“Art isn’t easy/Even when you’re hot,” goes a lyric from Sunday in the Park With George.But what about when you’re 75, the greatest living composer of the American musical theater (even though you haven’t had a “hit” song in more than 30 years), a Broadway legend in an age when Broadway is ever more inhospitable to mavericks, and have arrived at that stage of your career when reverential tributes are easier to come by than the backing (or, perchance, the inspiration) for a new project? Such is the predicament of Stephen Sondheim, whose demi-sesquicentennial will be feted in a star-studded celebration Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Barbara Cook, among many others. Admittedly, things could be worse. Sondheim’s historical alter ego — the 19th-century neoimpressionist painter Georges Seurat — died at 31, barely five years after finishing his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Had Sondheim met a similar fate, we would have been deprived of most of his own great works: Company(1970), Follies(1971), Pacific Overtures(1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981) and Sunday in the Park With George(1984), the show inspired by Seurat’s painting as well as the most confessional piece in the Sondheim canon.
Less often noted is that Sondheim, an avowed movie buff who began his career as a television script writer and has served as guest director of the Telluride Film Festival, is among the most cinematic of theatrical artists. Three shows — A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd and Passion (1994) — are directly adapted from films, while many others are marked by essentially cinematic devices ingeniously reconfigured for the stage. Merrily We Roll Along, with its film editor’s sense of temporal pliability, told a story in reverse chronological order back when Christopher Nolan was still in grammar school. Companyuses “freeze frames” to suggest that its action is unfolding during a single, suspended moment. And the tongue-twisting rat-a-tat patter of songs like “Another Hundred People,” “Getting Married Today” and “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” sounds as though it had issued from the typewriters of Billy Wilder and Ben Hecht in their prime. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, Hollywood is not such an unlikely place for a Sondheim birthday bash after all.
Midway through Sunday, Seurat’s long-suffering mistress, Dot — having traded the brilliant artist’s self-absorbed mood swings for the open affection of a simpleton baker — wistfully observes: “There are Louis/And there are Georges.” And in those seven words, Sondheim so bracingly demarcates art from commerce, the intellectual from the populist, the agony of self-awareness from the bliss of ignorance, that you marvel at the many philosopher-poets who’ve expended countless more words in the service of far murkier maxims. It’s possibly the shortest autobiography ever written — albeit, as with so many of Sondheim’s most haunting verses, also a persistent paradox. For to be Stephen Sondheim — or one of his characters — is to long for unrequited love even as you recoil at the effort that is needed to sustain it, to grasp at an irretrievable past even as you pine for an impossible future, and to yearn, with every inch of your being, to be both Louis and George. Which may very well be the fundamental human condition.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S 75th: THE CONCERT| At the HOLLYWOOD BOWL, 2301 N. Highland Ave. | Friday, July 8 | (323) 850-2000