By MARK EDEN HOROWITZ
The Music Division of the Library approached Stephen Sondheim about presenting a concert honoring him and his work in February 1995. On Monday evening, May 22, and in celebration of his 70th birthday in March, that concert finally came to pass.
The relationship that has developed between Mr. Sondheim and the Library has included his visits to view the division's collections and use them for research, the donation of his extensive and rare record collection, the promised donation of his own music and literary manuscripts as a bequest, and allowing us to spend a week doing videotaped interviews in his home, funded by a Krasnoff grant.
Mr. Sondheim is acknowledged as one of the most significant creative forces in the American musical theater of his generation. He first made his name on Broadway as the lyricist for West Side Story in 1957, followed two years later as the lyricist for Gypsy. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962 was his first Broadway score as both composer and lyricist. Mr. Sondheim is an artist who likes to challenge himself with each new work. His subsequent musicals have included Company, considered the first "plotless" musical; A Little Night Music, a sophisticated operetta with music all in triple meters (and containing the rare for Sondheim hit song "Send in the Clowns"); Pacific Overtures, a musical history of the Westernization of Japan; Sweeney Todd, a musical thriller that is virtually an opera; Merrily We Roll Along, which tells its story backward—and whose musical themes evolve backward as well; Sunday in the Park with George, an imagined musical biography of the painter Georges Seurat that attempts to find a musical equivalent to his pointillist technique; and, most recently, Passion, a work that plays out as one long rhapsody, never pausing for applause.
The concert that evolved—with Mr. Sondheim's significant input—was a potpourri made up of three sections: a condensed version of his rarely heard musical The Frogs; performances of 13 songs by other writers, selected from a list of 55 he titled "Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)"; and ending with "Songs I'm Glad I Wrote".
The performers and artistic staff for the concert were a veritable "Who's Who" from the current musical theater, including host Nathan Lane, Davis Gaines, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Debra Monk, conductor Paul Gemignani, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and director Kathleen Marshall. Ms. Mazzie, Ms. McDonald, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Tunick and Ms. Marshall were all nominated for Tony Awards a few weeks before the concert (Brian Stokes Mitchell ended up winning as "Best Actor in a Musical").
The evening began with a private ceremony in which Dr. Billington, Winston Tabb, associate librarian for Library Services, and Diane Kresh, director for Public Service Collections, presented Mr. Sondheim with his "Living Legend" medallion and certificate. Mr. Sondheim was then ushered into the Coolidge Auditorium, where the audience, some 500 strong, leapt to its feet with sustained applause. The stage was packed with 26 musicians and a chorus of 12, when the conductor, Mr. Gemignani, appeared, swiftly followed by Nathan Lane who began the introduction to The Frogs.
The Frogs was first performed in 1974 in the Yale swimming pool, under the direction of its author, the late Burt Shevelove. It is a very loose adaption of Aristophanes' The Frogs (405 B.C.), which follows Dionysus to Hades, where he must decide whether to return Euripides or Aeschylus to their former prominence as a living playwright. The Shevelove version substitutes Shaw and Shakespeare as the playwrights and reverses the outcome. For the Library's concert, Mr. Sondheim condensed and adapted Shevelove's script, Jonathan Tunick provided new orchestrations, and Sondheim allowed the inclusion of a cut song—"Evoe for the Dead" (which opens with the line "They do an awful lot of dancing, the dead"). Nathan Lane was Dionysus, and, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, sang the opening "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience."
Most of the music for The Frogs is choral, and the title song and the "Hymn to Dionysus" are particularly demanding works. The chorus for the concert was hand-picked and directed by Norman Scribner, founder of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. The chorus handled this difficult score with accuracy and brio.
A cast album has never been made of The Frogs, but as a result of the Library's concert a studio recording was made in New York on June 12 by Nonesuch and is scheduled to be released next year. The recording was conducted by Mr. Gemignani and included Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Davis Gaines reprising their performances; it also uses the new Tunick orchestrations.
To initiate the second portion of the concert—"Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)"—Nathan Lane coaxed Mr. Sondheim to the stage, where he briefly discussed some of the reasons he selected the songs he did. In some cases the reason was a line of lyric, in others, the songs' sense of surprise. Of the Brazilian folk song "Bambalele," it was the utter joy of the music. Of Irving Berlin's "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," it was to point up that Berlin is often underappreciated as a wit or humorist, but, according to Mr. Sondheim, he could write songs that were equal to anything of, say, Cole Porter. Mr. Sondheim was visibly moved when he discussed Porgy and Bess. His voice cracked as he described DuBose Heyward's lyrics for Porgy and Bess as the greatest set of theater lyrics ever written.
The performances of these songs were a revelation. The performers were all in top form, obviously enjoying themselves, and the audience was variously in stitches, in tears and in awe. Two highlights: guest artists Rich Affanato and Will Gartshore reprised their performance of the "Riddle Song" from last year's production at Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., of the 1994 musical Floyd Collins. Audra McDonald performed a searing rendition of "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess.
At Mr. Sondheim's request, the entire list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written" was printed in the program. But as a surprise to him, the Library contacted the living composers and lyricists from the list and all 17 of them provided blurbs to be included in the program. These included quotes from Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity), Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Kander and Ebb (Cabaret and Chicago) and Hugh Martin (the film "Meet Me in St. Louis," which includes the songs "The Boy Next Door," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the "Trolley Song").
Mr. Martin wrote, in part, "When I saw Anyone Can Whistle … I seemed to hear History whispering in my ear, "I'm getting ready to send in a new era of the American Musical Theater.' When I saw Company, I whispered back, "Don't bother, it's here.' By the time I saw Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, the whispers had turned to shouts of joy."
The evening ended with a set of five songs that are among Sondheim's favorites of his own work "A Little House for Mama" was a world premiere of a new song (and a new orchestration) for his next musical, Wise Guys. The song was performed by Nathan Lane, who is slated to star in the show on Broadway next year. The final song was the anthem-like "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George, sung by the entire company. After a huge ovation, the musical introduction to "Sunday" was played again, but the company, rather than reprising that song, broke into a surprising "Happy Birthday" and was quickly joined by the audience. Again, a standing ovation, and kind words in return from an obviously moved Mr. Sondheim.
Fortunately, the concert was recorded and much of it was broadcast by NPR in June. The concert was produced by the entire Music Division's concert office, especially Anne McLean.
As always, the concert was free and funded by various gifts. A specific gift was made to help support the concert by Norma Asnes, a member of the Library's Madison Council. The free tickets that were made available to the public were so desirable that they "sold" out in under two minutes.
Mr. Horowitz is a music specialist in the Music Division.