One night a few weeks ago, the Arden Theatre's Terrence Nolen took a seat on stage at Wilmington's Grand Opera House across from the object of his most fervent directorly affection, Stephen Sondheim.
The Arden's cherubic artistic director and the 83-year-old composer/lyricist behind some of the best musicals of our time - Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George - then proceeded to dish the dirt.
They talked about Sondheim's almost father-son relationship with Oscar Hammerstein II, about the wonder that is Elaine Stritch, about the secret of writing for Ethel Merman. It was everything a Sondheim connoisseur could have wanted.
"I was struck - grateful, even - that Steve was so generous and honest during our chat," says Nolen. But how could he have been anything else when speaking with the man whose theater, he has said, "is the preeminent producer of my work in Philadelphia"?
The Arden's production of A Little Night Music, now in previews, is its second go-round with Sondheim's waltzing generational tale of sex and love - and its 13th Sondheim show in 20 years. One could call that baker's dozen the product of an obsession, but for Sondheim aficionados it goes hand-in-hand with reverence for the solitary, somewhat mysterious theater great.
"I think for Terry," says Philly actor Ben Dibble, "and I know for me and others, Sondheim is that guy, the musical theater man of our generation who took the golden age of Broadway and transformed it into something modern."
Dibble, whose current work in A Little Night Music represents his fifth Arden Sondheim show, says, "Most young musical-theater playwrights are writing in some way as an imitation of or in response to Sondheim's truth, wit, and intelligence. Those qualities attract Terry; they do me."
The man's fans should be particularly joyous right now. As a film version of his Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, starts production for Disney/Lucamar, that same twisted-fairy-tale fest is currently the toast of Princeton's McCarter Theatre under the direction of Fiasco Theater's Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, its run extended until June 9.
Better still, playwright David Ives (his Venus in Fur is currently being presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company) is working with Sondheim on the latter's first new musical in a decade.
"What we're working on is about two people entering a relationship," Ives says, adding that Sondheim isn't at all rusty ("seems oxidation-free to me") after the 10-year hiatus, and that the key to their collaboration is simple: "He loves detail; so do I. He likes to laugh; so do I. This makes things very easy."
The mix of complexity and casual intimacy that characterizes Sondheim's words and music does indeed make things easy for collaborators - and for those, like Nolen, who frequently assay his classics.
Having grown up with musical-theater traditionalists like Rodgers and Hammerstein, high school student Nolen saw the 1982 touring production of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and was immediately struck by its shifting points of view and blending of the epic and the intensely personal.
"It was astonishing to find that, through him, musicals could do much more than imagined," Nolen says. "Sondheim knows what it is to be alive in a complicated world. He gets that - and, with that, is certainly the most powerful theater artist of my lifetime."
But Nolen's ardor is not obsessive, he says; he likens it to any given director's commitment to such exemplars as Shakespeare or Shaw - "Sondheim is part of the canon."
Nolen's goal with any Sondheim production is to make it unique and focus on the theatricality, the specificities and contradictions of the characters. Additionally, he often turns the Arden's staging into a formidable character itself. Pacific Overtures of 2003 was executed in the round; 2007's Assassins forced audience members to pass among the actors in order to leave their seats; 2010's Sunday in the Park With George ("by any standard a major revival," said the Wall Street Journal) was magically 3-D.
"I can play with our space in how I tell his stories," says Nolen. "Those challenges make us better."
Tackling shows the Arden has done before also can pose challenges, but offers gifts as well. After noting that Nolen is punctilious in his demand for Sondheimian precision ("the thing that makes Terry Terry is that he's a stickler for making sure each lyric is clear and that we follow every bit of punctuation as written"), Ben Dibble homes in on why the current, second-time-around A Little Night Music, first presented in 1995, enhances all involved.
"In every Sondheim show, there are characters at different stages of life," says Dibble, who plays the pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. "Terry is interested in showing how different generations of characters act - the youth-versus-age thing. As you age, a different perspective rings truer. That's why he comes back to Sondheim and repeats shows like Night Music. The second time offers richness, more of life's ennui, all singing through Sondheim's voice."
As a married parent of three, Dibble gets where his director is coming from. Nolen was single and dating the woman (Amy Murphy, now Arden managing director) who would become his wife when he first directed Night Music. Now older, married, father of two, his vision of l'amour à la Sondheim has matured.
"Twenty years ago, my wife and I were in the first throes of love, our careers were beginning, and everything was ahead of us," he says. "Now, we're not just beginning. That is what Night Music is about, what Sondheim is about - life, with all of its potential, shifts, and resonances."
A Little Night Music
Through June 30 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2d St. Tickets: $36-$48. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.