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Sondheim tribute overcomes power failure at Arden

Early arrivals at the Arden Theatre's fund-raising concert and award ceremony for Broadway eminence Stephen Sondheim on Monday night were greeted with champagne and popcorn and chatted happily in the lobby until just after 7, when the lights went out.

Arden's Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen presented Broadway eminence Stephen Sondheim, 85, the Arden Theatre's first Master Storyteller Award at a gala concert Monday night featuring highlights of the 13 Sondheim musicals the Arden has produced. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Arden's Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen presented Broadway eminence Stephen Sondheim, 85, the Arden Theatre's first Master Storyteller Award at a gala concert Monday night featuring highlights of the 13 Sondheim musicals the Arden has produced. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

Early arrivals at the Arden Theatre's fund-raising concert and award ceremony for Broadway eminence Stephen Sondheim on Monday night were greeted with champagne and popcorn and chatted happily in the lobby until just after 7, when the lights went out.

According to Peco, an underground cable shorted near the theater at 40 N. Second St. during a powerful rainstorm, taking out about 600 customers. By 8:30, power had been restored to 400 of them - but not the theater, where only emergency lights gleamed.

Sondheim, 85, and the event's host committee were dining at nearby Zahav when the neighborhood lost power. More than an hour later, as the remarkably patient lobby crowd grew and curtain time for the concert passed, the guest of honor still was nowhere to be seen.

But behind the scenes - where else? - theatrical wheels were turning. Up the street, in the Arden's Hamilton Family Center, a not-quite-two-year-old classroom/set shop/rehearsal facility, lights were on, as the entire gala was being moved to 62 N. Second.

When Arden artistic director Terry Nolen - who has directed all the theater's Sondheim shows - finally emerged in the lobby to announce the relocation, he was accompanied by a smiling, corduroy-clad Sondheim, who was met by a huge ovation.

The concert - a rich array of songs from previous productions, mostly performed by the actors who had first sung them on the Arden stage - had to be pared back. Sorry, no orchestra, just a piano. And a half-dozen of the numbers had to go. In addition, there were too few seats for all the ticketed audience members; some peeled off into the rainy night, but most trooped damply a half-block to the new venue, where, if they couldn't sit, they lined the walls and back of the room.

When things finally got underway, about 9, the guest of honor was seated in the audience, laughing and chatting with those around him, and the concert unfolded as if it had been planned that way all along.

The Arden timed the presentation of its first-ever biennial Master Storyteller Award for the run of Passion, its 13th Sondheim production - more than the total of any other artist in its 27-year-history.

Monday's event was a tribute to a long and valued relationship. For days, the theater's Facebook page had posted lyrics from some of Sondheim's shows - Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George - and asked fans and cast and crew members to share memories of their Sondheim favorites. The City of Philadelphia declared Monday as Stephen Sondheim Day.

The Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown was on hand at the eventful day's end to present the award to his Broadway colleague. He spoke eloquently of things musical and theatrical, and Sondheim responded briefly and appreciatively. The Arden was in good hands, he said (its nimble avoidance of disaster was testament to that), but he didn't want to say much more or he might get tearful, which Nolen already appeared to be.

Brown began his remarks by noting how hard it is to give Sondheim a compliment because "he always tries to change the subject or go away."

"But now," he said, "is the perfect time, because he's just got to sit there and listen to all the wonderful things I'm about to say."

To which Sondheim raised his hand and said, "Taxi!"

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