The theatrical equivalent of a museum retrospective, this summer's Sondheim Celebration showcases the work of the composer-lyricist who has defined the musical theater for the last 50 years. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports.
"The chance that they get a life again, to be seen, is what's wonderful," says Sondheim. "The joy of the theater is that things are alive all the time, and that you can see a show with an entirely new cast and new director and a new set of designs and get a whole different take on it."
Stephen Sondheim is credited with bringing a whole different take to the Broadway musical. How would he characterize what he has brought to the musical theater?
"Well," he replied, "a lot of it has to do with experimenting with form."
Or lack of it. The show that broke the mold was "Company" in 1970. It's about Bobby, your typical afraid-to-commit bachelor, on his 35th birthday, seeing and being seen by his married friends.
Explains Sondheim, "It has no plot, but it has a group of characters who know each other and yet there are individual sketches and songs, and that has influenced the theater a lot. But we got to that because I believe in content dictating form."
And there are the lyrics – razor-sharp, perfectly worded, get-you-in-the-gut lyrics – in songs like "The Ladies Who Lunch," sung in the Washington production by Lynn Redgrave, who says of Sondheim: "He actually helps the actor. He certainly helps very much an actor like myself who's an actor who sings rather than a singer who acts."
Explains Sondheim, "I care very much about the inflection of language and how the music and the lyric work together, because I write conversational lyrics. And once I can get into the character, like an actor, I can fill out the details…"
To what degree is he, as a composer and a lyricist, a social commentator?
"Well, I guess I am, in the sense that the…stories that I am attracted to have some kind of social commentary."
"Sweeney Todd isn't just about the demon barber of Fleet Street, a serial killer. It's about the class structure in England. Brian Stokes Mitchell is the latest Sweeney. Christine Baranski is his sidekick, Mrs. Lovett.
Says Baranski, "They call it the 'King Lear' of musicals, perhaps for its darkness, as well as its difficulty of doing it, the kind of stamina you need. Many people think it's the most complicated score ever written for the musical theater."
And Mitchell adds, "I love Sondheim music. He would probably hate this, but he's kind of like our Stravinsky in a way, who was somebody that was...that melding, that amalgam of what had come before him, and then he took it and put in his particular filters and rethought it in his particular way."
Before Stephen Sondheim, there was Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim's parents and the Hammersteins were friends. When the Sondheims divorced, Oscar Hammerstein became a father figure and mentor to Stephen. If it hadn't been for Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim says he probably would have become a mathematician.
Hammerstein's advice to his protégé: "Don't copy me. Be true to yourself."
Stephen Sondheim has been at it now for 50 years. He has written the music and lyrics for 14 shows. His songs are all, one way or another, about the complexity of life. The most famous of all, "Send in the Clowns," is a weary, wistful waltz.
They're about ambivalence. They're about melancholy, about longing. Why? Where does this come from?
"Well, it comes from drama," says Sondheim, "and that's the whole thing about ambivalence, which has been a label that's been tacked on to me for a long period of time… That's what the theatre's about. That's what storytelling is about."
"Sunday in the Park With George" is the story of the painter George Seurat, so obsessed with his art that he loses the love of his life. "Finishing the Hat" is about his battle with himself. How much of that is Sondheim?
"A lot of it," he says. "A lot of it is. Absolutely. Because I think – at least for me -- you have to be obsessed with the song you're writing."
Sondheim says he loves farce and melodrama best. He likes writing big moody ballads like "The Last Midnight" from "Into the Woods." (Vanessa Williams is starring in a new Broadway production of "Into the Woods.")
In 1988, the year "Into the Woods" first opened, it won three of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated. It's up for 10 again tonight – the story of fairy tale characters who go into the woods to make their wishes come true, to confront their fears, which is exactly what Stephen Sondheim does when he's writing.
"I figured that the more confident you got, and the more success and learning more, that it would become easier," he explains. "When I write now, I'm aware that the people who like my work are expecting so much, and it makes me tense."
He's gotta top himself.
"It's not so much that you've got to top yourself," he replied. "It's that you want to write something fresh. You want to write something you haven't written before."
So it's an act of courage in a sense.
"It sure is," says Sondheim, "and it needs more courage as you get older. And that, see, is what I didn't expect."
But the woods still beckon. Even at 72, Stephen Sondheim cannot stay away.
"I still get pleasure out of writing a musical phrase that I think is really good," he says, "and I still get a pleasure out of writing a line that I think really encapsulates what I want to say, and it was worth saying, and putting them together."
And he knows instantly when it's right?
"Oh, yeah Oh, yeah," replies Sondheim. "When it's right for me, absolutely."