The last time we talked to supreme Broadway artist Stephen Sondheim

In the occasion of Zach Theatre‘s first fully staged musical by Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which opens May 30, we republish this Nov. 8, 2009 story that includes my interview with great man himself. 

Stephen Sondheim in 1976. AP

Stephen Sondheim, the creative force behind 18 major musicals, might be the greatest artist Broadway has ever produced.

Consider his music, lyrics and theatrical collaborations over the past 50 years. He transformed the way words go with music during the musical’s so-called Golden Age (“West Side Story,” “Gypsy”). He later fused music and lyrics into darker material (“Company,” “Follies” “A Little Night Music”), which led to his mature theatrical masterpieces (“Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) and even his lesser gems (“Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins”).

Critics believe his work will survive centuries, if not millennia.

“Sondheim – more than any other composer or lyricist – has given us music and theater that is memorable, challenging, intelligent and inventive, yet emotionally and intellectually satisfying,” says Rick Pender, editor of the Sondheim Quarterly, a national magazine devoted to its namesake. “I do not see this kind of multifaceted genius in any other Broadway artist.”

Sondheim is not so sure about his legacy.

“I wouldn’t make any pronouncements,” he said recently in a rare telephone interview. “Who knows if musicals will be done? Who does the musicals from 100 years ago? They are ridiculous. The songs are good. Not the musicals. You want to listen to an Irving Berlin tune, but not see an Irving Berlin show.”

(“Annie Get Your Gun” might be an exception.)

Thursday, the nine-time Tony Award winner – who also earned an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize – will make his first Austin appearance. He will extend a cycle of public conversations started two years ago with The New York Times opinion writer and former theater critic Frank Rich. At the Long Center, his colloquy partner will be Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires.

Local musical aficionados can hardly wait for the verbal exchange.

“Sondheim represents everything that is good about American musical theater,” says Austin director Michael McKelvey, who recently staged an award-winning “Sweeney Todd.” “He is always original and thought-provoking, a composer with a grasp of all that Western music can deliver.”

Born in 1930 in New York City, Sondheim wrote his first musical as a student whose schoolmates included the son of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder artist had collaborated with composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers to produce classics like “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” In one of the happy coincidences of theatrical history, Hammerstein became a sort of surrogate father and oversaw the development of Sondheim’s tender aesthetic.

Although he studied music seriously, it was Sondheim’s lyrics that first drew the attention of Broadway professionals. And, in the postwar period, words made an emphatic point. Hammerstein had already linked the songs closely to the action, so that audiences actually paid attention to them.

“The next big change came with the rock revolution,” Sondheim says. “People started listening to lyrics. Nobody really listened to Cole Porter’s lyrics, except the clever, comic ones. After the pop revolution, people had a lot to say: There was anger and passion – (expletive) the establishment. Before that, lyrics were generally anodyne: ‘I love you darling,’ and all that. I’m oversimplifying, but “”

Sondheim’s lyrics were so adept, so clever, so crucial to each show’s emotional progress, he was recognized as a singular wordsmith.

“I am continually in awe of the multiple emotional layers and thoughtfulness of Sondheim’s work,” says Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley. “The recent spate of stripped-down productions, fewer orchestrations and chorus members, have revealed new truths for his fans and have become new, meaningful works on their own, instead of feeling lesser.”

More than 60 years after penning his first lyrics, Sondheim has collected them in a two-volume book that will include recollections and commentary.

“There are a lot of lyrics and a lot of comment,” jokes Sondheim, one of the few theater artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Reviewing thousands of lyrical lines – all stored in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – were there any surprises?

“Honestly no,” he says. “Every now and then, I would glow with pride and delight, or wince with shame and embarrassment. But I’m a slow writer. I worked on these things meticulously, so there are not a lot of surprises left. I really know every word.”

Although he had been writing musicals for 25 years, Sondheim did not make his mark as a composer until 1970, with a string of grown-up hits: “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”

“My first exposure to the fully formed Sondheim was when I bought the original cast album of ‘Follies’ in the 1970s,” says Long Center managing director Paul Beutel. “The raw yet soaring emotion of songs like ‘Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ – so perfectly captured in music and lyrics – just wiped me out.”

Although musical devotees call these “Sondheim shows,” the artist always emphasizes his collaborations with writers and directors (Harold Prince, James Lapine, etc.) and, especially, his prized orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, whose full-

orchestra sound undergirds Tim Burton’s movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”

“He is a most generous man, a mentor who is always ready to lend his support – creative, emotional and intellectual – to the work of others,” Sondheim Quarterly’s Pender says.

Recently, two of Sondheim’s collaborators, George Furth and Larry Gelbart, died.

“George was an actor,” Sondheim says. “Music meant nothing to him. So writing with him was interesting. That’s one reason the songs don’t always fit into the script. They are commentary; raisins in the cake. But George’s dialogue is extremely brilliant. It’s dialogic.”

Gelbart, his collaborator in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” adapting the Roman comedies of Plautus, understood music, he says.

“In ‘Forum,’ the songs are respites from the farce,” Sondheim says. “And ‘Forum’ is a very tight farce. The songs are breathing places. Otherwise the comedy would be relentless.”

One reason Sondheim’s shows – almost never big profit machines – are regularly revived is they provide peerless opportunities for performers.

“Sondheim’s work demands that a performer be equally gifted as an actor and as a singer,” says director Steakley. “Sondheim’s melodies and harmonies, as well as the speed of his complicated lyrics in passages of songs, are rigorous for a singer to master. Equal to this is the emotional investment and honesty required to convey his character’s multilayered states of being.”

Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Raul Esparza, Audra McDonald and Elaine Stritch are among the prime Sondheim interpreters. One of Sondheim’s special muses, Lansbury, was in one of his early musicals, and she’s slated to play aged Madame Armfedlt in the upcoming Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.” British director Trevor Nunn’s restaging of “Night Music,” transferred from London to New York, is simpler than earlier versions.

“The tone is Chekhovian,” Sondheim says. “That’s implicit in the piece anyway. It’s about shadows. But it’s still a comedy, done with chamber music in a chamber style.”

One musical that made a definite impression in high school and college drama departments is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which deals with the fraying of youthful ideals in a tale told backward. Yet it lasted only 17 performances in its first Broadway run. Later, Sondheim and Furth tinkered with it, and Lapine revived it on the road.

“We are satisfied with it now,” Sondheim says. “The problem – and this was true in the source Kaufman and Hart play – the lead is an unsympathetic character you get to like. James dug into it a little more, without softening it. Just helping audiences out. It may never satisfy them. People are turned off by unsympathetic characters. I like them, when something interesting happens to them.”

Although he was pleased with the movie version of “Sweeney Todd” – and he’s in negotiations for films of “Follies” and “Into the Woods” – he’s not ready to make generalizations about the return of the movie musical, or the success of youth-oriented shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” movies.

“Mine are not that kind of musical,” he says. “They are not as freewheeling, when the stories are just excuses for the numbers.”

Sondheim is also uncomfortable talking about his legacy, though he would include the composing teams of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), as well as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”), as ones that will tend to endure beyond our time.

A notorious perfectionist, Sondheim, at 79, can look back with some pleasure on his work.

“Every now and then I see something of mine and say ‘that was good,’ he says. “It takes a long to not to be neurotic about it. Usually, I see only what’s wrong. Now I accept what’s good.”