LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05: Writer/composer Stephen Sondheim arrives...

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05: Writer/composer Stephen Sondheim arrives to the special screening for DreamWorks Pictures' "Sweeney Todd" held at the Paramount Theater on December 5, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ltc Credit: Getty/

Stephen Sondheim, Superstar?

To anyone born before Johnny Depp was Sweeney Todd, the mass euphoria this spring around Sondheim's 80th birthday may be a bit disorienting.

In what wondrous parallel universe, exactly, are there nonstop galas and tributes and the naming of a Broadway theater for a musical-theater troublemaker who, for most of his astonishing career, was marginalized as an acquired taste who didn't write hummable hits or drop chandeliers?

How remarkable - also how deeply delightful - that the world has caught up with the self-challenging creator of unlikely musical masterworks with wildly improbable stories, scary-smart wit and grown-up emotions. The city has already had multistar concerts by the New York Philharmonic and, on the March 22 birthday, by the Roundabout Theatre, which turned its Henry Miller's Theatre into the Stephen Sondheim. City Center, which showcased a splendid semi-staged revival of his 1964 flop, "Anyone Can Whistle," at Encores! last weekend, is throwing another huge benefit April 26.

Meanwhile, a new, unconventional docu-musical, "Sondheim on Sondheim," opens Thursday at Studio 54, a James Lapine show that lured cabaret legend Barbara Cook back to Broadway in a cast that also includes Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. Lapine, who also collaborated with Sondheim on "Sunday in the Park With George," "Into the Woods" and "Passion," says the naming of the theater "came as a complete surprise" to his friend. "I have never seen him more naked - like a kid on Christmas morning who had just received the gift of his dreams. It was an amazing and touching moment," Lapine adds. "I can't imagine that he isn't a bit embarrassed by all the fuss at times . . . [but] his shows are his children, so to know that they have a long and healthy life gives him enormous pleasure."

Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones are luring all kinds of different crowds to "A Little Night Music," his sophisticated, waltz-driven 1973 adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night" about 19th century liaisons on a magical Swedish night. "West Side Story" - the 1957 groundbreaker for which the then-unknown wrote the dazzling words but not the music - has been running for more than a year. Elaine Stritch, who created the model for "The Ladies Who Lunch," is back at the Cafe Carlyle with her Sondheim revue through May 1.

At least as head-turning was the recent headline in London's Guardian newspaper, which asked, "Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of Musical Theatre?"

It may be safe to say that, despite the daunting output and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for "Sunday in the Park With George," Sondheim is probably more surprised than anyone by his huge new popularity. By the time "Sunday" opened, Sondheim, then 54, had written 13 shows, won four Tonys, and pushed the old stop-action-and-sing traditions toward the unified "concept" musical and progressive opera.

Still, he was relatively unknown outside theater circles. To this day, his shows seldom tour. His songs don't split off into 32-bar jingles (his only jukebox hit is still "Send in the Clowns"). For years, he pretty much lived off the profits from his least-typical show, the 1962 "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"Follies" took him six years to get produced and, as late as 1979, he was reduced to auditioning for backers for "Sweeney Todd." "Sunday" may have won the Pulitzer, but that original production lost a quarter of its $2.5 million.

I interviewed him then, after falling forever in love with "Sunday."

"Sure, it would be nice to have a smash," he said. "Who wouldn't want to hit the jackpot? But I'm still a pessimist. I'm always stunned that a show of mine gets on at all."

Until the successful revivals in recent years, Sondheim was accustomed to being praised for his dazzling lyrics and vision, but dismissed for unmelodic music and emotional chill. "Depressive pretty" is how his music was described by Jule Styne (who wrote the music for "Gypsy," lyrics by Sondheim). Leonard Bernstein expressed concern about Sondheim's emotional guardedness, a fear of appearing corny that inhibited self-expression.

"People mistake sentimentality for feeling," Sondheim told me in 1984. "I believe in sentiment, but not sentimentality. I also think people don't understand the difference between passion and sentimentality. Maybe it has to do with certain subject matters we've chosen. I don't understand it."

About those subjects. If we had to categorize Sondheim's shows on the basis of plot synopses, we might not know whether to laugh or weep. "Pacific Overtures" (1976) explores the 1853 opening of Japanese trade routes as seen through the eyes of the Japanese. "Sweeney"? A revenge-crazed London barber's victims become his landlady's meat pies. "Assassins" (1990)? A singing carnival of people who killed or tried to kill American presidents. "Passion" (1994)? A handsome 19th century soldier is obsessed with love for an ugly woman.

And "Sunday" - to me, his masterwork - is inspired by driven French artist Georges Seurat and the people depicted in his famous pointillist painting. Imagine, a work of art about the making of art.

One of the first columns I wrote when I joined Newsday in 1987 was a proposal for a Sondheim repertory company - a place where, on almost any night, we could ask, "What's on at the Sondheim?" After all, I argued, George Balanchine had the New York City Ballet. Gilbert and Sullivan had D'Oyly Carte and Bertolt Brecht had his Berliner Ensemble.

Who alive beside Sondheim has created a repertory that would justify such an ongoing showcase and benefit from the stability such permanence could bring?

I got my answer, and it was gracious. It was also swift and brutal - and sobering. Weeks after the column, Sondheim replied: "I'm flattered, not to say astonished, but I fear your scheme is simply not practical." He described most of his shows as "unpopular," adding, "Perhaps this will strike you merely as a defeatist attitude, but musicals are hard enough to mount - repertory virtually impossible."

At the emotional finale for last month's Philharmonic tribute, he quoted Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Teddy's daughter): "First you're young, then you're middle-aged, then you're wonderful." How wonderful that people understand he always was.


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