But beyond New York City, where Sondheim was born and has lived most of his life, no place has greater claim on him than Washington. He has been a vibrant presence in our theater world for half a century, developing a number of his shows here and coming back often to see his work performed and to speak and advocate for the theater. The area has returned his affections. “Audiences here are really smart,” says Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre. “They love to be challenged, to stretch their imagination. Sondheim does that, which is why his work is so appreciated here.”
This is a good season to be a Sondheim enthusiast, with the Kennedy Center’s lavish revival of Follies, starring Bernadette Peters, overlapping with Signature’s Side by Side by Sondheim. In July, the Wolf Trap Opera Company presents Sweeney Todd.
Early in his career, Sondheim’s breakthrough moment came before a DC audience. He was the lyricist for West Side Story, with Leonard Bernstein composing. That reimagining of Romeo and Juliet amid New York street gangs premiered in 1957—not in New York but in tryouts at the National Theatre. The show was a hit. It brought Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter to tears, reported Meryle Secrest, Washington-based biographer of both Sondheim and Bernstein.
In 1962, Sondheim was back at the National with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, this time as both composer and lyricist. The reception was very different. Washington Post theater critic Richard L. Coe dismissed the show as “amateur night.” At one matinee performance, Sondheim later recalled, it almost appeared that there were fewer people in the audience than onstage: “I said to Hal Prince [the show’s producer], let’s invite them back to the hotel afterwards for a drink.”
In tryouts and previews, Sondheim has said, the audience members are “the final collaborators,” and in this case they were telling Sondheim and his colleagues that there was something seriously wrong with their Roman farce. So the creators brought in a “play doctor.” Director and choreographer Jerome Robbins came to Washington and said that what ailed the show was a misleading opening number, which was giving audiences the wrong idea of what was to come. Sondheim went back to his room in the Jefferson hotel and over a weekend wrote the signature opener, “Comedy Tonight.” Forum went on to play for more than two years on Broadway.
Sondheim has returned to Washington to work on other productions. Pacific Overtures had its tryout at the Kennedy Center Opera House in 1975. And a revised Merrily We Roll Along—which had lasted only 16 performances on Broadway in 1981—opened at Arena Stage in 1990.
The composer developed Bounce at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in 2003. The musical, renamed Road Show in subsequent revisions, had been commissioned by the Kennedy Center eight years earlier. Sondheim, now age 81, has been on hand to advise the current production of Follies.
Signature’s Schaeffer is directing that show. It’s not the first time he has joined forces with Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser to bring Sondheim to Washington stages.
Kaiser arrived at the Kennedy Center in 2001 with an ambitious idea: to mount a four-month Sondheim Celebration. He consulted with Schaeffer, and over dinner at Sondheim’s home, they won the composer/lyricist’s approval. The following year, six productions of Sondheim’s shows took turns in the Eisenhower Theater, rotating three at a time. Elsewhere in the complex were solo concerts, discussions, a performance of Into the Woods by DC public-school students, and an onstage interview between Sondheim and Frank Rich, then of the New York Times. Schaeffer served as artistic director for the $10-million enterprise. Cast and crew that summer wore T-shirts that read CAMP SONDHEIM 2002.
The challenge was to cast, stage, and rehearse six shows in short order and, throughout the event, to rotate three full sets on the Eisenhower stage. Kaiser thought it could be done because he came from the world of opera, where multiple productions are common.
The Sondheim Celebration “put Washington on the map as a place to visit for theater,” says Linda Levy Grossman, president of the Helen Hayes Awards, which honors area productions. Audience members, totaling 98,000, came from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries. On weekends, when it was possible to see three shows in three days, half the tickets were sold to people with New York City–area Zip codes.
Prior to the Sondheim festival, it had been more than a decade since the Kennedy Center had mounted an original theatrical production. Since then, Kaiser points out, there has been one almost every year. Schaeffer says the celebration “kick-started a second wave of Sondheim,” with more revivals of his work on Broadway and worldwide.
Next: Sondheim as educator