Magazine article The Sondheim Review

What Makes Sondheim Tick

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

What Makes Sondheim Tick

Article excerpt

What makes Sondheim tick

Cleveland theatre offers new take on Sondheim on Sondheim

Seeing Stephen Sondheim on a big screen - no, not his works: the man himself - is the closest thing most admirers will come to being in the presence of the master. It would be tempting to replace the words "the master" in that sentence with "God." But Sondheim already does that, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, in the second act of Sondheim on Sondheim, the revue longtime collaborator James Lapine conceived and directed on Broadway in 2010.

Great Lakes Theater and Playhouse Square in Cleveland shared the privilege of presenting the show's first production (May 6-July 8, 2012) post-New York City, with Victoria Bussert effectively staging the revue at the renovated Hanna Theatre (the site, incidentally, of the 1953 world premiere of what many perceive to be Rodgers and Hammerstein's weakest work, Me and Juliet). Bussert and company didn't offer a carbon copy of the original Sondheim on Sondheim. A new team of designers provided fresh costumes, simple platforms and the enormous suspended picture frame that brought the composer/lyricist from his New York digs onto the screen as raconteur, comic, professor and confessor.

The indisputable reason why Sondheim on Sondheim works is Sondheim. Without him, this would be a very nice assembly line of nearly three dozen selections from most of his creations. But the videos of him chatting about the making of his shows, his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, his sexuality and his unfeeling mother make the revue galaxies beyond the ordinary. These sequences are rare opportunities to gain a better understanding of what makes the man and the artist tick. (Team them with his two volumes of annotated lyrics, and they're the closest we're likely to get to a Sondheim autobiography.)

Given the humor and insights into human nature that pervade his lyrics, it's no revelation that Sondheim speaks with giddy delight and penetrating authority on the topics at hand. He is touching when he recalls Hammerstein. He's wistful and forgiving as he recounts the letter from his mother in which she states she regretted giving him birth (at this point, the audience gasped).

The lessons into the creative process Sondheim offers in the videos no doubt will be studied for generations. The fact that they never come across as pedantic or elusive is a testament to his practical nature and to an interviewer who evidently asked the right questions. …

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