Before Frank Rich was “Frank Rich of the New York Times,” he was a writer at his alma mater’s paper, The Harvard Crimson. It was in Boston that a young Rich saw the tryout of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Rich was just 21 then, but his review caught the eye of the very man he praised, and he was invited to join a then 41-year-old Sondheim at lunch. That was 1971.
Nearly 40 years later, Rich, former chief theatre critic for the Times, and Sondheim, one of the greatest voices in American musical theatre (and a man who has said, as Rich mentioned last night, that theatre is the only art form in the world reviewed by ignoramuses), have maintained an odd closeness. Their friendship blossomed after Rich retired his post as theatre critic, and went on to critique politics (perhaps just as artful a form) as an op-ed columnist for the broadsheet. But Rich maintained his roots in the theatre over the years, chiefly with a series of public talks with Sondheim, which began in 2002 at the Kennedy Center.
What better year to revive these popular fireside (sans fire) chats than 2010 — surely, The Year of Sondheim. His 80th birthday was met with scores of celebrations around the world: from Lincoln Center to Studio 54 to Carnegie Hall to Chicago’s Ravinia to London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Donmar Warehouse to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In September 2010, Sondheim joined other master composers of the theatre (Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin) and got a Broadway theatre named after himself.
The icing on the Sondheim birthday cake for many of his fans was the recent release of his long-awaited book “Finishing the Hat,” the first in a two-volume set exploring his extraordinary life in the theatre through his lyrics.
That book was the topic of discussion during the sold out Nov. 22 Times Talk at the New York Times building. “We were number 11 on the top-sellers list for one week,” recounts Sondheim. “Almost up as long as Anyone Can Whistle.”
Over the course of the 90-minute conversation, Rich guided Sondheim through highlights of the book.
About Sondheim’s chance involvement in West Side Story. “I just wanted to meet Leonard Bernstein,” Sondheim said of his choice to take the job as lyricist after Betty Comden and Adolf Green were unable to take the job due to a Hollywood gig.
Rich mentioned Sondheim’s swipes at fellow songwriters Noel Coward, W.S. Gilbert and Ira Gershwin. “Michael Feinstein was his protégé,” Sondheim said. “I’m a little worried I haven’t heard from him yet.” (to which Rich took his own swipe: “He’s too busy planning his reunion with Dame Edna.”)
But you got the sense that Sondheim's critiques were not there to simply sell books. And he himself is not spared."[A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the] Forum was me showing off," he said. "I should have written it to match the libretto."
Sondheim has a deep respect for his craft and for other artists. When asked who he thought was the most underappreciated lyricist in the theatre, he mentioned Dorothy Fields (Seesaw, Sweet Charity) and that he wished Johnny Mercer had written more for the stage.
With the current revival of A Little Night Music about to go off into the sunset, Rich asked Sondheim if he would be willing to share his preference in leading ladies. Was he Team Zeta-Jones/Lansbury or Team Peters/Stritch? “There is no such thing as better or worse, just different,” Sondheim remarked. But on reflection, he mentions that when he saw Bernadette Peters’ Desiree he thought, “Oh boy, oh boy….[she was] hugely generous, joyful, human…. She’s one of the few people who knows how to act while singing.” On the topic of Night Music, Rich couldn’t help but ask for a “Stritch story.” Sondheim laughed and told of the time in previews when Stritch, who was having a rough time memorizing some of her lines, insisted on having a prompter named Mary help her as opposed to a more discreet inner-ear monitor or having lyrics written out for her. It would have worked, had Stritch not screamed “Mary!” in between the lyrics. “That lasted about a week,” Sondheim chuckled.
Rich read questions from some of the audience, including an inquiry about his “most bitter moment in the theatre,” Sondheim responded that he didn’t really have a most bitter moment, rather a most disappointing one. “When Whistle got slaughtered…I was disappointed that more of my friends wouldn’t get to see it.”
On the rumors that Merrily We Roll along would be revived with James Lapine at the helm, Sondheim gave his patented sideways smirk and simply knocked on the wood table beside him. Enough said.
On “Glee.” Turns out, he’s a fan! “[It’s] a mix of contemporary songs and show tunes in the service of joy,” Sondheim said.
On the one show he wished he had been asked to work on: “Carnival. I really wish David Merrick would have asked me to work on that.” And why? “It’s about a man communicating though puppets… isn’t that what being a playwright is really all about?”
On whether or not he’ll write an original musical again. “Expectation is a great deterrent,” he said. After sensing some disappointment from the scores of Sondheim fans in the audience, he seconded his thought with “I’ll overcome that. When you have something you want to write, you just write it."
Rich couldn’t help asking Sondheim more about his candid feelings on theatre critics. “Very few of them know anything about music. When I read a review that says ‘You can’t hum the lyrics’,” Sondheim cracked before putting his face into his hands and muttering, “Oh, Christ.”
Rich summed up the evening with a final question about the book. If Volume One is called “Finishing the Hat.” What do you call Volume Two?
Sondheim replied simply, “Look, I Made a Hat."
[caption id="attachment_3157" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="(c) 2010, Matthew Arnold"][/caption]