News & Politics

Stephen Sondheim: A Life in Washington Theater

Stephen Sondheim is a legend of Broadway. But the composer/lyricist has long enjoyed a special rapport with Washington audiences.

Photograph by Walter McBride

For decades, Stephen Sondheim has been celebrated as the preeminent composer and lyricist of the musical theater. Now his name is in lights as never before. Last September, a Broadway theater was rechristened in his honor, the marquee a brightly lit rendering of Sondheim’s own signature. It’s the ultimate accolade from the New York stage to one of its own.

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

Eric Schaeffer of Arlington’s Signature Theatre worked with the composer for the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration in 2002. Photograph by Carol Pratt

Sondheim has said that of all his works, Sunday in the Park With George is “closest to my heart.” The show is about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, but more broadly it’s a celebration of art, creativity, and remaining true to one’s purpose. The 1984 musical also has special significance for Eric Schaeffer.

In 1989, Schaeffer, who’d been designing sets and directing local productions, was on the board of the Arlington Players, an amateur theater group that performed in a community center. He was able to spread enough Sondheim zeal not only to stage an Arlington Players production of Sunday in the Park, which had closed on Broadway in 1985, but also to buy the original sets and rent the original costumes. The $25,000 investment was steep for a community theater, but the gamble paid off. Northern Virginia audiences were so enthusiastic that the Schaeffer-directed production led to the founding of Signature Theatre.

Signature’s first Sondheim production was Sweeney Todd in 1991, and the company has presented at least one Sondheim offering every year since, except for 2002, the year of the Kennedy Center’s celebration. This year’s Side by Side by Sondheim is Signature’s 21st.

Sondheim has bequeathed his manuscripts—the record of the creative process behind all but his earliest works—to the Library of Congress. He has donated to the library his meticulously cataloged collection of some 13,000 LPs. To help seal the deal, Mark Eden Horowitz, senior music specialist at the library and a Sondheim authority, invited the composer to the library and mounted a special display for him, assembling such items as Oscar Hammerstein II manuscripts, Bernstein’s West Side Story score, and George Gershwin’s original Porgy and Bess.

Sondheim’s archive nearly went up in smoke in 1995 when an electrical fire in his Manhattan townhouse destroyed much that was precious to him, including photographs, mementos, and his dog. Some of the manuscripts were scorched, but all survived. In the aftermath of the fire, the manuscripts were duplicated. Horowitz later spent three days interviewing the composer in his renovated home; videotapes of those interviews are in the library’s collection, and Horowitz has compiled transcripts in his book, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions.

Sondheim received a special tribute award from the Helen Hayes Awards organization in 1993, and the same year he was picked for one of the Kennedy Center Honors.

See Also:

Theater Review: Sondheim’s “Follies”

Theater Review: “Side by Side By Sondheim”

The National Endowment for the Arts tapped Sondheim for its National Medal of Arts Award in 1992—but he turned it down. At the time, the NEA was embroiled in controversy because of its denial of federal grants for exhibits with content that some deemed obscene. Sondheim excoriated the NEA as “a conduit, and a symbol, of censorship and repression.” By 1996, the dust had settled, and the NEA proffered the award again. This time he accepted.

In recent years, awards have been coming not only to Sondheim but also in his name. Signature Theatre established the Stephen Sondheim Award in 2009—awarded first to him, then to Angela Lansbury, and this year to Bernadette Peters.

Sondheim has often referred to the “sacred profession,” not of composing but of teaching. He talks about those who nurtured his career, starting with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. In turn, he has mentored composers such as Jonathan Larson (Rent) and Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza). Last year, the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards were established, and this year—on Sondheim’s birthday, March 22—the first recipients were announced.

When Signature Theatre moved to Arlington’s Shirlington Village in 2007, it wanted to name a part of its new performance complex after the composer. The choice was easy, says Schaeffer: a rehearsal room, “because that’s where the teaching goes on.”

This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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