The life and rhymes of Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim has told the story so often, it's nearly a legend. When he was 15, he showed Oscar Hammerstein a musical he had written with two fellow students. He was, he admits, naive enough to think it was worth putting on professionally.

Hammerstein, the famed lyricist of such classic musicals as The Sound of Music and Carousel, knew differently, and he spent several hours explaining why.

Far from disheartened, Sondheim was encouraged by his mentor's attention. "He treated me like an adult, and because there was no condescension, I was a sponge," he recalls. "I was disappointed that I wasn't going to be on Broadway at the age of 15, but I realized at the end of that afternoon how much I had to learn and how much learning had to be done by doing."

He never forgot the lesson. Six decades later, Sondheim has not only inherited Hammerstein's mantle, he is still learning and, most of all, striving to perfect an art form in which he has few rivals, and no criticstougher than himself.

Since making his Broadway debut in 1957 as the lyricist of West Side Story, Sondheim has written the lyrics, and more often also composed the scores, for musicals whose protagonists range from a homicidal barber to a pointillist painter and whose themes range from fear of commitment to obsessive love.

Hammerstein introduced substance to the Broadway musical; Sondheim enhanced that substance with a brave and edgy intelligence that permeates his music as well as his lyrics. Boldly refusing to repeat himself, he has embraced the challenging and new in a forum -- the mainstream Broadway musical -- that often prefers the hidebound and familiar.

The subject of a number of books -- most recently and extensively, Meryle Secrest's 1998 biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life -- and the focus of a magazine devoted solely to his works, The Sondheim Review, the composer has won a slew of Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and even an Oscar (for a song sung by Madonna in the movie, Dick Tracy).

Now, at 72, he is finishing the score for his next musical, Gold; he has just shepherded a new revival of his 1987 fairy-tale musical, Into the Woods, to Broadway; and his career is being honored at Washington's Kennedy Center, which is staging new productions of six of his 15 musicals.

The largest producing effort in its history, the Kennedy Center's four-month Sondheim Celebration begins in earnest Friday with Sweeney Todd, his 1979 musical about a bloodthirsty barber. An abridged children'sadaptation of Into the Woods opened a two-weekend run last Friday. The celebration also includes concerts by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin; it wraps up in September with an imported Japanese production of PacificOvertures, a 1976 show about the opening of Japan to Western trade.

Sondheim's musicals, says Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, "make you think, they teach, they talk about adult emotions. ... He's talking about important elements of human relationships, the same way Chekhov does or Shaw does."

A diehard Sondheim fan, Kaiser believes the $10 million festival -- conceived along the lines of a museum retrospective and structured like opera repertory -- will demonstrate "the depth of the work of this man and the genius of this man and how lucky we are to have him creating works in our time and still creating works."

He also believes the event will, in his words, explode certain myths about Sondheim's musicals: That they can be cold and unemotional; that they have a degree of sameness; that the music isn't memorable and that the shows aren't marketable. Kaiser disputes all of these, and on the last score has the figures to back him up.

When tickets went on sale in February, the first day's receipts totaled $639,000 -- a Kennedy Center box-office record. The geographical reach is equally impressive. Tickets have now been sold in all 50 states and 15 foreign countries.

"It's historical. Nothing like this has ever been done on this scale," says Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is playing the title role in Sweeney Todd. "It's the closest thing we have to a national theater. It's here in the capital, and it's probably the greatest musical theater composer/lyricist that the world knows."

Uncommon subject matter

On a sunny morning in early April, the cast of Sweeney Todd assembles in a Kennedy Center rehearsal hall for the first time. Several things distinguish this from the start of most rehearsals. For one, there's a table with a linen cloth, a silver coffee urn, trays of pastries, pitchers of juice and a tuxedoed waitress and waiter. For another, this is the Kennedy Center's first major theatrical producing effort in more than a dozen years. And then, of course, there's Stephen Sondheim.

Dressed in khakis, a brown crew-neck sweater and gray knit shirt, he stands to one side of the room as if hoping to go unnoticed. He's carrying one of the same goody bags the actors have been given. Inside is a gray T-shirt that reads: "Camp Sondheim, Kennedy Center 2002"; if he put his on, the color would almost match his grizzled hair and beard.

After the cast settles into folding chairs, Kaiser says a few words of welcome. When he introduces Sondheim, the actors respond with warm applause, and the composer's eyes sparkle. He cups his hands around his mouth andquietly says, "thank you," but he remains on the sidelines.

If there's a thread connecting Sondheim's diverse musicals, it's their uncommon subject matter and complex emotions. Sweeney Todd is a macabre melodrama about a Victorian barber who seeks to avenge the wrongs done tohimself, his wife and daughter. But Sweeney's plans go blood-curdlingly overboard when he meets up with a cook whose meat pies are in need of tastier ingredients. Traditionally, Broadway songwriters have prettied things up in their songs; Sondheim's songs exult in the messy intricacies of human interaction.

Each time Sondheim begins a new musical, he approaches it in the same meticulous way. Although he owns a computer, he writes in longhand, using Blackwing pencils on lined paper, one pad per stanza. "I'm German by ancestry, and I'm therefore very organized," he explains.

He also relies heavily on a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. "I can't imagine any writer who doesn't," he says. "The problem is not finding trick rhymes; the problem is rhyming 'may.' There are so many words in the language, you can't possibly think of all the proper rhymes."

Musical theater isn't the only part of Sondheim's life, but he was 61 before he had a long-term relationship (with a young composer named Peter Jones), and his outside interests have tended to reflect and nurture his art.

He is, for example, an aficionado of mysteries and puzzles. "They have solutions -- unlike life," he says. His only nonmusical credits are for co-writing mysteries -- the 1973 movie The Last of Sheila and the 1996Broadway play Getting Away with Murder. For a while he created the puzzles for New York magazine. "I love puzzles," he says. "I just don't do them anymore. It takes too much time."

But lyric writing, he acknowledges, is a lot like solving a puzzle. "They're related, of course they are," he says, "working with the English language and trying to make it fit the music."

For some time, he's been working on a book about writing lyrics. "Collected lyrics with essays on lyric-writing and anecdotal essays on individual lyrics," he calls it. He hopes to make serious progress on the book thissummer while commuting to Washington by train from his home in New York. "I've been making notes for many years, and I've actually written a few thousand words, but I'm frightened of writing prose," he says. "I'm a rather academic prose writer, and I'm worried about the didacticism of it."

'A sacred profession'

Interviews aren't Sondheim's favorite activity, but today, in honor of the Kennedy Center Celebration, he has agreed to sit down with a reporter. When the rehearsal of Sweeney Todd breaks for lunch, Sondheim takes an elevator upstairs to one of the center's executive conference rooms. Seeing a photographer's light set up in a corner, he balks, saying he won't pose for pictures.

Just informal shots, the photographer re- assures him, and the composer/lyricist takes a seat. Although Sondheim thoroughly and thoughtfully answers everything he is asked, he never seems truly at ease. In a few rare instances, he breaks into an unexpected smile, but more frequently, he closes his eyes when he speaks.

As the conversation gets underway, he warms to a subject he feels so strongly about that he has described it as "a sacred profession." No, not music -- teaching.

Sondheim, who founded New York's Young Playwrights Festival, has a reputation for helping students and musical theater newcomers. He has mentored such composers as the late Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, and AdamGuettel, composer and lyricist of Floyd Collins.

His professional relationship with Eric D. Schaeffer, artistic director of the Kennedy Center Celebration, also began in a tutorial fashion. In 1989, Schaeffer, who was directing a community theater production of Sunday in the Park with George, sent him a letter with a question. "Within a week, he wrote back," Schaeffer says. "You hear all these things about how he likes to teach, and it really is a mentoring aspect that he has."

Today, however, Sondheim is talking less about his influence as a teacher than about the teachers who influenced him.

At the top of that list is Oscar Hammerstein II. The lyricist who revolutionized the Broadway musical -- beginning with Show Boat (the first musical to fully integrate plot and score) and continuing with Oklahoma! --passed the torch of innovation to Sondheim.

"It may very well be that just because he was a songwriter, I became a songwriter," Sondheim says. "I've often stated that if he'd been a geologist, I would have been a geologist. I don't know if that's true, but I certainly wanted to be like him."

Sondheim became part of the Hammerstein household when he was 12 years old. "They lived about three miles from where my mother had a summer place in Doylestown, Pa., and they had a son my age, Jimmy. We became fast friends," he explains. "And the Hammersteins just became a sort of surrogate family."

The timing was fortunate. "[Hammerstein] came into my life at a moment of turmoil when my parents had gotten divorced and I was living with my mother, and there were difficulties between us," he says.

His father, a dress manufacturer, left when Stephen, an only child, was 10. His mother, a clothing designer, subsequently took out her resentment on her son. Sondheim told biographer Secrest: " ... she used me the way she had used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time."

In contrast, the Hammerstein family must have seemed a model of stability; it not only included two parents, but the father was always home, since that was where he worked. Sondheim responded eagerly when -- for reasons he's not entirely sure of -- the lyricist sensed a talent for songwriting in the boy, who had forsaken piano lessons at age 9.

That fall, Sondheim, who had skipped two grades, began his freshman year at the George School, a Quaker Pennsylvania school. There he would write that first fledgling musical, By George, which he proudly showed to Hammerstein.

As part of his advice that afternoon, the veteran lyricist suggested that his young protege try writing four different types of musicals: adaptations of a well-written play, a flawed play, and a source other than a play, such as a novel or short story; and, finally, a completely original work. By the time Sondheim completed the fourth musical, he was 22.

A few years earlier, Hammerstein had arranged for Sondheim to get some hands-on training in theater. In the summer of 1947, the teen-ager worked behind the scenes during rehearsals of Allegro, an innovative musicalHammerstein was writing with his long-time collaborator, Richard Rodgers.

"I started ... as a gofer and typed scripts, brought coffee and that sort of stuff, but I also had the advantage of being able to ask [Hammerstein] questions at the end of the day," Sondheim says. In the process, he was "learning the distinction between what can be improved by the writer and what can be improved by the director and the actors, and not only learning that distinction, but being ruthless about your own work. ... And Oscar was absolutely ruthless about his own stuff."

Flexibility is key

Hammerstein's disciple learned well, according to Harold Prince, who between 1957 and 1981 produced and/or directed eight of Sondheim's shows. After a long hiatus, they are now working on a ninth -- Gold, which will make its premiere next season. "Steve Sondheim is a man who is so secure that he knows if you throw out one song, there's another song where that came from," Prince says. "He's very self-critical."

Sondheim considers this merely practical. "As somebody who deals in musicals, which are amalgams of so many different kinds of talents, you're foolish if you're not flexible," he says. As an example, he cites a mistake he feels Leonard Bernstein made on West Side Story.

"Leonard Bernstein wanted so desperately to have a high tenor play Tony in West Side Story, and of course the only tenors who could do it were middle-aged men who usually weighed over 200 pounds. He saw nothing wrong withthat because he had the suspension of disbelief that operagoers have." More appropriate-looking actors were cast, but when they had trouble with the songs, "Lenny would not change the notes," he says. "That kind of penny-wise 2/3 pound-foolishness is the kind of thing that Oscar would never have ever [done]."

Sondheim was 27 when West Side Story opened on Broadway, but between college (he has a degree in music from Williams College in Massachusetts) and the Great White Way, his education took some unexpected turns.

The first came in the form of a two-year fellowship, which he used to study with Milton Babbitt. A leading avant-garde composer, Babbitt seems an unlikely choice for a budding Broadway songwriter, but Babbitt harbors a love for musicals, and Sondheim recalls that they usually began their weekly sessions with an analysis of songs by the likes of Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin.

Then, with Hammerstein's aid, Sondheim was hired to co-write scripts for the TV series Topper, about a pair of sophisticated ghosts who haunt a banker. Topper turned out to be a teacher in its own right, imparting a valuable lesson in concision.

"Each episode had to be told in four acts -- a teaser, a first act, a second act and an epilogue, commercials in between, 22 1/2 minutes of writing, 7 1/2 minutes of commercials. And you had to be able to shape and tell astory, put in jokes, have immediately recognizable characters," he explains. "It taught me a great deal about structure, playwriting, and that came in, of course, very handy in writing songs for play structures."

Back in New York, Sondheim's big break on West Side Story was followed the very next season with the same duty -- lyrics, only -- on Gypsy. The librettist of both shows was Arthur Laurents, who taught Sondheim aboutactors' needs.

"You've got to learn to see the instruments you work with ... and the instruments are called 'actors,' " Laurents told Sondheim, taking him to the Actors Studio to observe. It was "something that ordinarily wouldn't interest me at all, which is actors acting for actors and talking about acting," Sondheim says. "It never occurred to me it would be as useful as it was."

Once again, Sondheim listened and learned. At the Kennedy Center, Christine Baranski, who is portraying Mrs. Lovett, the cook in Sweeney Todd, praises the depth of Sondheim's writing, his witty language and the dark places he takes characters. But what appeals to her most is that "you can really act -- the songs are like actor monologues."

'Write the same show'

Sondheim finally got a chance to write both lyrics and music for a Broadway show in 1962. Based on characters created by the classical Roman playwright, Plautus, the show was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and it taught him another important lesson. It's a musical he loves, but one he would do differently today.

"About a month before we were to go into rehearsal, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I thought maybe it was just nerves," he says. He sought the advice of James Goldman, a playwright who would go on to write the libretto for Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies.

"[Goldman] said he thought the book was brilliant, and he said the score was a delight. He said the only problem was, they don't go together. I had written a rather salon-like score, full of cleverness and kind of literary puns -- I wanted so much to show off as a lyricist -- whereas [the book] was a very elegant low comedy," Sondheim says. "I learned from that to be very careful in the future to write the same show."

That's precisely what he and librettist John Weidman are trying to do with their new musical, Gold, scheduled to open at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in June 2003.

Originally titled Wise Guys, the show is an account of the colorful turn-of-the-century Mizner brothers -- Addison, an architect, and Wilson, a con man, gambler and playwright. It was commissioned in 1995 by the Kennedy Center and, four years later, had a high-profile, poorly received New York workshop production under the direction of Sam Mendes.

"[Mendes] had a different take on the show than we did. ... Being flexible, we tried to meet his demands on the understanding that if it didn't work we could go back to our show. But because of the timing and numerous things, he never went back to our show, and we ended up with his show, which is not what we intended.

"We'd written a romp, a fast and funny and sharp show, and he wanted to be more emotionally centered," Sondheim says. "Unfortunately, instead of doing that in private, we did it in public. And as far as I'm concerned that's the last workshop I will ever do."

Now the musical has a new title, Gold, and a new director, Prince, and Sondheim and Weidman are back at work. (The composer and librettist previously collaborated on Pacific Overtures and Assassins, a 1991 off-Broadway musical about presidential killers and would-be killers that was to have opened on Broadway last fall, but was postponed after Sept. 11.)

Though more than two decades have passed since Prince and Sondheim did a show together, both men say it feels as if they never stopped. Theirs is a partnership fueled by opposing outlooks: Prince tends to optimistic; Sondheim, pessimistic.

"I've recently come up with a metaphor for the way we work," Sondheim says. "He sees to it that the truck keeps going; I see to it that it doesn't go over the cliff. Because I'm somebody who sees all the pitfalls, and he's somebody who barrels ahead, and it makes a very good combination."

"We're having a very good time," says Prince, who describes Gold as "quintessentially American" and "very funny and very rambunctious."

Sondheim, too, seems pleased with Gold. "All it is is a musical comedy. That's always what I wanted it to be." He worries, however, that "it's been so long in the birthing that people are going to be expecting some huge,ambitious enterprise."

Embracing change

If as a child, Sondheim found a surrogate family in the Hammerstein home, as an adult he has found it in the collaborative world of musical theater. "It's all about family," says this man whose musicals analyze with unflinching candor the joys and difficulties of relationships.

But now it's time for Sondheim to return to a newly formed family -- the cast of Sweeney Todd.

He initially told artistic director Schaeffer that he would just "pop in" on this first day of rehearsals. Instead, he stayed the whole day, taking notes, answering actors' questions and, of course, tinkering with a word or two.

"I'm going to make this lyric change," Schaeffer recalls him saying. "It's always been 'as.' I want it to be 'of.' It rolls better."

And so, for Stephen Sondheim the process of learning, mentoring and honing the work continues.

The problem is not finding trick rhymes; the problem is rhyming 'may.' There are so many words in the language,you can't possibly think of all the proper rhymes.

Lots of Sondheim, side by side

The Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration in Washington runs from now into September and includes six new productions of Sondheim musicals spanning more than two decades, as well as several other events. Tickets range from $20 to $79. For more information, including a full performance schedule, visit www.kennedy-center.org / sondheim or call 800-444-1324.

Sweeney Todd (1979)
May 10-June 30
A revenge tale about a wronged Victorian barber who slits the throats of his customers. Libretto by Hugh Wheeler. Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical. Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Beth Peil star, under Christopher Ashley's direction.

Company (1970)
May 17-June 29
An examination of the vicissitudes of marriage and commitment. Libretto by George Furth. Winner of seven Tony Awards, including best musical. John Barrowman, Lynn Redgrave, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner star, under SeanMathias' direction.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
May 31-June 28
A study of the sacrifices artists make for their art, focusing on pointillist painter Georges Seurat and a great-grandson who inherits his talent. Libretto by James Lapine. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Raul Esparzaand Melissa Errico star, under Eric Schaeffer's direction.

Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
July 12-Aug. 24
An account of the loss of youth, friendship and idealism; adapted from Kaufman and Hart's 1934 reverse-action play of the same name. Libretto by Furth. Esparza, Michael McGrath and Miriam Shor star, under Ashley's direction.

Passion (1994)
July 19-Aug. 23
The story of the obsessive love of a sickly, homely woman for a handsome soldier; based on Ettore Scola's 1981 Italian movie, Passione d'Amore, Libretto by Lapine. Winner of four Tony Awards, including best musical. JudyKuhn and Rebecca Luker star, under Schaeffer's direction.

A Little Night Music (1973)
Aug. 2-25
A waltz through romances past and present in turn-of-the-century Sweden; suggested by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Libretto by Wheeler. Winner of six Tony Awards, including best musical. Blair Brown, Barbara Bryne, John Dossett and Randy Graff star, under Mark Brokaw's direction.

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