NEW YORK — It was midway through a recent performance of the raucous musical adaptation of “Beetlejuice,” and the shock-haired demon of the title had just discovered his softer side.
“‘Someone to ruin my sleep’ — I get it now!” Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman) bellowed, alluding to “Being Alive,” the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” when protagonist Bobby is finally ready to commit to a relationship.
Suddenly, Sondheim is everywhere. Even in the netherworld.
Around the time Brightman was roaring that “ruin my sleep” line at the Marquis Theatre, it was being sung in earnest at the nearby Bernard P. Jacobs Theatre at a gender-flipped revival of “Company,” starring Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk.
One day later, another major Sondheim revival opened on Broadway: “Into the Woods,” with a cast that includes Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James, Phillipa Soo, Patina Miller, Joshua Henry, and Gavin Creel.
A name bigger than any of those — former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — provided the voice of the Giant when Little Rock’s Arkansas Repertory Theatre staged “Into the Woods” a few months ago. And Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame has announced he will star in an off-Broadway revival later this year of “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Eight months after he died at 91, Sondheim stagings are serving as exclamation points in the summer seasons of theaters from Greater Boston to the Cape to the Berkshires. Looking ahead to the fall and beyond, the Washington, D.C.-based Signature Theatre has announced that its upcoming 2022-2023 season will include not one but three Sondheim musicals (”Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Pacific Overtures.”)
In other words, the Sondheim bandwagon is getting very, very crowded.
As one who reveres Sondheim, I’m of mixed mind about all this. Of course it’s heartening to see the artistry of a certified national treasure gaining wide recognition. So kudos to theatermakers and recording artists for doing what they can to ensure that his work is enshrined as a cornerstone of our cultural legacy, and for at least tacitly pledging allegiance to the standards he helped instill.
But this heretical thought keeps intruding: Is there such a thing as too much Sondheim? Or, to be more precise, does the work of this singular genius — a man who never had the slightest interest in catering to mass taste — lose some of its specialness if it becomes ubiquitous?
After all, nothing dilutes mystique like saturation. Any of you baby boomers out there remember when a movie starring Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep or Al Pacino was an Event? Or when “The Godfather” was not instantly streamable, and only aficionados could summon chunks of dialogue from memory?
Scarcity can make the heart grow fonder. So can variety. It’s hard not to notice that the spotlight mostly keeps falling on the same handful of Sondheim shows. There aren’t many revivals of “Anyone Can Whistle” or “Do I Hear a Waltz?” or “Passion.”
Homages to the legendary composer-lyricist began to multiply as he grew older, picking up speed around his 80th birthday and further accelerating over the next decade. Then his death triggered a spate of revivals, tribute albums, concerts, cabaret evenings devoted to his work, and awards-ceremony salutes at not just the Tonys but the Oscars and Grammys.
Two events bracketing Sondheim’s death provided a measure of his longevity and impact. A few weeks after he died came the release of the Steven Spielberg-directed film of “West Side Story,” the musical that launched Sondheim’s career as a 27-year-old lyricist in 1957. Just before Sondheim’s passing, an off-Broadway revival of his “Assassins” opened, featuring Will Swenson, who is currently starring as Neil Diamond in “A Beautiful Noise” at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. In April, Danny Burstein (who starred in the 2011 revival of “Follies”) hosted “Celebrating Sondheim: Songs from ‘A Little Night Music’” at New York’s Symphony Space, along with Broadway performers like Kate Baldwin, Carolee Carmello, and Judy Kaye.
Actors tend to be in awe of Sondheim, who enriched so many of their careers. Mandy Patinkin told me in an interview eight years ago that Sondheim was “the Shakespeare of our time.” Hypberbolic, sure, but I like the general sentiment.
Each summer brings reminders, though, that even Shakespeare — who wrote nearly 40 plays, twice Sondheim’s output — is not immune to overkill. My shoulders sag when I hear of yet another production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and I’m starting to have the same reaction when a cabaret singer solemnly launches into “Send in the Clowns.”
Part of what made Sondheim fascinating was his paradoxical status as a household name who still, somehow, seemed to exist just outside the mainstream.
“I write generally experimental, unexpected work,” he once said. “I think I’m getting more and more accepted, but I’m still essentially a cult figure. My kind of work is caviar to the general. It’s not that it’s too good for people, it’s just that it’s too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater.”
Today, it’s far from unexpected when a theater company stages Sondheim. Quite the opposite.
For her debut as the new artistic director at Waltham’s Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Rachel Bertone chose to present “West Side Story” (it closed July 16). Next month, as her swan song after leading Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company for nearly three decades, Julianne Boyd will direct a production of “A Little Night Music.” At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on the Cape, the Sondheim revue “Marry Me a Little” is wrapping up July 22.
Now, it’s hard to quarrel with these productions in and of themselves. Bertone did a fine job with “West Side Story.” Given Boyd’s sterling track record, there’s every reason to look forward to her take on “Night Music.” I can attest that the revival of “Company” absolutely deserved the five Tony Awards it won last month, more than any other musical and tied with “The Lehman Trilogy” for most Tonys overall. New York critics have been over the moon in their enthusiasm for the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” (It opened in the spring at New York’s City Center in a concert version as part of the Encores! series, but was such a smash it swiftly transferred to Broadway.)
One worries, however, about Sondheim-mania turning into too much of a good thing, if not now then down the road.
After all, there are only half a dozen open slots in your average regional theater season. Sondheim devoted a lot of time to encouraging young composers, including Lin-Manuel Miranda (”Hamilton,” “In the Heights”) and Jonathan Larson (”Rent,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!”) at the beginning of their careers. Will a no-season-without-a-Sondheim-show mind-set take hold at regional theaters, and might that crowd out new work by the next Miranda or Larson?
One thing a Sondheim musical should never be is obligatory. That would be the exact opposite of the legacy he strove for a lifetime to build. His goal was never to become a box-office powerhouse like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Jerry Herman, or to be as beloved by the general public as, say, Irving Berlin, or Rodgers and Hammerstein (the latter of whom was Sondheim’s mentor and a crucial early influence).
After his early commercial success as lyricist for mega-hits “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959) Sondheim deliberately set a more challenging course for himself. With his complexity and his aversion to happy endings, he wrote musicals that polarized audiences. Some found his work overly cold or dauntingly cerebral. Even his rambunctiously successful “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962) featured music unusual enough that his “West Side Story” collaborator Leonard Bernstein told Sondheim: “You’ve got a lot of wrong notes in there.”
Broadway audiences apparently felt that way about Sondheim’s follow-up show, “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964). Despite the presence in the cast of Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, it lasted only nine performances. From an artistic standpoint, Sondheim’s Broadway output in the 1970s was nothing short of astounding — “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).
But then came the colossal flop of “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), which closed after 16 performances. Sondheim rebounded with “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984) and “Into the Woods” (1987), which became a favorite of high school drama clubs (despite being shot through with Sondheim-ian darkness).
Now everyone wants a piece of him. Movie stars like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter leaped at the chance to be part of the 2007 film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.” Ditto for Streep, Anna Kendrick, and Emily Blunt when it came to the 2014 movie version of “Into the Woods.”
But any producer or artistic director tempted to add to the flood of Sondheim shows should perhaps first consult his indispensable 2010 book, “Finishing the Hat.’’ In the preface, he enunciates the three principles that, he says, “underlie everything I’ve ever written.”
All three are spelled out in boldface lettering. One is “Content Dictates Form.” Another is “God Is in the Details.” The other? “Less Is More.”