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SONDHEIM THROUGH THE YEARS--AND A SKIP ‘INTO THE WOODS’

Stephen Sondheim writing about Little Red Riding Hood. Can you wait?

Sondheim and James Lapine probably wish they could try out their new musical, “Into the Woods,” in the woods, before a audience that has never heard of Stephen Sondheim. Barring that, they’ve chosen San Diego’s Balboa Park, where “Into the Woods” will have its world premiere Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre.

After that it will go to Broadway--but nobody’s saying how soon. Sondheim is known to love the pressure of an opening-night deadline. (“Send In the Clowns” was written overnight in a Boston hotel.) But he has also come to see the wisdom of letting a show breathe for a while, after one gets a sense of its quality in performance. No wine before its time.

That’s how he and Lapine put together “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), starting with a summer workshop at New York’s Playwrights Horizons (also a co-presenter here), and ending with a 540-performance run at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, capped by a Pulitzer Prize.

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I wouldn’t have given “Sunday in the Park” three months after sneaking into an early preview at the Booth. (Greater love than this, no critic has--that he actually pays for a ticket.) It seemed a cold celebration of the artist’s superiority to the human race.

Then--another of those overnight efforts--Sondheim put in a song called “Children and Art.” It established the link between the artist and the race, and the whole show fell into place. At a performance some months later, I noticed that the person next to me was in tears--not an intellectual, not a theater person, just a lady from Chicago whose husband couldn’t come to the theater that night. “So beautiful,” she said.

What will “Into the Woods” be like? Sondheim didn’t want to be interviewed by The Times. As usual, he said, he was fighting a deadline. But we can get some hints from Craig Zadan’s splendid second edition of “Sondheim & Co.,” just out from Harper & Row (see Paul Rosenfield’s accompanying article).

Sondheim and Lapine apparently started with another title: “Fee Fi Fo Fum.” The idea was to do a show about fairy-tale characters. The premise: A baker and his wife live under the curse of a wicked witch. They can’t have a child until they bring the witch four objects: a cow white as milk, a cape red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper pure as gold.

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“So what they have to do,” Sondheim told Zadan, “is go in and screw up everybody else’s fairy story. They’ve got to get Little Red Riding Hood’s cape. Cinderella’s slipper, Jack and the Beanstalk’s cow and Rapunzel’s hair. . . .”

But to get what they want “they have to cheat a little,” and the second act treats the consequences of that. Sondheim’s first thought for the score was “little tunes that go strange in the second act.” But the word from the Old Globe is that he’s now going in another direction. So we’ll have to wait until Thursday.

It won’t be easy. Theater people look forward to a new Sondheim show the way they used to anticipate a new Rodgers and Hammerstein show in the late 1940s. (Zadan’s book reminds us that Oscar Hammerstein was Sondheim’s mentor.) It isn’t just the prospect of a new hit. It’s the faith that once again Sondheim will test the limits of the American musical--that he’ll take it to a place where it hasn’t been before.

With Rodgers and Hammerstein, it was always a comfortable place, a place where an audience wanted to be. Not so with Sondheim. He is always taking us into the woods. The light is always a little strange. We’re never quite sure where the path is going. Is that really a gingerbread house?

As a critic, I know that a new Sondheim show will be a slightly edgy experience. I know that I’ll like it better the second time I see it, and even better the third. ( Like in the sense of warm up to . Sondheim’s craftsmanship always takes your breath away.)

But it will take a little time, for two reasons. The first is musical. Sondheim isn’t a tunesmith. He’s a composer. He can produce a socko ballad (“Losing My Mind” from “Follies”) or a catchy soft-shoe number (“Side by Side by Side” from “Company”). But when he does, he’s usually quoting from another kind of show, with ironic intent.

His forte is the long-lined musical scene, usually involving more than one character, and often derived from a simple melodic or rhythmic germ, as in “Someone in a Tree” from “Pacific Overtures.” Another example is the champagne-dry opening sequence of “A Little Night Music.” It’s a triple soliloquy in three-quarter time (or some multiple thereof), built on three words. The hero needs his bride’s attention “now.” The hero’s teen-age son can’t stand being put off until “later.” The hero’s bride promises to come to him “soon.”

The three soliloquies intertwine gloriously--and clearly. (Lucidity is as important to Sondheim as it is to his hero in “Sunday in the Park.”) But the passage does take listening to. Sondheim makes his audience follow what he’s saying, while your average opening-night audience, and critic, has always preferred to get socked on the head.

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Sondheim’s theater music also tends to be more astringent and tense than we are used to on Broadway, something that everyone commented on back in ’62, when “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” came out--a brainier score than any Broadway low-comedy (or even high-comedy) had ever had.

But nobody had trouble with it when Phil Silvers brought “Forum” back to the Ahmanson a decade later. By that time, Sondheim’s score seemed as light and charming as the show. The things that hinder instant acceptance of a Sondheim melody are the things that it make it worth hearing down the years. Many Broadway scores have personality. Sondheim’s have character.

The second reason his shows don’t go down like chocolate milkshakes is that there’s almost always a darkness to their stories. “Forum” is the exception. But “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and even “A Little Night Music” deal with troubled, divided individuals, people who can’t be summed up in a bright phrase in C Major. (“Pacific Overtures” deals with a troubled, fractured culture, the floating kingdom of 19th-Century Japan.) One of Sondheim’s heroes is even a murderer. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd .

This has brought Sondheim and his most constant collaborator, Harold Prince, into direct confrontation with the Broadway audience’s need for a happy ending. In “Company” and “Follies,” they yielded--and cheated on the story.

Bobby-baby’s decision to get married at the end of “Company,” despite the hell that all his married friends are going through, comes from nowhere. (Sondheim acknowledges as much in the Zadan book.) Even less convincing is Ben and Phyllis’ decision to resume their marriage at the end of “Follies,” on the basis of absolutely nothing that we have learned about them during the show.

“Sweeney Todd” doesn’t compromise. Its furnace-lit ending is as lurid as any the musical stage has ever seen. But here, too, one doesn’t leave totally convinced that the world is a pit and that you, me or anyone can turn into Sweeney Todd.

That’s the pattern with a Sondheim show. “Forum” is the funniest musical farce ever written and “Side by Side by Sondheim” was the most elegant musical album of the 1970s. But the book-shows tend to have problems, usually with the book. Someday Sondheim has got to do a show without collaborators.

We treasure the shows anyway. We love the ambition, from a man who could easily have given in to the market’s demand. We love the lyrics, set with jeweler’s perfection into the melodic line--W. S. Gilbert didn’t do it better. We love the way the individual songs rise from the immediate situation and yet have a dramatic structure of their own (something we sensed but didn’t fully realize until “Side by Side by Sondheim”).

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We love the fusing of image and musical line: the opening of “Follies,” with the show girls moving against the dark like powdered swans; Sweeney serenading his razor in “Sweeney Todd”; Bobby-baby in bed with the airline stewardess in “Company”; the terse poetry as a traveler says farewell to his wife in “Pacific Overtures.”

There’s also this odd faith that Sondheim’s shows are still works in progress--that “Follies” will sooner or later find its perfect form. After all, Sondheim isn’t averse to looking back. He added a very funny new song for Nancy Walker in the ’72 “Forum,” and he and Lapine reworked “Merrily We Roll Along” for the La Jolla Playhouse two summers ago.

Sondheim’s career goes back to “West Side Story,” yet we still think of him as a young writer, a theater composer with more to say. Leonard Bernstein tells Zadan that Sondheim needs to speak more directly to an audience, and Sondheim tells Zadan that he wants to get away from musical-theater pastiche, the kind of thing he did so brilliantly in “Follies.”

“Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park” certainly don’t take off from anybody else’s work. But we are probably barking up the wrong tree if we hope for the REAL Stephen Sondheim ever to stand up and spill his guts in a theater piece. No. 1, he’s not built that way. No. 2, it might not be interesting.

Do we want the real Laurence Olivier to stand up, or do we want to see Olivier in a new role? Sondheim may be the kind of artist who expresses himself best from behind a mask. He probably doesn’t pick out a new style for every show just to be different. There’s a liberation in it for him. The frame helps him define the picture.

Rather than hoping that each Sondheim show will come closer and closer to the real man, we might do better to wish him an interesting new set of problems with each show. I have a yen, for instance, to see him write for the kind of ordinary, not-too-bright characters that he dealt with years ago in his lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

Sondheim may have gone beyond the structural formulas of such shows, but it would be a challenge for him to write in the American vernacular again. “Some people got it and make it pay/Some people can’t even give it away.”

Meanwhile, it’s witches and wolves and Snow White. Can you wait?


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