Stage Door: Sondheim on Sondheim, Collected Stories

In a 1994 New York magazine article, the cover line asks: "Is Stephen Sondheim God?" If you see Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54, the answer is yes. A musical revue conceived by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, it celebrates his musical genius in, among others, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Follies and his masterpiece Sunday in the Park With George.

For Sondheim devotees, there's an added bonus: The show is narrated by the great man himself. In the multimedia presentation, he's charming, personable and reflective. There are personal details -- a troubled family background, his pivotal relationship with Oscar Hammerstein; issues of love and sexuality are treated with great restraint. Sondheim is not interested in confession, but rumination.

He pours his emotions into his lyrics, renown for their sophistication and insight. The music, like his lyrics, is singularly Sondheim. Even the songs that flopped fueled him; the canon is compelling.

The production stars Barbara Cook, a lauded Sondheim interpreter. At 82, her voice is a bit thin, but the delivery and reading of songs are superb. Her "Send in the Clowns" moved the audience to tears. She is joined by Broadway veterans Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams and a terrific supporting cast: Leslie Krizer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Matthew Scott and Erin Mackey. Ken Billington's lighting nicely compliments their efforts.

Like a Sondheim lyric, the wonderfully touching show, timed to his 80th birthday, is pared to essentials. While the second act is stronger, it does the composer proud. What's missing is hearing him expound on his unique creative output -- his famed angular harmonies and intricate melodies.

Still, Sondheim on Sondheim is first and foremost a tribute to his remarkable Broadway shows and the solitary, gifted man behind them. And it's a reminder that in the world of musical theater, he's in a class by himself.

Class is the literal experience in Collected Stories at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, which explores the tricky relationship between teacher and student, mentor and protégé. Especially when the fawning Lisa (Sarah Paulson) begins her literary assent, marching on the citadel once held by Ruth (Linda Lavin), a successful short story writer and professor. The drama opens in her book-lined Greenwich Village apartment. It's not just her home; it's her stronghold. Here, the smart, sardonic writer, every inch the Jewish intellectual, keeps the world at bay.

For decades, Ruth, who is childless, has quietly nurtured her prized pupils. With a practiced eye and subtle repartee, she prides herself on the ability to match student to story. Lisa surprises Ruth: Her story doesn't jive with her appearance. The weary pro finds an overexcited fan. She's allergic to her puppy-dog eagerness, but discovers the talented grad student has the raw makings of a true writer. Gradually, their relationship depends.

What's terrific here is the intimate nature of creation -- and the knotty problems it raises. Is any subject off limits to writers? Is using another person's life as fiction a form of theft? Such questions are the meat of Collected Stories. As Ruth begins to reveal more of herself, including the big moment of her life -- an affair with famed poet Delmore Schwartz -- we see the protective gauze melt away. Lisa has pierced her armor; with unforeseen results.

Lavin is a joy to watch; she uses facial expressions to convey a host of emotions. When she insists "less is more" in writing, she could as easily be explaining her acting style. The voice, the walk, even the way she removes her glasses, speak volumes. Paulson's Lisa is shaded; revealing the cunning and narcissism beneath presumed innocence. As the relationship shifts, we see a generational divide, both moral and artistic. Donald Margulies' Collected Stories has a quiet passion and intensity. It's a lovely chamber piece, perfectly acted and directed. Its power is personal, and its message haunting.