Youmans: Snow stops Sondheim, but show goes on

COSTA MESA — The Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Saturday was filled for "Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation." There was only one problem — Sondheim wasn't there.

The Broadway legend was unable to travel to Orange County due to snow storms in the New York area.

As a result, ticket holders were given a free, bonus concert starring Tony award-winning performers Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Both singers agreed to perform the Sondheim songs previously planned for the evening along with additional songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook.

"We are working on a new date for the conversation with Mr. Sondheim, and we will notify ticket holders as soon as details are confirmed," Segerstrom Center for the Arts officials said in a released statement.

But, in the true theater spirit, the show went on.

Minutes ran by after the 8 p.m. start time passed. Meanwhile, the audience sat patiently in their chairs, uncertain of what the evening would hold in Sondheim's absence.

Soon enough, host Michael Kerker, director of musical theater at ASCAP, appeared with Musical Director Tedd Firth.

Kerker regretfully gave his sincerest apologies and informed the audience that he and his colleagues had been planning the evening for almost a year.

Then "like the voice of god," as many in theater circles call it, Sondheim's voice penetrated through the loudspeakers, filling the auditorium for all to hear. The overwhelming sound was comparable to his legendary reputation as the master of musical theater.

A formerly forlorn audience then erupted with thunderous applause and gasps, like little children discovering a surprise at Christmas.

"I'm sorry I can't be there," Sondheim said.

I gathered from the beaming smiles and dropped jaws that his audience forgave him unconditionally .

Kerker then conducted an engaging public phone interview with Sondheim, who enlightened audiences with his golden responses.

Kerker asked him about what makes him sit up and take notice of somebody's craft.

"Well, it's not the craft, it's not the craft to take notice of," Sondheim replied. "Craft can be taught in the individual ways, the ways of looking at the world, a presence [sic] of calm, a use of language. But just like being young, really that craft, that's something you learn over a period of time and I think it took me a number of years. But what to take notice of when you hear either music or hear a lyric, or read a lyric is: Is there something fresh there that says something individual — not just imitations of other people's work — and also, a kind of passion. Craft can always be taught with time and teaching."

Kerker also included a question from a young writer who asked: "Do you believe for an artist there is ever true happiness, content in one's work or one's art, or is it just a new level of discontent?"

After a roar of laughter subsided, Sondheim responded with, "I've never talked to any writer who was satisfied with his work. I should amend that — I've never talked to any good writer."

And then just as quickly as he came, Sondheim bid his fans farewell, leaving everything in the very elegant hands of special musical guests Ebersole and Mitchell, who were greeted with a standing ovation.

"This is not the way we planned it, but that's the exciting thing about the theater. And since Stephen Sondheim couldn't be here tonight, we wanted to hold a place for him, like Elijah," Ebersole said, pointing to an empty chair where Sondheim would have sat. "And know that even though he's not here, like Elijah, he's here in spirit."

HEATHER YOUMANS reviews arts events for the Daily Pilot.

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