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'REMEMBERING STEPHEN SONDHEIM'

Boston Pops celebrates a true musical luminary with the upcoming 'Remembering Stephen Sondheim' at Tanglewood

With so much to choose from, planning a Sondheim salute proved to be a challenge

Stephen Sondheim

The Boston Pops pays tribute to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19, at Tanglewood with "Remembering Stephen Sondheim."

LENOX — There was a time when Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died last November at 91, was considered far ahead of the mainstream.

He acknowledged it in an early 1980s interview with the Dramatists Guild. “I write generally experimental, unexpected work,” he stated. “I think I’m getting more and more accepted, but I’m still essentially a cult figure. … It’s not that it’s too good for people, it’s just that it’s too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater.”

But now, he’s in the firmament with Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and the tributes and revivals keep coming.

A 1950 alum of Williams College, Sondheim told the North Adam Transcript in 2010 that “Williams changed my life.” While there, he had his first meeting with Porter, who had a home in Williamstown for many years, beginning in 1940.

The Boston Pops is presenting “Remembering Stephen Sondheim” at Tanglewood on Friday, Aug. 19, curated and conducted by Keith Lockhart, co-conceived with Jason Danieley, stage director for the production.

Danieley happens to be costarring in Barrington Stage’s revival of “A Little Night Music,” along with Emily Skinner, who will join vocalists Nikki Renee Daniels, Conrad Ricamora and Alton Fitzgerald White at the 8 p.m. show in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Lockhart described them as “four great Broadway singers with the kind of versatility and range to play lots of different characters.” Also singing will be Sophie Mings and Noah Wolfe from the Barrington Stage cast.

Sondheim certainly ranks among the greatest composers-lyricists of musical theater. He wrote for “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959), (lyrics only for those two), and then created “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods” between 1970 and 1986. In all, music and lyrics for 16 shows.

Mandy Patinkin, who created the title role in “Sunday in the Park,” has called his idol “the Shakespeare of the musical theater world.”

For Lockhart, who took over the Boston Pops from John Williams in 1995, and Danieley, the great challenge was to select the two-hour musical anthology for Tanglewood, considering the cornucopia of memorable songs Sondheim bequeathed to the world.

Working closely with Danieley, a frequent collaborator with the Pops in the past, was the key, said Lockhart, “because the songs are so tightly integrated into the stories they’re telling that they’re hard to pull out and make any sense.”

Lockhart laughed, recalling that when they finished version 1.0 of what was then called “My Sondheim,” the running time was more than 6 hours.

After “painful, awful” culling to get it down to 2 hours including an intermission, they decided to focus on six Sondheim shows “right in the golden spot when he was really at his most influential, making the biggest difference,” Lockhart pointed out. Making the cut are songs from “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park” and “Into the Woods.”

Those are widely regarded as Sondheim’s greatest shows, along with “Merrily We Roll Along” (under-appreciated in its original 1981 run on Broadway), which had to be left on the cutting room floor. While acknowledging that the program feels very abridged, Lockhart was able to include several personal favorites on a concert that “just focuses on the music, which is perfectly appropriate.”

Earlier in his career, Lockhart specialized in musical theater productions as faculty music director of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; he had been a 1983 graduate of its well-regarded drama school.

His credits there included long runs of “Sweeney Todd” in 1985 and the first regional production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” in 1986.

“From zero and from kind of knowing what ‘Send in the Clowns’ went like, I ended up doing two of his best, immensely complicated and most operatic type of scores,” Lockhart recalled during a conversation backstage at Tanglewood last month. “I had always been a music theater geek, I always loved Broadway, and being 26, I was just amazed that somebody was using those tools to say something so profound, dealing with the human emotional condition and with relationships, in really deep, digging sorts of ways.”

For Lockhart, Sondheim’s dual role as composer-lyricist enabled him to “get into the psyche of people and write songs where they strip away their souls in sometimes agonizing ways. It’s a melding of the art of lyric-writing and music in an organic, unified way that was so sophisticated but profoundly human at the same time.”

Lockhart first met Sondheim in 2005 to brainstorm a potential Boston Pops project.

“I get a bit inured to genius because I work with people whom other people would call geniuses all the time,” he conceded. But Lockhart notes that his 90-minute chat with Sondheim qualified as the most memorable personal conversation of his career, something like having lunch with Mahler or a cup of tea with Shakespeare.

“After that we kept in touch on occasion,” said Lockhart. The composer came out to Tanglewood in 2017 for the Pops orchestral version of the autobiographical “Sondheim on Sondheim” revue.

The conductor acknowledges difficulty in describing the emptiness he felt at the news of Sondheim’s passing last November.

“With his death, I felt a sense of personal loss, not because he was 'a friend’ but because a really big light went out,” Lockhart stated.

“I stand in awe of his contributions to the art form, his virtuosity, and his subtle understanding of humanity,” he wrote in a personal remembrance. “The word ‘genius’ is certainly overused, but I am convinced that Stephen Sondheim was the only true genius I have ever met. I feel blessed by that memory, and by a professional connection that has endured most of my career.”

IF YOU GO 

What: "Remembering Stephen Sondheim," a musical tribute to the late composer-lyricist.

Who: Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops are joined by vocalists Nikki Renee Daniels,  Sophie Mings, Conrad Ricamora, Emily Skinner, Alton Fitzgerald White and Noah Wolfe. Directed and co-conceived by Jason Danieley.

When: 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes admission to 6 p.m. Prelude Concert.

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

Tickets: $32 - $168

More information and tickets: 888-266-1200, tanglewood.com

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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