The numbers were a little staggering: Three months. Six musicals. Two hundred actors. Ten million dollars.
Even for a theater dealing regularly with a challenge of this magnitude, it would have been a heavy lift. But the Kennedy Center had not put together a theater production on its own in 13 years. It had become just another stop on the road, and now suddenly it wanted to be the whole destination. And not simply by showcasing just anyone. No, it went straight for the top of the line, choosing to present a summer of large-scale, psychologically nuanced works by the modern master of the musical, Stephen Sondheim.
"This is a big idea," Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president, declared back in February, with more than a little understatement. "We'll see if it works."
Darned if it didn't. Running in repertory from May until August, the six centerpiece productions of the Sondheim Celebration -- "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Company," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion" and "A Little Night Music" -- were critical and popular successes, drawing 98,000 theatergoers from across the country and focusing an invigorating spotlight on Washington as a theater town. Although a lot of the talent was imported for the musicals and cabaret performances -- Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lynn Redgrave, Barbara Cook and Blair Brown were among the marquee attractions -- it was a local theater artist, Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre, who provided the overarching vision.
The psychological boost that the event engendered would be hard to overestimate. It was such a thoroughgoing hit -- the talk of the summer among theater folk from the Potomac to the Hudson -- that the Kennedy Center decided to take the celebration on the road, gathering many of the stars of the six musicals on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in October for a three-hour "best of" concert.
A little showing off a few blocks from the epicenter of the American theater was a nervy thing to do -- and absolutely apropos. The three-month festival was the most intensive examination ever mounted of Sondheim's impact on the musical theater. It generated not only $6 million in ticket sales but also several revelatory performances. In "Company," John Barrowman's portrayal of Bobby shed new light on the character's playboyish ways, his emotional immaturity. Judy Kuhn's Fosca, the bookish, needy recluse of "Passion," provided a less garish, more sensible instigator than had been presented on Broadway.
That such a monumental effort had been initiated by the Kennedy Center sent a particular message: A kind of national seal of distinction was being affixed to Sondheim's work, an honor that perhaps no arts institution anywhere else has the power to bestow.
The moment was a shining one. The question is, do Kaiser and company have the wherewithal to seize it? Was the Sondheim Celebration an isolated triumph, or will future initiatives rise to that level of achievement? Cross your fingers and hope it's the latter. Kaiser has given other tantalizing glimpses of his instincts as an impresario: In November the Kennedy Center staged a rewardingly starry concert version of "Carmen Jones," featuring Vanessa Williams, opera soprano Harolyn Blackwell and Placido Domingo conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. The production had a lot of flash; no wonder it sold out in one.
Events like the Sondheim summer and the "Carmen Jones" concert give encouragement to those who see a role for the Kennedy Center that it has appeared wary of taking on. One of the perplexities of the American stage is that there is no national theater; even Iceland supports one. Kaiser's initial round of bold strokes suggests that it may be time for the capital's premier arts palace to start thinking more urgently about ways to fill that void.
Although the center allows local troupes, like Woolly Mammoth and African Continuum Theatre, to take up temporary residence in its spaces, it lacks a permanent theater company of the kind that other major public arts complexes, like Lincoln Center, have housed for decades. It must be hard, one supposes, for Kennedy Center officials and donors to have to explain with a straight face to out-of-town friends that the only example they have of a resident theater production is "Shear Madness." And while the center makes a substantial financial commitment to new work, offering production grants each year to budding playwrights and regional theaters through its Fund for New American Plays, rarely does any of those works find a production here. It is through original work that a theater town makes its real mark; perhaps the writers of these plays could be invited to Washington for more than a festive luncheon.
So at the end of a banner year, hail Kaiser. Forgive a critic if this all sounds too hopeful a note. The energy and enthusiasm of a dreamer at the helm of a great theater can be infectious.