Youmans: Sondheim gets silly and informative

Musical theater connoisseurs who had hoped to see "Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation" last October filled the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on July 13 for the rescheduled event.

Previously, the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist was unable to travel to Orange County because of a snow storm in the New York area. This time around, he arrived hassle-free.

Throughout the evening, Michael Kerker lent his expertise as director of musical theater at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). He posed insightful questions, which Sondheim, 82, answered with poise.

Mixed in with the discussion were performances of lesser known Stephen Sondheim songs by Tony Award-winning performers Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell — who were kind enough to return for the second go-around. The duo was accompanied by pianist Ted Firth, who didn't miss a note.

Musical selections for the evening included the following: "Were Gonna Be Alright" ("Company"), "The Little Things You Do Together" ("Company"),"It Would've Been Wonderful" ("A Little Night Music"), "I Never Do Anything Twice" (from the film "The Seven Percent Solution"), "Pretty Women" ("Sweeny Todd"),"I'm Still Here"("Follies"),"Finishing the Hat" ("Follies"), and "Move On" ("Sunday in the Park with George").

Sondheim had a pensive expression on his face as he listened to his compositions. Occasionally, he chuckled at his own punch lines and pointed his finger to signal the musical accents. And at the end of each piece, he smiled giddily like a proud father.

Ebersole brilliantly executed Sondheim's lyrical wit and Stokes Mitchell's voice was sweeter than ever. However, music stands and sheet music hindered their stage presence.

Then again, what performer would be brave enough to abandon their sheet music when singing complex Sondheim tunes in front of the master composer himself?

Needless to say, the ultimate highlight of the evening was Sondheim's responses to Kerker's questions.

Sondheim spoke of his ventures with mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, whom he met at age 11. Hammerstein taught him to think of songs as little one act plays that move characters from point A to point B.

When he first started writing professionally as a lyricist and composer, Sondheim collaborated with Burt Shevelove, librettist of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

According to Sondheim, Shevelove taught him aspects of musical theater that were different from Hammerstein's. He told him to look at the song as "a continuation of dialogue," which was a whole new way of thinking that "opened his eyes to the possibilities."

"Instead of songs functioning as a part of the texture, part of the meaning of the piece, they are an interruption like punctuation, commas and periods [in a sentence]," Sondheim said.

Early in his career, Sondheim also worked with two iconic composers — Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne. He insisted that the latter didn't teach him much of anything, but Bernstein taught him to think more freely — to use a three-bar phrase instead of the standard two or four bars.

"I became less square," Sondheim said. "What I learned was it's a shame when you fall off the lowest level of the ladder. That means you didn't try very hard. If you don't take a chance, there is no use in trying."

From that principle, Sondheim built his daringly unorthodox career. Although his songs were highly criticized, his music liberated Broadway from traditional songwriting conventions and brought musical theater into the modern age.

He went on to win an Academy Award, two Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and eight Tony awards — including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater in 2008. In the past half century, he has collaborated on a dozen landmark shows and has written standard songs.

Apparently, everyone came around.

The third iconic composer Sondheim worked with was Richard Rodgers.

When Hammerstein died, Sondheim promised him that he would write with Rodgers to raise his spirits. And after Rodgers slung some ideas his way, he eventually agreed to write the lyrics for "Do I Hear a Waltz," a musical based on the film "Summertime" starring Katherine Hepburn.

"It was exactly the reason not to write a musical," Sondheim said of the project.

By that time, Rodgers had lost his confidence in himself and succumbed to the fear of a blank page, Sondheim further explained.

Sondheim also commented on many controversial hot topics in musical theater, but most notably the rise of contemporary music [rap and hip hop] on Broadway.

"It's not the business of contemporary music, but it has to do with true rhymes and false rhymes [in these contemporary genres]," Sondheim said. "False and slant rhymes don't work well in theater. You can't tell a joke on a slant rhyme. It won't land."

The audience also got some insight into his songwriting process.

For Sondheim, the title or return line always comes first, because it establishes tone and gives the piece a home base. Like Irving Berlin, he writes to the end — meaning he knows where the piece will end emotionally and dramatically. And, he unifies his scores by meter, not melody or harmony.

Sondheim's mantra is simple: don't be too diffuse and don't be too clever with wordplay.

"If the ear and the mind can take in what has been said, that is all that matters," he said.

Sure enough, he'll be putting this process to work in the near future. Sondheim says he has a new work on the horizon.

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