write, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I think you get a view of yourself and somehow the weaknesses, the dangers of things like repetition, the feeling that you’ve written it all before, makes it harder to write. But in a way that also makes me want to write more because I want to overcome it. And, to put it sentimentally, there are just so many wonderful stories to tell, and I would really like to find some that would lend themselves to music that I haven’t heard before. That’s what I want. And that’s what I’m afraid of: writing music I’ve heard before.”

The day before he made his Broadway debut, as the 27-year-old lyricist of West Side Story, he wrote an uncharacteristically forthcoming letter to the musical’s composer, Leonard Bernstein: “You know—only too well—how hard it is for me to show gratitude and affection, much less commit them to writing,” he said, adding that friendship “is a thing I give and receive rarely.”

A photograph from that time shows Sondheim with a Blackwing pencil clamped in his mouth, a lock of dark hair drooping across his forehead and a touch of sadness in his eyes. He had grown up in a plush apartment building overlooking Central Park, the only child of Herbert and Janet Sondheim. His father, a self-taught pianist, played show tunes to relax. He was a benevolent if remote presence, largely preoccupied with managing a successful dress manufacturing company. Sondheim’s mother, who designed dresses for her husband’s company and also worked as an interior decorator, has been variously described as a woman with gumption and a sharp sense of humor, and also as a social climber who fibbed about her background and feigned a tony accent, according to Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life. Sondheim’s parents traveled often, leaving their child in the care of a nurse or nanny; he had “an institutional childhood,” he once said. He started piano lessons at age 7 and showed a precocious interest in crossword puzzles and anagrams.

In 1940, when Sondheim was 10, his family imploded; his father walked out, and later moved in with another woman in New York. (Herbert Sondheim eventually remarried, had two more sons and died in 1966.) A jilted Janet Sondheim, according to biographer Secrest, did her best to poison her son’s relationship with his father, forbidding the boy from visiting his father in the company of his wife-to-be—and possibly having him followed to make sure he obeyed. In a step that may have been rather cunning, she moved with her son around 1942 to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where their neighbors included Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. With composer Jerome Kern, lyricist Hammerstein had written the songs for the watershed 1927 musical Showboat, and was about to form his partnership with composer Richard Rodgers and in 1943 advance the Broadway musical yet again, with Oklahoma!

Young Stephen Sondheim befriended Oscar’s son, Jamie, and became a fixture at the Hammerstein house. In the famous lyricist he found not only a surrogate father but a vision of the future. For his part, Hammerstein had an immense trove of technical knowledge to share, and arranged a summer job for the teenage Sondheim as a gofer on the set of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro.

Sondheim was at the GeorgeSchool outside Philadelphia when he composed his first musical, By George, and demonstrated a preternatural knack for the music of language, writing of the conservative prep school in one song: “No firearms, no drinking / Not even coed winking / All they allow is thinking.”

He showed the script to his mentor and asked for an unflinching critique. When Sondheim’s lower lip began to tremble, Hammerstein said that although By George was riddled with flaws, its author clearly had talent. Hammerstein devised a syllabus by which Sondheim would study musical theater composition. He was to write four shows, all based on other sources. Sondheim dutifully followed the program. He would continue to seek his mentor’s advice until Hammerstein died in 1960.

No doubt the young Sondheim’s difficulties with his mother made the Hammerstein household all the more of a refuge. His mother, Sondheim later told biographer Secrest, was “an impossible person” who, among other infractions, “used me the way she had used [my father], to come on to and to berate.” Mother and son grew estranged. In the 1970s, Sondheim’s mother was scheduled to have a pacemaker implanted in her chest. She apparently believed that the procedure entailed open-heart surgery, which she imagined would kill her, and wrote a valedictory note to her son, delivered by messenger. “The night before I undergo open heart surgery (my surgeon’s term),” the note said, “the only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”

Sondheim’s reply, according to Secrest, was three pages of indictments he had kept dammed up all his life. He said he never wanted to see her again (though, later, he did see her). She died in 1992, at 95. He did not attend the funeral. Inevitably, many have wondered how Sondheim’s complex childhood may have shaped his temperament and work. Clearly his reserve, his irony and detachment, his wariness of emotional entanglements, his perfectionism and profound self-doubt, his precocity and even his romanticism can be read as compensations for and responses to the pain of a broken home. The same goes for his love of the stage and the surrogate family of theater folk, and his attachment to his teachers.

Though the parallels between his art and life invite speculation, Sondheim, who reportedly has spent many years in psychoanalysis, has warned interviewers not to interpret his characters as embodiments of his personal history—they’re just vehicles for stories, he says. Generally, he does not even dream them up; they come from the playwrights and directors he works with. All he does, he says, is try to inhabit the characters, just as an actor gets into a part. Even so, Sondheim has acknowledged that artists choose stories that resonate with them. The critic Allen W. Menton has noted that a recurring theme in Sondheim’s work is the “domineering or repressive mother figure locked in a cycle of dependence and rivalry with (often grown) children.” Ultimately, every choice an artist makes is autobiographical, and one can usually detect the composer in the composition.

In 1946, Sondheim entered Williams College interested in mathematics as well as music, but soon veered away from numbers under the spell of music professor Robert Barrow. After graduating, in 1950, he had a fellowship and studied in New York with the American avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. He went to Hollywood and wrote scripts for the television show Topper, then returned to the East and worked on Saturday Night, a musical squarely in the Rodgers and Hammerstein vein about a bunch of Brooklyn go-getters looking for love and success. Just when the show was headed for Broadway, the producer died and the show sank under the weight of unpaid bills. But Sondheim’s witty songs left a mark, and in 1955—with urging from Hammerstein and after a chance meeting with librettist Arthur Laurents—he landed the plum job cowriting, with Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics for West Side Story. (Bernstein later granted Sondheim full credit for the lyrics.)

In 1958, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy—a musical about an impossible mother, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s. Then, in 1962, his long-standing ambition to compose both music and lyrics for a Broadway show was finally realized in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a farce set in ancient Rome that starred the inimitable Zero Mostel and ran for 964 performances.

For the most part, Sondheim has been ahead of Broadway audiences, drawn to complex, neurotic characters and to that fundamental human emotion, ambivalence, about which Americans traditionally go to musicals to forget. Sondheim, a collector of 19th-century puzzles, apparently loves the psychological chess of working out a story, of building a character bit by bit.

For a while after A Funny Thing Happened, success largely eluded him. His next show, Anyone Can Whistle, ran for only nine performances in 1964. Honoring a commitment he’d made to Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim then collaborated with Richard Rodgers on the 1965 show Do I Hear A Waltz? It was not a happy experience—Rodgers, who could be prickly, once disparaged Sondheim in front of the cast—but the show played 220 performances.

It wasn’t until Sondheim teamed with director and producer Hal Prince that he resumed his stride. One can only envy those who saw the run of Sondheim shows that began in 1970 with Company and climaxed with Sweeney Todd in 1979. The decade completed Sondheim’s transformation from apprentice to prodigy to subversive master of the traditionalist idiom to mold-shattering innovator.

One of the rewarding things about being a Sondheim nut is the joy of rediscovery. Little brilliancies sometimes go by so fast or in such a multitude you miss them on the first pass. I’ve had the record of Company for years, but only when I saw the Kennedy Center production did I catch the “personable / coercin’ a bull” rhyme from “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”:

When a person’s personality is personable,

He shouldn’t oughta sit like lump.

It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull

To try to get you off of your rump...

Or take the 1971 show, Follies, a monumental valentine to a bygone era of Broadway. For the London production, Sondheim wrote a song called “Ah, But Underneath,” a sort of emotional striptease that contains a stanza culminating in a giddy trifecta of rhymes:

In the depths of her interior

Were fears she was inferior

And something even eerier

But no one dared to query’er superior exterior…

And then there’s “A Little Priest,” the boggling waltz from Sweeney Todd. If not the wittiest duet ever written (I’d love to hear one better), it’s inarguably the wittiest ever written about cannibalism. Its lip-smacking rhymes flesh out the culinary delights of dishes that one might prepare out of London’s heterogeneous population, including “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top” and “politician so oily it’s served on a doily.”

Sondheim devotees will be forever grateful to Library of Congress music specialist Mark Horowitz for the interviews he conducted with Sondheim in 1997, the most extensive about how the composer works and the basis of an upcoming book, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions. The interviews help one appreciate the musicality of Sondheim’s language and the speech-like articulation of his musical notes, not to mention his pursuit of perfection. In the score of Sunday, for instance, Sondheim indicates when George should jab his paintbrush at the canvas, synching the visual act of painting with accents in the music. In Sweeney Todd, he invented some bawdy Cockney slang to go with the real stuff that he found in a book.

Horowitz asked Sondheim about the genesis of the song that Sondheim has called his favorite, an Act I number from Pacific Overtures called “Someone in a Tree,” which describes a treaty signing surreptitiously witnessed by a boy in a tree and overheard by a warrior hidden under the floor of the treaty house. (The Kennedy Center is scheduled to stage a Japanese production of Pacific Overtures in September.) But the song is really about how the mosaic of history is pieced together from fragments of memory. It has a propulsive flow, beginning as a quiet trickle and building like a river until it finally crests in some of Sondheim’s most profound lyrics:

It’s the fragment, not the day.

It’s the pebble, not the stream.

It’s the ripple, not the sea

That is happening.

Not the building but the beam,

Not the garden but the stone,

Only cups of tea

And history

And someone in a tree.

Horowitz pointed out that “very little happens harmonically” in the song.

“Until the so-called chorus,” Sondheim said.

“So how do you sustain interest in the listener with that kind of relentless music?”

Sondheim replied with a story about a visit to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he realized that Japanese art was the ultimate expression of the less-is-more aesthetic. He saw a three-paneled Japanese screen. “The first panel was absolutely blank,” he recalled. “The second panel was absolutely blank except for the end of a bird’s tail; and the third panel had the rest of the bird and a tree…Click! I thought: Ohhhhhhh, it’s all about less is more.”

For “Someone in a Tree,” he said, he used one chord and made “tiny little variations on it” for 60 bars, gradually building on it so the “audience never gets bored.” Then, he went on, “when you finally settle down to the chorus, and it finally hits the tonic chord, there’s that sense of, pheeeww! I think it’s terrific. So that’s what that is: It’s an attempt musically to echo the visual—and the literal—of Japanese art.”

Clearly dazzled, Horowitz brought up “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeny Todd. Sondheim, who has a residence on the east side of Manhattan, said he’d researched the birdcalls in the score by listening to birds in the woods near his home in Connecticut. But would Sondheim’s Connecticut wrens have been heard in Britain?

“Oh, Mark, no! There’s a limit to research.”

I went to the Kennedy Center’s production of Sunday in the Park with George with some trepidation because, well, enchantment can’t be bottled, and 18 years had gone by since my conversion; few things are more embarrassing than the object of a passion after it has cooled. Would it be like rediscovering some ghastly old love letter or overheated journal entry, where you cringingly wonder what the fuss was all about?

And then the curtain went up on a striking stage set with covered easels, and from the orchestra pit a French horn cried out, and strings came flowing up like a flood of water from a spring, and the driving percussive motifs of the piano pressed their argument forward. Sure, it was easy to mark what wasn’t as good as the original (or the original as I remembered it), but memory slips too easily into myth, and after a while I found I wasn’t holding back with crossed arms and a show-me face. I wasn’t wanting the experience of the present to be as good as the memory of the past. I was hearing the music anew—seeing the drama of it in concert with the story on the stage. And suddenly the music was much richer for the drama that the singing actors were caught in. Which, after all, was the point. The finest rediscovery was a duet between the artist protagonist and his mother—“Beautiful,” which says “what the eye arranges is what is beautiful.” Until then, George’s mother has been awful toward her son, calling him “deluded” and pretending he doesn’t exist. And then suddenly they are together, George singing, “All things are beautiful, Mother,” and the fading old lady imploring her “Georgie” to capture their lives in paint before everything vanishes. Their voices rise climactically on the word “Sunday,” and she sings, “disappearing as we look.”

After Leonard Bernstein saw Sunday, in 1983, he wrote Sondheim a note saying the show was “brilliant, deeply conceived, canny, magisterial, and by far the most personal statement I’ve heard from you thus far. Bravo.” There is a school of criticism that says it shouldn’t matter whether a work of art is personal, only that it succeed as art. And when people are listening to Sunday a hundred years from now, maybe that’s all that will matter. (“Let others make that decision,” George’s mistress says of his legacy.) But as I positioned myself to eavesdrop in the lobby at intermission, I couldn’t help but be amazed that a song so suffused with maternal tenderness had come from a man whose own mother told him she regretted giving him his life.

In the lobby, a couple of middle-aged women in pantsuits were standing by a candy dispenser, stocking up on cough drops. One was frowning and looked unhappy. Her friend said, “I guess you’re just not a Sondheim nut.”

I suppressed an urge I’ve had before, to go forth and evangelize. The poor woman was suffering enough. Someday, maybe, the light will dawn.

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