- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

The countdown has begun. Twenty-four hours remain until the opening night of the Kennedy Center's ambitious "Sondheim Celebration," a four-month-long project that will feature six full-scale musicals by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim with a separate set and cast for each.

Mr. Sondheim will attend tomorrow's event, an informal question-and-answer session at 7:30 p.m. in the Concert Hall with New York Times columnist and one-time theater critic Frank Rich, who is a former Washingtonian.

Festival preparations have gone smoothly, according to Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser.

Mr. Kaiser dreamed up the idea a decade ago, before joining the center nearly 1½ years ago.

Interviewed by phone this week, Mr. Kaiser speaks in exclamatory tones about the reception to what he calls "a huge and somewhat crazy undertaking." Sales of single tickets first offered publicly Feb. 11 broke a one-day record at the center, reaching $639,000 and at week's end topping $3.3 million, according to a report in Variety.

Requests came in from all 50 states and 14 other countries, Mr. Kaiser says. Fewer than 50 seats remain for each performance of the first production, "Sweeney Todd," with only a few tickets left for "Company's" first weekend. All performances are taking place in the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater.

"In any production you run into snags," Mr. Kaiser says, "but it's been smooth and very well planned by Max Woodward [the center's director of theatrical programming, who is the celebration's producer] and Eric Schaeffer [founder/artistic director of Signature Theatre in Arlington and the series' artistic director]." Music director is Kay Cameron.

Six different productions of the master composer-lyricist's works will be presented back-to-back (or side by side by side, as Mr. Sondheim might phrase it) and overlapping in some cases so that fans occasionally can see two and even three musicals in a single weekend.

"Sweeney Todd," directed by Christopher Ashley and starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski, opens May 10 and runs on scattered dates (three performances in succession) through June 30. "Company" is scheduled May 17 to June 29. "Sunday in the Park With George" runs from May 31 through June 28. "Merrily We Roll Along" comes along July 12 to Aug. 24, "Passion" from July 19 to Aug. 23 and "A Little Night Music" from Aug. 2 to 25. Mr. Schaeffer is directing both "Sunday in the Park" and "Passion."

Mr. Ashley is also directing "Merrily," while Sean Mathias guides "Company" and Mark Brokaw has "Night Music."

The shows "Sweeney" and "Sunday" two of the most famous are selling best, Mr. Kaiser reports. Sales for the lesser-known ''Merrily" and "Passion" are slower. "'Night Music' will be sold out because it is so well-known," Mr. Kaiser says confidently.

The series operates with a $10 million budget. An estimated $6 million or more comes from ticket sales and the rest from outside sources, including foundation support and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

"We have had only two print advertisements and have just under $5 million already in hand for all six shows," Mr. Kaiser exults.

In addition, the New National Theatre from Tokyo will perform "Pacific Overtures" from Sept. 3 to 8. Mr. Sondheim's dramatization of Japan's Westernization from a Japanese viewpoint employs Japanese kabuki theater. It's presented in Japanese with English surtitles.

Song stylist Barbara Cook will appear in a "Mostly Sondheim" concert June 5 to 16 and Aug. 14 to 18 in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

Mandy Patinkin, who played the original role of Georges Seurat in "Sunday," will have a solo show of Sondheim themes with Paul Ford on piano June 18 to 30, also in the Terrace Theater.

"Into the Woods, Jr.," a special adaptation of the popular musical for young people, can be seen in the American Film Institute Theater starting next Friday through May 12. Some 225 students attending the Kennedy Center/D.C. Public Schools Partnership have been preparing the production since October.

"This is planned like an invasion, using the model of an opera company that plans years in advance," Mr. Kaiser says, using for a model the rigorous planning in the opera world where he was last employed as head of the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. "Only, artists in the theater world don't commit as far out as they do in opera."

The order in which the musicals are presented was given special attention. "We wanted to dispel the notions some not true that his work is cold," Mr. Kaiser says. "You can't see 'Sunday' and feel that. Also, we wanted to have in the middle some with a smaller number of people and fewer set changes to give the technical side a rest."

Mr. Kaiser's favorite is "Sunday in the Park With George," the show with which he says he identifies personally. "It's about my life," he told an interviewer in February.

Although the story focuses on the labors of artistic creation and painter Seurat and his pointillist work "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," it also touches on conflicts in dealing with patrons.

Mr. Sondheim, 72, regarded as the master of contemporary American musical theater, has been actively engaged throughout. He has come down for rehearsals and even before that, talked with cast members. "I think he is slightly in awe of the whole project, too," Mr. Kaiser says. "He was very involved in each major decision and has been very generous with his time. I told him this was conceived as a mirror to a museum retrospective but of a theater creator, not a painter. I think he also is pleased about the quality of the performers."

Other Broadway veteran performers involved include Lynn Redgrave, Michael Hayden, Melissa Errico, Emily Skinner, John Barrowman, Matt Bogart and Raul Esparza.

Unusual for many contemporary Broadway revivals was the decision to have a full orchestra for each of the shows and as many as 26 persons in the pit for "Sweeney" so that the audience will hear a big sound. "I wanted to focus on musical values, to get a real sound," Mr. Kaiser says.

"Sweeney" began rehearsals April 9 and "Company" on April 16. "Sunday" begins rehearsing Tuesday. Five weeks of rehearsal time six days a week is allotted for each show.

"Sondheim was here for the first day of rehearsal for 'Sweeney' and will come in May to check," says Mr. Schaeffer, who has an affinity for Mr. Sondheim's works and regards him as an artist who reinvents himself every time he writes a musical. "He stayed for the music and read-through of 'Sweeney.' He was excited. He actually made a lyric change and said, 'I always wanted to do that.' His mind never stops."

Without doubt, the artistic director is as "excited" as the creator; it is his favorite word of the moment. "The electricity in the building is exciting. I think we are all running on adrenalin. The closer you get, the more excited people get. There isn't a living [theater] composer who has got this treatment. And maybe not a dead one, either," he says.

Neil Fleitell, the festival's technical director who began as a stagehand at the Kennedy Center in 1971, agrees. "There is no model for what we are doing in terms of company management, production and arrangement," he says. "We know what it is like to do one show in production. Multiply that by two sets of three. It's a real interesting logistical thing. Michael's idea of doing a composer, or some genre, every couple of years is a great idea."

The most hectic time for him, he says, was when the scenery was put out for bid. Three companies in three locations are creating the sets, each a different concept but all made to fit onto the same size tracks on a specially constructed deck for convenience in moving them on and off the Eisenhower stage. "Six shows in one space is a logistic conundrum. We basically have eight days in which to hang lights, and [install] the deck and automation," he says.

The Unlimited Scenery company of Lorton has been responsible for making "Sweeney" sets.

A single designer is responsible for all the shows, however. "I think everyone will be very surprised with the interpretation of some of the shows," Mr. Fleitell says of the sets designed by Derek McLane of New York City, who has worked here previously with the Shakespeare Theatre.

The largest, most complex sets are for "Sweeney," "Sunday" and "Night Music," with "Sunday" having "the most complex costume requirements," Mr. Kaiser says.

But none is being built to last for a national tour, much less for three years on Broadway, which is how he responds to a question about whether any of the productions will go on the road. "We are building them for 17 performances," he says.

Mr. Kaiser estimates he spends 10 to 15 hours a week on the Sondheim extravaganza, leaving plenty of time to focus on fund-raising chores for the center's next two seasons and the arrival of the Bolshoi Ballet in the Opera House June 11-16. He also has been putting much energy into welcoming each cast by holding a party in his Ritz-Carlton apartment the night before the first rehearsal.

But tomorrow, he will be up front and center on the Eisenhower Stage introducing the festival.

"I'm getting a haircut for this," he says with a gleeful laugh.

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