Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2000
Stephen Sondheim. His very name is synonymous with musical theater. Singlehandedly, he changed the face of the American musical. He took the form from the light, upbeat, tuneful diversions of his mentor (lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II) to a dark, dissonant, often cynical, national self-examination. The highs and lows of the ground-breaking career of the brilliant composer/librettist will be highlighted in a Sondheim Symposium (May 13) and 30th anniversary performance of “Company” (May 5-14), courtesy of the Musical Theatre program at San Diego State University.
The timing is perfect. This is the celebrational year of Sondheim’s 70th birthday, and the local festivities are part of the “Masters of the Living Arts” series sponsored by SDSU’s College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, which is co-producing the Sondheim events.
Sondheim’s earliest efforts are perhaps his most famous. As a very young man, he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story”(1957), “Gypsy” (1959) and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962; he also wrote the score). But then, he left the old school behind, and his tonally dramatic departures are still felt in every modern American musical. No light froth for him. Sondheim wrote musicals about a mass murderer (“Sweeney Todd”), presidential killers (“Assassins”), cultural imperialism (“Pacific Overtures”), the creation of art (“Sunday in the Park with George”), the menace of middle age (“Follies”) and the Freudian underbelly of fairy tales (“Into the Woods”).
In 1970, the brilliant composer-lyricist began a long-time collaboration with director Harold Prince, an alliance that became the most influential and daring team of the decade. Their first joint effort was “Company” (with book by George Furth), a show that startled the theater world and reshaped the American musical, by avoiding the conventional dramatic structure of a linear plotline. Instead, there were five separate stories, representing various aspects of contemporary relationships, tied together by a 35 year-old bachelor (Bobby) who influences and is influenced by his “good and crazy” married friends.
While the couples (in typical Sondheim style) are less than idyllically happy, the general philosophy, summed up in Bobby’s closing solo, “Being Alive,” is that it’s better to be married than single. Of course, there is the subtle little undertone of Robert’s possible bisexuality, and the subliminal suggestion that he may have had a relationship with one of his male friends, but that’s another story entirely.
“Company” was a bold example of the “concept musical,” in which the style of telling is as important as what is being told, with songs used as commentary on the situations and characters. The hard-edged, New York urban environment was reflected in Sondheim’s powerfully relentless score, which won him a Tony Award for Best Musical.
“‘Company was in every way a ground-breaker,” says Dr. Rick Simas, who heads up the Sondheim Symposium. “It was so innovative. It’s not about a plot, but about a theme. The fear of intimacy, the inability to commit. It’s a metaphor for The City itself.”
“Company” director Paula Kalustian is working with an updated libretto that has been adjusted for modern sensibilities.
“Amazingly,” she says, “very little had to be altered. The script and score were contemporary in 1970, and are still very relevant today. I’ve added some e-mail
messages to connect the scenes and replace some of the exposition. I’m also using cellphones as a means of communication and setting a scene in a fitness club. I’m trying to keep the style as contemporary as possible.”
In the symposium, Simas delves into “Company,” among other things. “There are actually four different endings of ‘Company,'” he explains. “We’re going to show all the different endings and how the musical evolved. At the same time, we’ll explore Sondheim’s life and career, his lesser-known musicals, and intersperse all that with songs, video clips and some surprise guests. All through the planning, Sondheim’s been great, very approachable, very generous. We’ve corresponded, he’s mailed me music and photos. We invited him to attend, but he doesn’t travel much. And he’s a very busy man.”
The prolific musical-maker is currently retooling his latest creation, “Wise Guys,” which had a somewhat less than thrilling workshop production Off Broadway earlier this year. And he’s brought in his old (estranged) buddy, Hal Prince, to take up the directorial reins. Frequently shunning the spotlight, Sondheim has said that he “doesn’t want to spend the next six months being iconized,” but it’s likely to happen anyway, with nationwide homage planned in venues as diverse as the New York Philharmonic, the Museum of Television and Radio and the Library of Congress.
“Sondheim is the last of his breed, the last of that great musical theater generation,” says Simas. “All his work is interesting, fascinating, amazing. But it’s not always engaging. Sometimes it can leave you cold, emotionally uninvolved. But no one can deny his influence on musical theater.”
See for yourself, at the Sondheim Symposium. The man is, if nothing else, unique, inspired, inventive, innovative… and he makes for darn good “Company.”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.