- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Stephen Sondheim is a man of many opinions, as revealed by his appearance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday in conversation with New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

To wit: Good musicals, like good books, should be experienced more than once for the fullest enjoyment. The reason for the existence today of so many "self-referential musicals" that make fun of the genre is "because humor has been missing so long that anything fun and funny is very welcome now."

His favorite musical score is "Carousel," and his favorite musical-theater work of all time is "Porgy and Bess." Music he listens to mostly CDs at home is "rarely vocal, mostly concert music from the mid-19th to the late 20th century."

He won't give an autograph without first hearing the name of the person requesting it or the person for whom it is intended.

The man considered America's foremost composer-lyricist was besieged by fans wanting his signature at the informal reception that followed the question-and-answer session. The evening marked the opening of the center's four-month-long Sondheim Celebration, during which six of his musicals will be given original productions.

The house was packed with an enthusiastic audience cheering at every turn and giving the pair a standing ovation at the end. It was an eclectic assembly that included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a New Yorker like Mr. Sondheim), retiring Folger Shakespeare Library Director Werner Gundersheimer, comedian Mark Russell and, of course, center President Michael Kaiser, who is leaving today for Dublin to attend the initial concert of the National Symphony Orchestra on its 21-day European tour.

"It was two semesters of American musical theater in two hours," said Malan Strong, whose husband, Henry Strong, is a longtime center trustee.

"He's such a singular living genius," volunteered actor-singer Christine Baranski, who is starring alongside Brian Stokes Mitchell in "Sweeney Todd," opening May 10. "I was struck by his humility and directness and intelligence."

"It's good to see the fire is still in him," said Eric Schaeffer, the celebration's artistic director, commenting on Mr. Sondheim's final words onstage, during which he confessed that composing gets harder the longer he does it. That is chiefly because of the danger of repetition, but he said intends to keep going because "there are so many good stories to tell" and because "I want to write music I haven't heard before."

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