Lucky for Broadway that Oscar Hammerstein II stuck with musical theater as his life’s work. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have the titanic Stephen Sondheim as the art form’s current standard-bearer. One thing led to another as young Sondheim formed an unbreakable bond with surrogate father Hammerstein during his parents’ divorce, which would yield the likes of a human clone decades before the concept became fashionable.
“I would have become a geologist,” Sondheim once said with a straight face, “if Oscar had been a geologist.”
Geology’s loss has been Broadway’s gain for basically 62 years, the span of Sondheim’s stellar career. Now 84, he’s the central figure in 2010’s Sondheim on Sondheim, a multi-media revue of his songs, their creation and the intense self-inventory that gave them life. Vista’s Moonlight Stage Productions is taking a pretty nice turn at this entry right now, with a cast of six singers whose performances are quite remarkably within all their registers, almost as if Sondheim understood their capabilities beforehand. The vocal clutches are discernible but minimal in this rare tribute to the man who, love him or hate him, fueled the post-war Broadway musical culture like no one else.
That quip about geology is a tiny part of this two-and-a-half-hour big-screen interview, but it does play into a broad concept that drives the discussion. New York native Sondheim calls teaching a “sacred profession,” saying his life was shaped by his music instructors at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., his post-grad studies with the great avant garde composer Milton Babbitt and, as a young man, his informal studies with Hammerstein, “who taught me virtually everything I know about songwriting and a good deal about life.
“He wrote a lyric, as a matter of fact, in King and I: ‘By your pupils you are taught; you are taught’… That was a measure of the man.”
The chasmically craggy face, swollen with the depth of life knowledge behind it, droops earthward, weighing heavy with the memory. Out of question, Sondheim’s inner teacher sees learning as a two-way street, elaborating in one clip from The Mike Douglas Show that everyone has “problems of circumstance” and that no one leaves this planet unscathed. This, he explains, is the reason behind the misfortune inherent in his characters’ lives.
“But I also believe in the joy of life,” he says, achievable solely through adventures in adversity. Indeed, education is a two-way street, not only between teacher and pupil but also amid the slings and arrows that one day bid us to happiness.
The show’s 42 songs speak accordingly, and many of them even predate Sondheim audiences. Bet you didn’t know, for example, that his lyrics to “Something’s Coming” date all the way back to 1957’s gritty West Side Story; his iconic “Send In the Clowns,” from 1973, is extracted from A Little Night Music, wherein the lives of several married couples come under sometimes severe scrutiny. On and on roll the acclaimed titles, including “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods, which premiered at The Old Globe Theatre in 1986), “Something Just Broke” (from 1990’s Assassins, a revue on those who’ve killed or attempted to kill American presidents) and “God” (a product of Road Show, from as late as 2008).
Gypsy. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Passion. Company. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Sondheim brand is slathered on them all, replete with story-driven characters who in no uncertain terms are either their best advocates or their worst enemies. Singers Ashlee Espinosa, Melissa Fernandes, Charlie Gange, Eric Hellmers, Heather Lunstedt and Jason Webb shade where and when appropriate. The great footage of Sondheim drives the piece, and director/choreographer DJ Gray and music director Elan McMahan imbue accordingly, deferring to Sondheim’s unusually heartfelt speeches.
N. Dixon Fish’s set design is somewhat abbreviated amid the big screen’s dimensions, but he’s added some points of interest along the way, adorning some plain wood frames with scrawled Sondheim titles. AJ Paulin’s lights, Jim Zadai’s sound and Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd’s costumes capture both spirit and substance.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have any [kids],” Sondheim says at one point, his rocky bass betraying his intense depth of feeling once again. This time, it’s regret — children, he iterates, are a vital component in the education of adults, and his fatherlessness renders him less the wiser. It’s a cinch he’s covered the idea a dozen times over in a show or two, his exceptional talent leaving no expository stone unturned.
This review is based on the matinee production of Feb. 14. Sondheim on Sondheim runs through March 1 at Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St. in Vista. $32. (760) 724-2110, moonlightstage.com.