Who Is Sondheim?

America's most important theater composer is busting out all over

Mar 2, 2005 at 4:00 am
Do you know who Stephen Sondheim is? To devotees of musical theater, the question is absurd. Sondheim, who turns 75 later this month, is the American theater's most important and influential living composer-lyricist. Yet during the intermissions of two current local productions of Sondheim musicals, the same query could be heard: "Who is Sondheim?"

This week theatergoers have a rare opportunity to find out -- twice. Rare, because despite Sondheim's superstar status, many musical theater operations -- the Muny and Stages St. Louis, for instance -- are scared to death of him. His shows (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, among others) aren't proven moneymakers. God forbid that the Muny or Stages should produce a musical that allows its audience to think when there is Hello, Dolly! or Mame to be revived. So out here in the hinterlands, it's left to colleges and community theaters to pick up the slack.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Sondheim's masterwork. Based on the popular British legend about a vengeful barber whose victims get ground up into meat pies, the "musical thriller," as Sondheim subtitled it, abounds in soaring melodies. When Sweeney debuted on Broadway 26 years ago this week, audiences didn't quite know what to make of a musical about cannibalization; since then it has entered the canon of opera companies.

That 1979 Broadway production was big, big, big. Of necessity, Curtain Call Repertory Theatre, which operates in a corner of the St. Louis Carousel House in Faust Park, has to mount a version that is small, small, small. This is not in itself a bad thing. One senses that Sondheim might have preferred something smaller than the leviathan production director Hal Prince imposed on the material. But the ideal would be intimate and flexible. It's a challenge when a twelve-person ensemble has to enter and exit through the same small opening, as they do here. Another limitation is the lack of enough lighting instruments to create a really creepy mood.

In the title role, Dennis Shelton sings well enough, but he seems reluctant to make Sweeney a truly harrowing and driven character. So the production works best in its lighter moments. As Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst pies in London (till she links up with Sweeney), Lynda Waters finds the role's comic vulgarity. In addition to the touches of humor, the other plus here is Sondheim's thrilling music, which reverberates off the walls and ceiling. In such a small space, a viewer can close his eyes and succumb to stereophonic melody.

In "A Little Priest," the delightfully grisly duet that ends Act One of Sweeney Todd, Sweeney inquires about "Those crunching noises pervading the air?" The answer: "It's man devouring man." In Sondheim's 1987 musical Into the Woods, the crunching noises are somewhat more literal, because they are made by fearsome giants who wreak havoc throughout a far-off kingdom whose inhabitants do not live happily ever after.

There are intriguing comparisons between the two shows. Both focus on bakers; one song, "Not While I'm Around," would be equally at home in either story. Also, it makes no difference whether Sondheim is bathing his actors in bloody Grand Guignol or deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk; by the end of both evenings the bodies are piled as high as in Hamlet.

Yet this skewed adaptation of Grimm's fairy tales is Sondheim's sprightliest show. Melodies and rhymes skip across the stage as lightly as pebbles skipping across a pond. ("There's a lump on his rump big enough to be a hump.") But even here, the lighthearted story is profoundly serious. What do Cinderella and Rapunzel and Sondheim's Witch want from life? They are all in pursuit of a life lived in a safe haven somewhere between nightmares and dreams.

At Lindenwood University it's invigorating to see the connection student performers are able to make with the ever-irreverent Sondheim. Among the large cast, standout performances are being given by Mike Dowdy as the Baker and especially by Laura K. Coppinger as the Baker's Wife. Surely it's a temptation for a student actor to model a performance after the original. But whereas on Broadway Joanna Gleason's celebrated Baker's Wife was crisp and sardonic, Coppinger is sweetly plaintive, yet her approach works just as effectively. As the Storyteller, Michael B. Perkins also brings a fresh interpretation. Rather than the traditionally casual, laid-back narrator, Perkins seems always on the verge of breaking into a magic act. As Milky-White, a tap-dancing cow, Mike Howington is a subtly shameless scene stealer.

Despite the fact that professional theaters are reluctant to mount Into the Woods (and perhaps they're right; it might be too unsettling to see a stage full of Muny Kids squashed to death by a single Giant footstep), St. Louis theatergoers are in for a special treat. The Lindenwood Into the Woods is but the first of three university-staged offerings of this same musical. Early April will bring a second production at Washington University, followed in late April by a third interpretation at Webster University. This is going to be fun.