A Conversation With Stephen Sondheim: On Lyrics, On Cast Albums, On Weekends in the Country

By Kenneth Jones
24 Nov 2011

Follies choreographer Warren Carlyle and director Eric Schaeffer
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Do you slip into your shows and give notes while they're running, or do you step away and live your life?
SS: Oh, no, somebody's got to go. Particularly in this case, [with Follies] Eric Schaeffer, the director, is based in Washington, so, you know, he only gets a chance to get up to New York every couple of weeks, so I try to go in — actually I haven't been myself in two weeks, but that's because of the book, doing promo and that sort of stuff for the book. But, no, if the director isn't around each week, then the authors usually go in and check.

And you give notes.
SS: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Yeah. But if the director isn't there, I give them to the stage manager.

When we spoke last year, I asked if you had a drawerful of show ideas. And you said a "drawer" is too big, you said it's a "shallow drawer."
SS: [Laughs.] That's right, exactly. There's still one or two in there, but I'd say two at the most.

When I talk to emerging musical theatre writers they often talk about how they see ideas for musicals in everything — in pop culture, in everyday life, in magazine articles. When you experience the world, do you say the same thing? "This would make a great musical…"?
SS: No, well, every now and then I come across — as I did with Sweeney and with Assassins — an idea, but most of the time people come to me with an idea. Collaborators whom I've worked with come to me with ideas. I don't spend my life looking, and never did, for subjects to write about. It was always somebody, whether it was Arthur Laurents or Hal Prince or John Weidman, somebody — [James] Lapine — would come up with them. It's usually librettists who come. And in the days when I was working with Hal a couple of ideas came from him.

But sometimes they do leap out. They sometimes slap you in the face, ideas.
SS: Yes, well every now and then. As I say Sweeney when I saw that out in Stratford East in England, and when I first saw the title of this idea that a playwright had of Assassins, yeah, they leap out at me. Other times, you know, we were looking, Hal and I. A Little Night Music [happened] because Hal and I wanted to do something romantic and then we asked Hugh [Wheeler] to do it with us. Hal and I, we started trying to get the rights to Ring 'Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh and the agent wouldn't give us the rights, so we went looking for something like Ring 'Round the Moon. I don't read a lot, I go to the movies a lot, or I used to anyway, and I remembered two movies: Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game" and Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," and so while Hal and Hugh were reading, I suggested those, but that's where you are searching through a very specific pile, so to speak. Things popping out of newspapers? That doesn't happen to me very often.