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Thursday, March 13, 2008


Last week I experienced what was easily the best day of my life as a fan of musical theater. I spent 90 minutes in an intimate room with Stephen Sondheim (!!!) as he spoke to aspiring composers, lyricists and writers about working in the theater and then again that evening at a UCLA Arts & Lectures event in Royce Hall. It was an amazing day!

The first event was just spectacular! I was a stone's throw away from Sondheim (!!!) and in complete awe of the theater legend who was within spitting distance of me. Listening to him talk about the process of writing a show and his stories of working with his collaborators was priceless. It was amazing to be in a room with other theater people who admired him as much (or more?) than I did and we all hung onto every word he spoke. It isn't very often that one gets this kind of experience and I relished every moment of it.

Later that evening, Sondheim was scheduled to appear in conversation in front of an audience with former NY Times theater critic Frank Rich at UCLA's Royce Hall entitled, "A Little Night Conversation" (a play on words as the title of one of his musicals is A Little Night Music). I tried desperately to get tickets for the event when I heard about it a few months ago but sadly it was already sold out. Upon returning from my "afternoon with Sondheim" I tried once again to order tickets knowing that it was an impossible get but somehow, I lucked out as a few limited seats were made available. My entire office looked skeptically at me as I literally jumped up and down with glee for a good five minutes. Again that night, I sat in awe hearing both men tell stories of working (and reviewing) Broadway's finest. I sat there that evening in complete bliss to once again be in a room with Sondheim, a man whose work really affected my love for musicals.

Sondheim is (as many people have said over the years) the one who writes "intelligent" musical theater. Could it be his subject matter which is often so complex and multi-layered like Assassins (about the assassins of various presidents throughout the years), Pacific Overtures (the history of Japan including its westernization) or Passion a dark depiction of love and obsession. Or maybe its the music and carefully thought out lyrics. Yet what is odd (for me) is that in music, I love nothing more than a beautifully composed melodic song in the very traditional sense. I love music that I can sing to and Sondheim's music...well, it aint really that. Generally speaking his songs only become "singable" when you've listened to them ad nauseum like I tend to. This led me to remember back to my first exposure of his work and what made me a fan.

I've long since been a fan of musicals as anyone who reads this or has ever met me would know. While Andrew Lloyd Webber's work represented my musical theater resurgence, it was Sondheim's work that sustained me. It was because I heard Davis Gaines (who was playing The Phantom during The Phantom of the Opera's open-ended L.A. run in the 90s) sing something from A Little Night Music (and I loved it) that caused me to go explore its score. I remember thinking that it was unlike anything I had heard before but its story was so layered that in order to attempt to understand it, I had to sit down and devote some time to truly listen to it. I couldn't get enough of the music, the voices, attempting to understand the songs and putting it all together. Then one day, while watching the news program 20/20, I heard Barbara Walters mention something about Sondheim and his new show (at that time) Passion which was opening at (what was then) the Plymouth Theater on Broadway. I remember hearing the clips of music during that news piece and was transfixed by what I heard. Here is what I remembered: Sondheim talked about his strained and less than loving relationship with his mother, Passion (of course) and the dark quality of the show and the many versions of love (both healthy and unhealthy) and that interestingly enough was enough to lead me down the path of my own of "obsession" with his work.

I wanted to understand Sondheim's work and took it so far that my undergrad senior independent studies project was based on three of Sondheim's musicals: Company, A Little Night Music and of course Passion. My professor's expertise was in Greek Tragedies, but he told me my project taught him so much about Sondheim and musical theater and that I actually taught him something or two. It was an enlightening experience for us both that just made me yearn for more. Though I have listened to it continuously on and off since 1994, Passion will always be my quintessential Sondheim show because it was the hook that kept me interested all of these years.

Passion though was not a big hit. Though it won three Tony Awards (best musical, best book and best original score) in 1994, the show played only 280 performances when it closed (January 7, 1995). Passion had the unfortunate distinction of being the shortest running musical ever to win a Tony for best musical.

Passion unfortunately, was not the only "lesser successful" show in Sondheim's repertoire. When they debuted, many of Sondheim's shows were not instant hits. Although nowadays, his shows seem to be revived in some form or another either from Broadway to the Big Screen (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Assassins, The Frogs, Passion, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park With George and of course Sweeney Todd). Why the allure now? Maybe theater goers are finally looking beyond the blockbuster style musical and are looking for more meaning when they sit for two or so hours in a darkened theater. I certainly hope so...Sondheim is a great talent whose work should be experienced by anyone who loves music, complex lyrics and a thought provoking evening of theater. To be in his presence was truly an honor and even more special, was being able to sing an early happy birthday to him in a room with 1800 other people. For a musical theater geek, that entire day was pure...happiness.


:: jozjozjoz :: said...



So jealous!!!

I *heart* him & his work so much!!!

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