Monday, February 2, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Sondheim appearance Wednesday is a seasonal high point

Stephen Sondheim.

By Hap Erstein

Musical theater is a highly collaborative art. Still, if you had to single out the one person who has been its dominant innovator during the past 50 years, it would surely be composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Director Harold Prince did some of his best, though not most lucrative, work with Sondheim, and such book writers as George Furth, James Lapine and John Weidman contributed scripts that spurred on Sondheim’s creative juices. But as soon as he got involved, they became “Sondheim shows.”

And what curious subject matter has interested him over the years. From a genre content to spin out variations on boy-meets-girl love stories with “June/moon/spoon” lyrics, Sondheim pushed the boundaries with musicals about one man’s murderous impulse for revenge (Sweeney Todd), the westernization of Japan (Pacific Overtures), the artist’s quest to create, despite prevailing popular tastes (Sunday in the Park With George) and the dark thoughts behind those who attempted to assassinate the president of the United States (Assassins). Even when he deigns to write about love, it is the obsessive, misguided love of Passion.

No wonder a new generation of composers hangs on every word uttered by the 78-year-old Sondheim. As do his fans and those simply interested in the musings of a first-rate mind. That brings us to his appearance at the Kravis Center this Wednesday evening for what is billed as A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim, moderated by his music administrator Sean Flahaven, with “musical illustrations” by singer Kate Baldwin. For those of us who lean in to savor his every word -- like those old commercials for stockbroker E.F. Hutton -- it is one of the prime events of the season.

Sondheim rarely submits to such public appearances because, as Flahaven puts it, “he is a private person and fairly shy. While he’s flattered by the attention, he’s also a little surprised by it.”

For the most part, Sondheim would rather his work speak for him. It brings to mind his song Putting It Together from Sunday in the Park, about a modern descendant of Georges Seurat tolerating a roomful of potential donors. “If you want your work to reach fruition/ What you need’s a link with your tradition/ Plus a little formal recognition/ So that you can go on exhibit -- (Correcting himself) -- So that your work can go on exhibition.”

Flahaven, a former editor of The Sondheim Review, a magazine that covers productions of its namesake’s shows in minute detail, does not believe Sondheim has a need to be understood better.

“I don’t think he feels he’s been unappreciated, of that people don’t get what he’s doing. We do these conversations as a way for people to find out more about his creative process and his professional experiences.”

Flahaven sees his role in the evening as asking the kind of questions that will be of interest to the obsessive Sondheim fans as well as the casual musical theatergoers.

As he puts it, “I want to acknowledge that there will be people there who are generally familiar with his work, but have not memorized the cast albums, seen every revival and all that. I pitch it at sort of an intelligent and interested, but not fanatical, audience.”

Expect to hear a discussion of Sondheim’s most recent musical, Road Show, about the Mizner brothers, who were instrumental in the development of Palm Beach and Boca Raton. “I plan to talk about Addison Mizner and the homes in Palm Beach,” says Flahaven. “Kate is going to sing ‘Isn’t He Something?’ from Road Show, which most people outside of New York haven’t heard.”

Personally, I wonder most why Sondheim has agreed to this personal appearance when he could be home writing another show. Is it simply work avoidance?

“Well, I think Steve would acknowledge that he is a procrastinator,” notes Flahaven. “The fact that Road Show took so long to get to its final form,” nearly 15 years in the making and revising, with several name changes, directors, casts and tone shifts, “is partly a result of that.”

Flahaven intends to cover Sondheim’s entire professional career, from his initial, long unproduced Saturday Night through to Road Show, which reached New York at the Public Theatre in late 2008. As to what Baldwin will sing, he says, “There will be standards that everybody knows and also a couple of interesting other choices. One of my favorites of his is ‘What Can You Lose?’ that he wrote for Dick Tracy and ‘Not a Day Goes By’ from Merrily We Roll Along.”

Making sure that Sondheim is comfortable in this public forum is Flahaven’s top priority, he concedes. After that, “what I like to do is have the generally interested fans find out more about him that they didn’t know and even have the fanatics maybe hear some things that they didn’t know before.

“To come away with an appreciation for who he is as a creator, as well as an iconic figure.”

A CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN SONDHEIM, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Wed., Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $20-$65, with premium seats, $110. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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