theater: Summer of Stephen 

Sondheim is the unlikely master of the summer stage this year

Though clearly not the stuff of feel-good summer entertainment, Stephen Sondheim is everywhere these days. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the six-show Sondheim Celebration has been a phenomenal hit, selling more than $6 million worth of tickets. A revival of "Into the Woods" continues to do big box office on Broadway. And in Richmond, Sondheim shows have bookended the summer theater season, with University of Richmond's "Company" running in June and Dogwood Dell's "Into the Woods" opening this weekend.

This surge in Sondheim popularity has the theater intelligentsia scratching its collective head. Some solemn critics have posited that the events of Sept. 11 precipitated a yearning for deeper, darker material — a tidy theory, but since the D.C. and N.Y.C. productions were in the works long before last September, one that is not born of reality. More mundane commentators have tied the new productions to Sondheim's 72nd birthday. Excuse me, but what's so special about 72?

I subscribe to a combination of two theories. First, Sondheim has reached the level of legend, with universal recognition that his iconoclastic work has redefined what a musical can or should be. Today, even theater novices know that a show by Sondheim is important, even if they don't know why. The composer/playwright's name has the cachet of another summer fave, Shakespeare, whose work also draws the ignorant as well as the informed.

Secondly, I think the Sondheim revival is another stage in the theater-world navel-gazing about the state of the modern musical, an examination that has been going on for years. Since Sondheim broke the musical mold with brilliant but bleak shows like "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" in the 1970s, playwrights have struggled to raise their work to meet a new level of expectation. As Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times this past spring, "[Sondheim's] high-minded music-theater puzzles … have set daunting artistic standards. Nowadays, even the silliest Broadway trifle is expected to arrive with a concept." In order to figure out where to go next, I believe theater professionals are looking backward. Maybe among these paradigm-shattering works lie clues as to where composers and playwrights need to go next to keep musicals challenging as well as entertaining.

Whatever the reasons behind it, this summer of Sondheim offers a unique opportunity for theatergoers to enjoy the work of a true American original. "Into the Woods" has some hummable tunes in it — somewhat unusual for a Sondheim show — and familiar characters like Cinderella and Snow White. However, with its exploration of death and disillusion, you won't necessarily leave the Dell feeling peppy and carefree. But you'll have plenty to think about, and you may never imagine happily-ever-after quite the same again. S

"Into the Woods" will run at the Dogwood Dell Mainstage in Byrd Park, free, Aug. 8 through 17. Shows are 8:30 p.m. Thursday - Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.


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