Hes Still Here
Art isnt easy/Even when youre hot, goes a lyric from Sunday in the Park With George. But what about when youre 75, the greatest living composer of the American musical theater (even though you havent 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. Sondheims 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 Seurats painting as well as the most confessional piece in the Sondheim canon.
Over the past five decades, no one has done more to expand no, to shatter and remold our definition of what a musical might be, each new work bringing with it startling experiments in form and content, lyric and melody and, as is so often the case with revolutionary gestures, a certain reticence on behalf of contemporaries, critics and the public at large. (The original production of Merrily rolled along for a mere 16 performances. Assassins (1990) had to wait 14 years before receiving a Broadway berth that lasted all of three months.) But Sondheim has endured, and will continue to do so long after such vacuous causes célèbres as Phantom of the Opera, The Producers and any show featuring protagonists of species feline have been consigned to the historical dustbin. All of which, if you have any interest in Sondheim (and why else would you be reading this?), you probably already know.
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 editors sense of temporal pliability, told a story in reverse chronological order back when Christopher Nolan was still in grammar school. Company uses 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 , Seurats long-suffering mistress, Dot having traded the brilliant artists 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 whove expended countless more words in the service of far murkier maxims. Its possibly the shortest autobiography ever written albeit, as with so many of Sondheims 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 SONDHEIMS 75th: THE CONCERT | At the HOLLYWOOD BOWL, 2301 N. Highland Ave. | Friday, July 8 | (323) 850-2000
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