Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson)

Stephen Sondheim has told the story so often, it's nearly a legend. When he was 15, he showed Oscar Hammerstein a musical he had written with two fellow students. He was, he admits, naive enough to think it was worth putting on professionally.

Hammerstein, the famed lyricist of such classic musicals as The Sound of Music and Carousel, knew differently, and he spent several hours explaining why.

Far from disheartened, Sondheim was encouraged by his mentor's attention. "He treated me like an adult, and because there was no condescension, I was a sponge," he recalls. "I was disappointed that I wasn't going to be on Broadway at the age of 15, but I realized at the end of that afternoon how much I had to learn and how much learning had to be done by doing."

He never forgot the lesson. Six decades later, Sondheim has not only inherited Hammerstein's mantle, he is still learning and, most of all, striving to perfect an art form in which he has few rivals, and no critics tougher than himself.

Since making his Broadway debut in 1957 as the lyricist of West Side Story, Sondheim has written the lyrics, and more often also composed the scores, for musicals whose protagonists range from a homicidal barber to a pointillist painter and whose themes range from fear of commitment to obsessive love.

Hammerstein introduced substance to the Broadway musical; Sondheim enhanced that substance with a brave and edgy intelligence that permeates his music as well as his lyrics. Boldly refusing to repeat himself, he has embraced the challenging and new in a forum -- the mainstream Broadway musical -- that often prefers the hidebound and familiar.

The subject of a number of books -- most recently and extensively, Meryle Secrest's 1998 biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life -- and the focus of a magazine devoted solely to his works, The Sondheim Review, the composer has won a slew of Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and even an Oscar (for a song sung by Madonna in the movie, Dick Tracy).

Now, at 72, he is finishing the score for his next musical, Gold; he has just shepherded a new revival of his 1987 fairy-tale musical, Into the Woods, to Broadway; and his career is being honored at Washington's Kennedy Center, which is staging new productions of six of his 15 musicals.

The largest producing effort in its history, the Kennedy Center's four-month Sondheim Celebration begins in earnest Friday with Sweeney Todd, his 1979 musical about a bloodthirsty barber. An abridged children's adaptation of Into the Woods opened a two-weekend run last Friday. The celebration also includes concerts by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin; it wraps up in September with an imported Japanese production of Pacific Overtures, a 1976 show about the opening of Japan to Western trade.

Sondheim's musicals, says Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, "make you think, they teach, they talk about adult emotions. ... He's talking about important elements of human relationships, the same way Chekhov does or Shaw does."

A diehard Sondheim fan, Kaiser believes the $10 million festival -- conceived along the lines of a museum retrospective and structured like opera repertory -- will demonstrate "the depth of the work of this man and the genius of this man and how lucky we are to have him creating works in our time and still creating works."

He also believes the event will, in his words, explode certain myths about Sondheim's musicals: That they can be cold and unemotional; that they have a degree of sameness; that the music isn't memorable and that the shows aren't marketable. Kaiser disputes all of these, and on the last score has the figures to back him up.

When tickets went on sale in February, the first day's receipts totaled $639,000 -- a Kennedy Center box-office record. The geographical reach is equally impressive. Tickets have now been sold in all 50 states and 15 foreign countries.

"It's historical. Nothing like this has ever been done on this scale," says Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is playing the title role in Sweeney Todd. "It's the closest thing we have to a national theater. It's here in the capital, and it's probably the greatest musical theater composer/lyricist that the world knows."

Uncommon subject matter

On a sunny morning in early April, the cast of Sweeney Todd assembles in a Kennedy Center rehearsal hall for the first time. Several things distinguish this from the start of most rehearsals. For one, there's a table with a linen cloth, a silver coffee urn, trays of pastries, pitchers of juice and a tuxedoed waitress and waiter. For another, this is the Kennedy Center's first major theatrical producing effort in more than a dozen years. And then, of course, there's Stephen Sondheim.

Dressed in khakis, a brown crew-neck sweater and gray knit shirt, he stands to one side of the room as if hoping to go unnoticed. He's carrying one of the same goody bags the actors have been given. Inside is a gray T-shirt that reads: "Camp Sondheim, Kennedy Center 2002"; if he put his on, the color would almost match his grizzled hair and beard.

After the cast settles into folding chairs, Kaiser says a few words of welcome. When he introduces Sondheim, the actors respond with warm applause, and the composer's eyes sparkle. He cups his hands around his mouth and quietly says, "thank you," but he remains on the sidelines.

If there's a thread connecting Sondheim's diverse musicals, it's their uncommon subject matter and complex emotions. Sweeney Todd is a macabre melodrama about a Victorian barber who seeks to avenge the wrongs done to himself, his wife and daughter. But Sweeney's plans go blood-curdlingly overboard when he meets up with a cook whose meat pies are in need of tastier ingredients. Traditionally, Broadway songwriters have prettied things up in their songs; Sondheim's songs exult in the messy intricacies of human interaction.