Sondheim's Still Here

The ordinary songwriter, even the ordinary theater goer, might be relieved to know that Stephen Sondheim, the Tony-winning composer of "Follies..... Company" and "Into the Woods," uses a rhyming dictionary. Maybe that's what helped him pair "trenchant" and "penchant," or ,'vamp" and "camp." But it can't explain how he came up with something like this diabolical double whammy, a lyric that combines apocopation and internal rhyme--in three-quarter time, no less.

Perpetual sunset Is rather an unset Tling thing.

That prototypical bit of genius (from the relatively obscure "The Sun Won't Set") was not included in " Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," a benefit extravaganza held last week in New York City. Well, the producers had time for only 27 songs: they had to leave something out. In fact, they also omitted a raft of numbers the audience must have expected to hear, including "Too Many Mornings," "I'm Still Here" and "The Ladies Who Lunch." And they excluded anything for which Sondheim provided only the lyrics: "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Candide." This was particularly brave because the concert will be recycled commercially; RCA will release it on disc and PBS will telecast it next March.

As it happened, it was the remaining hit-parade songs that supplied most Of the evening's low points. Patti LuPone brought down the house but probably also did some damage to the ceiling plaster with a bellowing "Being Alive," which she may have misread as "Being Aloud." Big-ticket star Glenn Close delivered "Send in the Clowns" as if anesthetized. Liza Minnelli got the evening's plum--a new song, " Water Under the Bridge" --but her manic, mannered performance made it all but impossible to judge.

Lesser-known material, on the other hand, shone. Betty Buckley served up a sweetly admonishing "Children Will Listen" and paradigmatic Sondheim singer Bernadette Peters penetrated the shattered heart of "Not a Day Goes By." And even if musicianship was sometimes lacking, imagination, inspired staging and offbeat casting weren't. Madeline Kahn was a model of restrained hysteria as the bride who loses her grip in "Getting Married Today...... Broadway Baby" is usually sung by someone who long ago lost count of the times she'd been around the block. Here, the irresistible Daisy Eagan, 12 (and Tony winner for " The Secret Garden"), turned a song of experience into a song of innocence. Keeping the evening moving was the great clown Bill Irwin. "Conducting" an orchestral version of "Comedy Tonight," he was part Marx Brothers--Groucho, Harpo and Chico--and part Bernstein.

Grand musical tributes are usually reserved for people who are 100 or dead. This one, despite its flaws, was oddly on target. Like the composer himself, who is 62 and very much alive, it took some risks. Sondheim never settles for merely clever. His music, with its complicated rhythms and its unexpected resolutions, is never easy. Sondheim writes for the age of anxiety, always letting us know exactly where he is: deep in the heart of angst. " If I consciously sat down," he said once, "to write something that would send people out of the theater really happy, I wouldn't know how to do it." Instead, he makes us think. And that, in an age of mindless entertainment, may be the greatest joy of all.