- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

The mood was somber at Camp Sondheim last week. It was time to say goodbye. Sure, the summer-long Stephen Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center brought in more than $6 million in ticket sales, with nearly 98,000 people in attendance including Colin Powell, Sir Ian McKellen, Calvin Klein and Tony Kushner. For three brief months, the Kennedy Center became the hottest ticket in America (and even abroad) for theater lovers, scene-makers and rabid fans of the 72-year-old composer of such musicals as "Sweeney Todd," "A Little Night Music," "Company," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion," and "Sunday in the Park With George."

While it vividly demonstrated to the actors, directors, crew and theater administrators that the Kennedy Center was roaringly back in the production business after a 10-year hiatus, the end of the festival signaled a reluctant return to real life a life without Mr. Sondheim.

"It is so sad," says Eric Schaeffer, festival artistic director. "I'm thrilled and amazed that we pulled it off and I am so exhausted."

For actor Raul Esparza, who flattened audiences and critics alike with his star turns as George in "Sunday in the Park With George" and the neurotic Charley in "Merrily We Roll Along," the final weekend of the celebration led to the actors and crew forming "the joy-less club."

Mr. Esparza, who will return to New York as the Emcee in "Cabaret," says the experience was "the postgraduate school that never was. It was simply the best. I guess what I take away from this summer is, 'Be careful what you wish for.' I mean, where do you go from here?"

Along with his briefcase full of blues, Mr. Esparza returns to Manhattan with many memories. "I'll never forget Christine Baranski leaning against the door like a little child during the first rehearsal of 'George,'" he says. "And then there was the time Steve [Sondheim] and I sat together in the peanut gallery during 'Company' rehearsals and Steve kept up a running commentary on all the bad interpretations of the lead character Bobby he had encountered in his career Gay Bobby. Suicidal Bobby it was hilarious."

Emily Skinner, another actor who blew away everyone with her striking turns in "Company" and "Merrily," also recalls Mr. Sondheim's unexpected sense of humor.

"I thought of him as somber, but I love what he let me do with 'Good Thing Going' it is such a bastardization of the song, yet so much fun. It was my big moment on stage, and here I am delivering this sensitive song like Ethel Merman."

Mr. Esparza's greatest moment was his alone. "It would be sitting in the rehearsal hall working on 'Finishing the Hat' [from "Sunday in the Park With George"] with Stephen Sondheim we were together for an hour, just the two of us." He says the icing on the cake was when Mandy Patinkin, who originated the part of artist George Seurat on Broadway, was at the Kennedy Center doing his concert and stopped backstage to tell Mr. Esparza "You done it. Now you'll always have it."

He also cherishes Mr. Sondheim spending over an hour helping him nail "Franklin Shepard, Inc." which he did, indelibly during rehearsals for "Merrily We Roll Along," where incidentally, they used the original purple ditto orchestration sheets, a blast from the 1970s to be sure.

"I was living what 'Merrily' was talking about, the idea of your past being your present and future," he says. "Where I sit in one scene is exactly the same spot I am when Melissa [Errico, his co-star in "Sunday"] sings 'Move On' to me at the park in Paris. I am sitting in the same spot, looking up at the same lights. It just gave me the shivers every time."

Beyond giving him two breakout roles, Mr. Esparza says what was amazing about the Sondheim festival were the emotions and remembrances it evoked in both the actors and the audience. "The shows brought back such powerful memories of when you saw them for the first time," he says. "I remember seeing 'Sweeney Todd' for the first time at 16 with my girlfriend in California, and I never heard anything like that in my life and at the time, I didn't like musicals.

"And then there was 'Sunday in the Park With George,' and I think back to the first time I heard that violin crescendo in 'We Don't Belong Together' I heard it on the radio going to a rehearsal for a community theater production and I had to stop the car."

He admits to taking in all six shows from the celebration and coming away believing that every single musical "deals with powerful emotions and elemental themes: love, loss, grief, family, friendship, passion."

Trumping the entrenched notion that Mr. Sondheim's works were cold, cerebral exercises was the impetus for Kennedy Center head Michael Kaiser to produce the festival in the first place. "I thought his works were misunderstood," Mr. Kaiser says. "They were considered not tuneful, not emotional, not accessible, and I believed quite the contrary. If we come away with one thing after this summer, it is that Stephen Sondheim's works are emotional. They made you think, evaluate your life."

But, he concedes, "we're never doing it again. What other composer could give you such range, such feeling and intelligence? Rodgers and Hammerstein wouldn't want a weekend of that."

Mr. Schaeffer says: "It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I think audiences knew that. For the actors, the intensity of the audience was almost overwhelming. The people really came in to listen, to study the choices each director and each actor made. They were really there to absorb the work."

Aside from friendly competition, there was no admitted rivalry between shows, even box office shoo-ins like "Sweeney Todd" and "A Little Night Music." "The performers did not just do their shows and rehearse for others, but they stood in the back and watched the other productions and cheered for their colleagues when they performed on the Millennium Stage," Mr. Kaiser recalls.

Miss Skinner notes that during an energetic disco dancing scene in "Company," she would look into the wings and see the crew and stagehands dancing around. "You would never, ever see that in New York," she says. "Everyone is friendly, but it is all business. But here, there was this contagious spirit."

Miss Skinner, who audiences might remember for her roles in "The Full Monty" and "Sideshow," also remembers how focused the crowds were. "The die-hard Sondheim fans were the best. One night, Christine Baranski got sick and her understudy went on in 'Sweeney Todd.' She mixed up two verses of 'A Little Priest,' and I was in the audience and first I heard whisperings about how she was going to get out of it, then a certain tenseness was in the air, and then when she did, indeed, recover and finish the song, everyone leapt to their feet and gave her a standing ovation."

Now, she says, "I have to go to New York and look for work. It's going to be hard, knowing that whatever I get isn't going to be Sondheim."

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