“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.

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 editor’s 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, 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.

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