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Sondheim shares rich life in theater with enthusiastic audience

Some great artists let their work speak for them.

Sometimes, they have to; after all, Shakespeare and Beethoven aren’t around anymore to explain “Hamlet” or the Moonlight Sonata.

Happily, however, Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim is still among us, and can speak for himself.

That’s exactly what he did Saturday night, as the composer of landmark musicals from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd” shared backstage memories, self-deprecating confessions – and his creative philosophy – with about 1,200 cheering fans at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.

Sondheim, 82, came onstage to a standing ovation, prompting him to acknowledge the enthusiastic welcome with a tongue-in-cheek quip: “It’s all an anti­climax from here.”

Send in the clowns? Not quite.

“Stephen Sondheim: A Life in the Theater” lived up to its billing as “An Evening of Music and Conversation,” as Michael Kerker , director of musical theater for ASCAP (more formally known as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) asked Sondheim about everything from his writing process to the inspirations for such classics as 1973’s “A Little Night Music” and 1979’s “Sweeney Todd.”

Punctuating Sondheim’s anecdotes: performances by Tony-winning Broadway veterans Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

As Mitchell told the composer, “It’s an honor to be singing your songs – with you sitting here.”

With music director Tedd Firth providing lilting piano accompaniment, Ebersole and Mitchell delivered, separately and together, eight scintillating songs showcasing Sondheim’s trademark blend of ruefully insightful (and often stingingly witty) lyrics and transcendent melodies.

Something familiar: Mitchell’s in­sinuating rendition of “Sweeney Todd’s” slyly seductive “Pretty Women,” and Ebersole’s heartfelt version of “Follies’ ” torchiest of torch songs, “Losing My Mind.” (Sample lyric from the latter: “You said you loved me, or were you just being kind?”)

And something not-so-familiar: Ebersole’s risque “I Never Do Anything Twice,” which Sondheim wrote for the 1976 Sherlock Holmes movie “The Seven Percent Solution” at the request of director Herbert Ross. (Ross also directed 1973’s murder mystery “The Last of Sheila,” which Sondheim scripted with actor Anthony Perkins.)

“I wrote this five-minute song – and it’s 30 seconds on screen,” Sondheim said. “All those puns for nothing.”

But when Kerker noted the song’s subsequent popularity on the cabaret circuit, Sondheim reminded him, “Dirty songs are hard to come by!”

As for how he writes those songs, Sondheim said he occasionally uses a computer, but prefers to work the old-fashioned way: with pencil and paper, because “there’s something that goes from here to here to there,” he said, gesturing from his head to his arm to an imaginary writing surface. “Also, you can quickly erase things.”

Sondheim writes on yellow legal pads with a soft-lead pencil, but “I write lying down,” he noted, “so I can fall asleep as quickly as possible. That’s why I have a bad back, after doing this for 50 years.”

As for the stories behind the shows, Sondheim recalled his first “Sweeney Todd” encounter: a London production that featured jaunty, between-scenes drinking songs from the pub next door. The “jolly, if creepy, evening” provided a mix of horror and humor that “really appealed to me,” Sondheim acknowledged.

Toward the end of the 90-minute presentation, Kerker read a few of the “hundred” written questions submitted in advance by audience members.

One asked whether Sondheim would ever write an autobiography.

Sondheim replied that two recently published volumes of his collected lyrics and commentary “certainly says what I think about theater,” he said. “I’ve not lived a terribly dramatic or interesting life.”

Perhaps Sondheim doesn’t think so. But any life that includes collaborations with such musical giants as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (whom Sondheim described as his “surrogate father until I was 19”), Hammerstein’s songwriting partner Richard Rodgers (with whom Sondheim wrote 1965’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?”) and Leonard Bernstein (who composed the music for Sondheim’s first Broadway show, 1957’s “West Side Story”) belies such assertions.

Sondheim recalled Bernstein’s in­fluence, noting the composer and conductor taught him to “never be afraid to fall – but fall from the highest rung of the ladder,” he said, adding that “the only kind of chances worth taking are the kind where you almost kill yourself.”

In other words, “if it’s not dangerous to me, if it doesn’t make me nervous, there’s no point,” Sondheim explained.

Which may explain the sort of artistic daring that led Sondheim to focus on Impressionist painter Georges Seurat in his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winner “Sunday in the Park With George,” the source for Saturday’s moving musical finale, “Move On.”

The Ebersole-Mitchell duet concluded with these stirring lyrics: “Anything you do, let it come from you – then it will be new. Give us more to see …”

One hopes Sondheim still has more to give – although, as Saturday night’s conversation reminded us, he’s already given us a lifetime’s worth of un­forgettable sights and sounds.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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