If you need a mentor in musical theater, you can't beat Stephen Sondheim -- and not just because he's a Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner. "He's famous in the theater community for being generous with his time for other artists," says Ted Sperling, who presents "A Sondheim Evening" at East Hampton's John Drew Theater on Sunday, July 5.
Sondheim, 85, who himself was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, has said he loves "passing on what Oscar passed on to me." He mentored Adam Guettel, grandson of Hammerstein's musical partner, Richard Rodgers. Guettel won Tonys for best score and orchestration for "The Light in the Piazza," the latter award shared with Sperling, 53, musical director of that show as well as other Broadway hits, among them revivals of "South Pacific" (2008) and "Guys and Dolls" (2009), plus the original "Full Monty" in 2000. His only Broadway work with Sondheim was in arranging synthesizer music for "Sunday in the Park With George" in 1984. It was Sperling's big break after graduating from Yale, where Sondheim's "The Frogs" was first produced in 1974.
"I managed to wrangle a few moments with him in college when we were doing 'Side by Side by Sondheim' and later when we did 'Merrily We Roll Along.' We needed his permission to do it at Yale," Sperling recalls. "Just after that, I applied for a grant for 'Sunday in the Park' right out of college."
That led, ultimately, to his current gig as musical director for the revival of "The King and I," which earned Kelli O'Hara a Tony for best actress in a musical after six nominations.
SONDHEIM ITINERARY In Sunday's concert, Sperling will share anecdotes about Sondheim shows -- from the legendary ("West Side Story") to the obscure ("Road Show," formerly called "Bounce," yet to take its Broadway bow).
Besides selections from such revered and intelligent musicals as "Into the Woods," "Sweeney Todd" and "Assassins," Sperling says to expect selections less readily associated with Sondheim. "Dick Tracy," anyone? Sondheim wrote five songs for the 1990 Warren Beatty film inspired by the comic-strip cop. And Sondheim's first show, "Saturday Night" (1954), belatedly produced in 1997 on the strength of his reputation, will be represented.
AND ON VOICE . . . Clarke Thorell, who originated the role of Corny Collins in "Hairspray" after making his Broadway debut in "The Who's Tommy," will be joined on vocals by Tiffany Haas, who played Glinda, originated by Idina Menzel, in Broadway's "Wicked."
For detractors who consider Sondheim's melodies "unhummable," Sperling counters that his mentor's tunes "get under your skin and linger" for days, weeks or a lifetime. He calls Sondheim "the greatest living American composer." And as an English-language lyricist, he's "perhaps the single greatest of all time."
Still, Sondheim has competition this Fourth of July weekend. The Beach Boys sold out Friday night's concert at the Drew.
WHAT "A Sondheim Evening"
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday, July 5, Guild Hall's John Drew Theater, 158 Main St., East Hampton
TICKETS $40-$75; 631-324-4050, guildhall.org