WASHINGTON D.C. — In Washington, numbers get respect. When the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced its plan to produce six full-scale Stephen Sondheim musicals in four months, it got people talking.
This weekend the Sondheim Celebration hits its midpoint, with the first three shows about to close and three more to open shortly. People here now aren't talking about numbers, they're talking about the high quality of the shows. Audiences have traveled to the nation's capital to enjoy a dazzling array of talent showcasing one of the country's preeminent creative geniuses. Now 72, Sondheim has written music, lyrics, or both for 21 shows, and has received Tony Awards for his musical scores for six of them.
"Sweeney Todd," "Company," and "Sunday in the Park with George" opened in early May and run through this Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre. "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion," and "A Little Night Music" begin July 12 and play through the end of August. This marks the first time such a large Sondheim retrospective has been attempted anywhere.
For the Kennedy Center, it signals a new phase of producing its own shows, instead of merely providing a Washington D.C. location for touring productions.
"We wanted to select shows that were milestones in Steve's career," explains Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the event, who oversees the Sondheim productions. "We also tried to stay away from shows that were planned for revivals [elsewhere] soon. And, we chose shows in which he worked with different librettists, so audiences could see the different kinds of collaboration."
Hugh Wheeler wrote the books for "Sweeney" and "Night Music," George Furth for "Company" and "Merrily," and James Lapine for "Sunday" and "Passion."
"This list also allows people to see the range of [Sondheim's] material," Mr. Schaeffer says. From 19th-century London ("Sweeney") and midcentury America ("Merrily") to the 100-year sweep of "George," the shows let audiences "experience how diverse his work really is," Schaeffer says.
Another factor was cost. With a budget of $14 million, "we had to weigh production elements and cast sizes. We had considered 'Anyone Can Whistle,' but with a cast of 24, we couldn't afford to do it."
The project has attracted an A-list of performers and directors. The impressive roster includes theater and film stars such as Lynn Redgrave, Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael Cerveris, Blair Brown, and Randy Graff, teamed up with directors Schaeffer, Mark Brokaw, Christopher Ashley, and Sean Mathias.
Ms. Redgrave, starring in "Company," jumped at the offer. "Stephen writes about real people, and all his songs are really acting pieces about the human condition," she says, "good things, bad things, frivolities, sadnesses, and all the rest of it."
A 1993 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, Sondheim was present during rehearsals for all the shows. "Having him there during rehearsals was revelatory, because he never says 'do it this way,' " Redgrave says. "He never takes away from what actors do."
Redgrave credits Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, for formulating the idea of the celebration.
"He explained that it doesn't have to be done like regional theater, where you do one show, close it, and then open the next one. It can be done like opera, where you have a repertoire."
That performance schedule, designed to let audiences view three different shows in a matter of days, can be stressful on actors, Redgrave says. "I've done rep before, but then you're in other shows, still doing five or six shows a week," Redgrave says. "You're always up on that stage. Here, you might play two or three shows, then you're off for a week or 10 days." To Redgrave, a hard worker who enjoys polishing her craft, the broken-up schedule "can be nerve-wracking. But it's been worth it!"
For the audiences, "the response has been fantastic," Schaeffer says. "Every show has exceeded our expectations. Most of the shows have been sold out." And the celebration has attracted people of all ages.
One sometimes overlooked aspect of theater, the set design, has proved invaluable to the success of this complex venture. The first three shows move from the dirty streets of industrial London to a light-bathed Parisian artist studio, to the slick world of gleaming Manhattan skyscrapers. "Derek McLane, who created the set designs for all six shows, has done a truly remarkable job," Schaeffer says. "At any one time, there are sets and scenery for three different shows in there. The changeovers are fascinating!"
The first trio of shows displays the depth of Sondheim's work. "Sweeney Todd" unfolds with a gruesome inevitability, but under Mr. Ashley's deft direction, its wicked humor is never sacrificed.
"Sunday in the Park with George," a fable built around the French painter Georges Seurat and his fictional present-day descendants, provides a sturdy frame for some of the composer's most lyrical melodies. Fresh from Broadway's "Cabaret," Raul Esparza decisively handled the title character's brash obsession with the art of creation and the creation of art.
"Company" manages to convey the sly pathos of 1970, while conveying the timeless themes of loneliness, compromise, and love.
"Sondheim, while he is an American, really has universal appeal," Redgrave says. "Our show may take place in 1970, but these are issues everyone faces, at any time. As a writer, I hold [Sondheim] in tremendous awe and respect."
At a recent performance, Baranski was suffering from a throat ailment, and her understudy, Jane Pesci-Townsend, had to step out from the ensemble to tackle the monumental role of Mrs. Lovett. Underscoring the high quality and vitality of the show and proving how thoroughly the production team had planned for every contingency, including the delicate job of selecting understudies Pesci-Townsend delivered a rollicking performance, capturing every acting nuance and vocal subtlety that Sondheim built into the challenging role and winning enthusiastic applause.
Costs and logistics prevent the Kennedy Center from filming the shows, but Schaeffer says he hopes that "perhaps we can mount a concert version in New York in the fall." But for now, the focus has been on the Washington audiences.
"[We wanted to] do the best possible job," he says, "because we knew there would be people from all over the country who would see these great shows."