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Broadway hero

Stephen Sondheim turns 80 tomorrow and New York has been holding concerts and galas that will rumble on for months.
Flanked by stars of the musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim acknowledges applause during the New York Philharmonic's concert in his honour on March 15.
Flanked by stars of the musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim acknowledges applause during the New York Philharmonic's concert in his honour on March 15.

Although the big day is not until tomorrow (March 22), New York is already singing a great big "happy birthday" to Stephen Sondheim on the occasion of his 80th - mostly in his own words. On Broadway, his 1973 waltz musical A Little Night Music opened in December in a well-received revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. His first Broadway show - West Side Story, for which he was hired in his mid-20s to write the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's now-classic score - has been running for a year in a revival that had recouped its investment by September. The West Side Story cast album has just won a Grammy Award, while the Night Music CD was recorded in January for release this spring.

On Friday, Sondheim on Sondheim, a new revue incorporating video of the composer discussing his work, opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, directed by his frequent collaborator James Lapine and starring the Broadway and cabaret legend Barbara Cook. Elsewhere around town, Sondheim celebrations are taking place everywhere from concert halls to cafes. Star-studded galas are scheduled at the Roundabout and the music-and-dance venue City Center, while the New York Philharmonic's spring gala on Monday and Tuesday last week, entitled Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, included an orchestral suite for the film Reds that had never before been performed in concert.

Elaine Stritch, who introduced his song The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 production of Company, spent January doing an all-Sondheim cabaret show at the Café Carlyle, which closed on her own 85th birthday but returns for several performances this spring. The Manhattan School of Music presented a one-night concert, Beautiful Girls, a look at women in Sondheim. In April, City Center will present his rarely performed Anyone Can Whistle - a 1964 Broadway flop but a cult favourite ever since - as part of its Encores! series of semi-staged musicals in concert. Carnegie Hall may have the last word, with a tribute by the New York Pops in November.

In case you are less obsessed with American musical theatre than certain New Yorkers, Sondheim has written the music and lyrics for more than a dozen Broadway shows, as well as two that played off Broadway, and lyrics alone for three more (to scores by Bernstein, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers). Along the way, he has won six Tony Awards for Best Score; the Pulitzer Prize, America's highest literary honour, for Sunday in the Park With George; and an Oscar for Best Original Song, Sooner or Later from Dick Tracy, sung on screen by Madonna. The Sondheim Review, a magazine devoted to his work, is published quarterly.

Sondheim links Broadway's past, the glory days of songwriting teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, to its future. (He also happens to share his birthday with, of all people, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the British composer and producer who did so much to change the Broadway landscape and economics in the 1980s with such musicals as The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.) Over more than five decades, Sondheim has evolved from a promising young man of the theatre to its undisputed master. "I've reached an age where I'm two generations past when I was considered avant-garde," he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. "I went right from avant-garde to being old hat in five minutes."

Or, as he put it nearly 40 years ago, in the guise of the ageing actress in Follies who sings I'm Still Here: First you're another sloe-eyed vamp

Then someone's mother, then you're camp

Then you career from career to career - Sondheim's music and lyrics are so of a piece, and so integral to their shows, that casual theatregoers sometimes forget he has created only the music and lyrics, not the story nor the characters nor the dialogue between songs.

Yet his work is often considered difficult. "There's not a tune you can hum/There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum," a Broadway producer complains to a team of aspiring songwriters in his 1981 Merrily We Roll Along - a criticism lobbed at Sondheim repeatedly throughout his career. Some critics maintain that he is a brilliant lyricist but cannot write melody; others that his lyrics are too cerebral, even cold. He once joked about putting out an album titled Stephen Sondheim's Greatest Hit - a reference to the probability that Send In the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, is the only song of his that most people would recognise.

Two of his shows, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily, each lasted less than two weeks on Broadway, although later productions have shown the fault to lie in their books and not in his scores. Still, many of the tributes will focus on one question: What makes Sondheim great? First, there is the scope and seriousness of subject matter his shows and songs have covered: the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Gypsy; the graceful romantic comedy of A Little Night Music; the operatic tale of revenge and cannibalism that is Sweeney Todd; the tensions between art and life in Sunday; the regrets of middle age in Follies and Merrily.

When Assassins, a musical about the killers (and wannabes) of American presidents, made its debut off Broadway in 1991 in the early days of the first Gulf War, stunned audiences left the theatre with jaws dropped, unsure if they had just seen a masterpiece or a horror show, but leaning toward the latter. By the time Assassins reached Broadway 17 years later, history and the culture had caught up with its indictment of American values.

Trevor Nunn, the British director of the current Night Music revival, summed up Sondheim's place on the musical-theatre continuum in the context of another current Broadway show: Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal, about the struggles of a family whose mother suffers from bipolar disorder. "When I first went to see Next to Normal, I thought it was a stunning achievement that probably would not have been attempted if Sondheim had not shifted the frontier about what could be achieved by musical theatre," Nunn told The New York Times. "And when we revive Sondheim, if done well, the frontiers can move imaginatively again."

Sondheim is, first and foremost, a storyteller. In her 2001-02 solo show, At Liberty, Elaine Stritch described the lacerating Ladies Who Lunch as "Stephen Sondheim's three-act play". His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, taught him to structure every song as if it were a one-act play. "If the character is moving from point A to point B, it's a playlet in itself, isn't it?" he said in a January interview with the American Theatre Wing. "It's not so much that they are actually plays, but that they have forward dramatic motion."

Even when writing the occasional song outside the context of a show, he added, "I had to invent a little play for myself- If you asked me to write a song right now, I'd have to invent a situation, and then write it as if it were part of a play. I can only think theatrically and dramatically. It's not even the way I was trained; it's what I was attracted to in the first place. I wasn't attracted to songwriting, I was attracted to musicals."

Outside musical theatre, he has written non-musical scripts: for television (Topper, an early sitcom, "to pay the bills"), for film (The Last of Sheila, with Anthony Perkins) and for the stage (the short-lived Getting Away With Murder with his Company collaborator George Fürth). Then there are, in his words from Liaisons in Night Music, his style, his skill, his forethought. His style in any given show "is the style of the piece", he said in the Theatre Wing interview, adding: "I've written virtually no two shows alike and no two scores alike."

But keen intelligence, dry wit and sophisticated wielding of words run through all his work. Flashes are evident as early as Saturday Night, a rather sweet show about young Brooklynites trying to crash high society in 1929, composed in the mid-1950s but unproduced in New York until 2000. This very sophistication may, in fact, be what some people find off-putting or difficult. Finally, Sondheim is meticulous about every aspect of any project in which he is involved. He continues to revisit lyrics for new productions of old shows. In the recording studio, he pays close attention to detail, as witnessed during a recording session for the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies, when he hovered over the soundboard and, through a microphone, gave directions to the actors in the booth. During a preview of the Night Music revival, he reportedly found the staging too dark, in more ways than one, and went backstage to have the lighting adjusted.

In the weeks leading up his birthday, he is predictably focused on rehearsals for Sondheim on Sondheim, which began in mid-February. He is also nearing completion of a long-awaited project, a two-volume compilation of his lyrics, to be published in October by Knopf: Finishing the Hat, named after a song that is central to Sunday in the Park With George, with a subtitle, Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, that seems to poke fun at his reputation for prickliness.

How will his lyrics work as words on paper? Perhaps much as they do in revues. "They shouldn't work," he said in the Theatre Wing interview, "since they're so embedded in the context for which they're written - in the plots of the plays, of the characters of the plays ... But to balance that, they offer great opportunities for performers to act because the songs are written for actors." Five years ago, when Sondheim turned 75, actors and other theatrically minded New Yorkers showed their appreciation at Wall to Wall Sondheim, a 12-hour marathon that was the year's instalment in Symphony Space's annual series devoted to a single composer. Throughout the day, the queue of those hoping for seats snaked around the corner and wound itself into three or four rows.

One of the day's enduring images came near midnight, when a sheet cake covered with candles was rolled on to the stage and Sondheim was brought out to hear a cavalcade of stars sing him Happy Birthday, accompanied by an audience of 750 and a full orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani, the dean of Broadway musical directors. When Gemignani said: "If it had not been for Steve Sondheim, I wouldn't have a career," he might have been speaking for any number of those stars on stage. This year's tributes may be more diffuse, but they promise to be no less heartfelt.

Updated: March 21, 2010 04:00 AM

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