Look, We Made a Chat: Stephen Sondheim Talks to Playbill.com

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03 Dec 2010

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Year of Stephen Sondheim. Sounds grand, doesn't it? But that's what 2010 was for those of us who still view the musical theatre as an important art form worth celebrating, examining and encouraging.

This was the year that composer-lyricist Sondheim — whose Broadway musicals include Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Follies and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, among others — turned 80. Concerts were presented around the world, Broadway's Henry Miller's Theatre was named The Stephen Sondheim and the writer's first book of collected lyrics, volume one, "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," was published by Knopf in October.

Why celebrate Sondheim? Let's point out what is obvious to the seasoned Playbill.com reader, but what may not be obvious to young people who are just now having their first brushes with Gypsy, West Side Story, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures, Passion and Merrily We Roll Along. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-honored Sondheim changed the face of American musicals by building on a foundation set down by his artistic mentor and father-figure, the librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who himself had reinvented musicals a generation earlier by insisting that songs do more than divert and charm — they must explore character and drive plot (and address important social-justice issues). Sondheim recognized Hammerstein's revolution (it began with Show Boat and continued with Hammerstein's musicals with Richard Rodgers — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and others), but Sondheim sought to avoid Hammerstein's reliance on holdovers from the operetta era (purple prose and unnatural phrasing) and pushed for delving deeper into the psychology of characters. As a lyricist, he tells us in his book, he follows three rules: content dictates form, less is more, God is in the details. Sondheim and his librettists care about drawing you away from their contributions and closer to the world, the people and the point of the musical play.

This only scratches the surface of why Sondheim was celebrated in 2010. And, what a celebration: a new Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, a new Broadway revue called Sondheim On Sondheim (cast albums of both shows were recently nominated for Grammy Awards), a starry concert by the New York Philharmonic (aired on PBS and released on DVD), a concert at New York City Center, a London Concert at Royal Albert Hall (broadcast on the BBC), a gala birthday celebration by Roundabout Theatre Company (a frequent artistic home of Sondheim works), the DVD release of the 1966 TV musical "Evening Primrose" (script by James Goldman and songs by Sondheim) a concert by New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, a handful of public interviews (including a Nov. 22 Times Talk event with Frank Rich) and more.

Sondheim, who splits his time between homes in Manhattan and Connecticut, is busy working on volume two of his collected lyrics, "Look, I Made a Hat," due out in fall 2011. The coming year is to be quieter, and that's O.K. with the usually public-shy songwriter. "Nobody celebrates your 81st," he told me, as though relieved. I spoke to Sondheim by phone on Nov. 23, when he was in Connecticut.

From what I know of your career and your work, 2010 is possibly the busiest year ever for you in terms of appointments and appearances and interviews.
Stephen Sondheim: Oh, sure it is. Oh, exactly. It's much the busiest, of course.

How do you feel about it? Is it a great joy for you to be doing this, or is it a chore?
SS: It's both thrilling and embarrassing, and exhausting and gratifying — it's everything at once. You know, I'd rather be at home just working, but this is partly work and partly pleasure.

What's the best part of 2010?
SS: Oh, I can't — you mean so far…? Oh, gosh —

Getting a Broadway marquee?
SS: Oh, that's one, sure, that's one highlight. The PBS — The Philharmonic concert…that's another one, that was a big highlight of the year. That was terrific. But I guess it's all the concerts. And the production of Passion in London, which is extraordinary. And also a production of Into the Woods in London, which is also extraordinary.

And there's your book. I'm devouring it, I'm really loving it.
SS: Oh, good.

In the book — which contains much more than just your lyrics and annotations — you make observations about songwriters of the past. I love how you're critical, but you're also incredibly generous. Particularly what you say about Alan Jay Lerner. You call his lyrics "pleasant," "smooth," "polite," but observe that they "lack energy and flavor and passion," and are without "personality." But then you go on to say that My Fair Lady was one of the most entertaining nights you spent in the theatre.
SS: Oh, sure, because, you know, everybody I speak about, there's stuff of theirs that I like, or that I've enjoyed. None of those people are somebody whose work I only deplore. It's the balance of how much you like and how much you don't. Yeah, My Fair Lady was a terrific show.

I know very well the influence that Oscar Hammerstein had in your world, but there is something that you write in the book that you acknowledge will be a "seismic shock" to people: that Hammerstein was not your idol.
SS: What I should have said is he's my hero, not my idol.

People often think that because Rodgers and Hammerstein started a revolution in storytelling, that Hammerstein's lyrics were also revolutionary —
SS: No, no, first of all, Hammerstein's the one who started the revolution. Not Rodgers, it was Hammerstein. I mean, it started with Show Boat.

You've pointed out in the past that Hammerstein's lyrics were not revolutionary.
SS: No, it's about the theatre. I've said often, he's rarely recognized as the experimental playwright that he was. As you know, in the book I compare him to Eugene O'Neill, because O'Neill was also an experimental playwright. And, both of them, their language did not soar in the way their imaginations did.

I'm curious to know your relationship to Show Boat, since the show is so seminal. It's where modern musicals began. When did you first see it — did you see the 1945 revival of it?
SS: Yeah, that was the first time I ever saw it on stage — it's interesting, yeah, which Oscar directed himself.

Could you talk about Show Boat a little bit? How does it strike you?
SS: It's not the show itself — it's what it attempts to do. You know, it's sort of clunky. And there've been many versions of it, as you know. It was so unwieldy when it was first done. It's Candide. No two productions are alike. Not just the productions, but in terms of what the contours of the script are, what songs are in, what songs are not. You know, it was a big sprawling work, just like the novel that it was based on, and, so there's no definitive version of Show Boat. Nor will there ever be, just the way that there's no definitive version of Candide. There are approved versions, but no definitive ones.

From production to production, over the years, there have been songs cut or interpolations — variant songs restored — to Show Boat with permission.
SS: Mm-hm.

When your musicals are done by groups around the country, do you get word about people "Frankensteining" your shows without authorization? Adding Fredrika's "Letter Song" to A Little Night Music, things like that…
SS: Well, usually, only too late, after the shows have been on. But sometimes we get reports of a show that's on where they screwed around with the score or the script and we, meaning MTI, the leasing organization — Music Theatre International — puts a stop to it, because it's a breach of contract. But you have to find out about it in advance. Most of these breaches, you know, are shows that only run for a weekend or for a week or are college shows or things like that, so by the time you find about them, it's too late.

Does it trouble you that in a hundred years people might be playing fast and loose with your work?
SS: No, it doesn't bother — I don't care what happens after I'm dead. You know, and also, as long as they're in print, people know what they're supposed to be. As long as they've been recorded, people know what they're supposed to be.

Carol Bruce and Jan Clayton in the 1945 revival of Show Boat

Briefly back to Show Boat. Without it, the map of 20th-century musical theatre would have been very different, no?
SS: Well, look, that's one of those metaphysical questions: "If it hadn't happened, would . . . ?" That's "Someone in a Tree" — you know, if that hadn't happened, would everything have been changed? I think somebody else would have come along and done it. I mean, you know, art moves forward. It wouldn't have stayed in the backwater forever.

For the past decade, I, along with friends and colleagues, would scratch our heads and wonder why there isn't a Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway.
SS: Well, guess what?

It was time. But I have also wondered why there isn't an Oscar Hammerstein Theatre.
SS: Oh, please. Hello! Why isn't there a Tennessee Williams Theatre? C'mon. I mean, there's a Eugene O'Neill but no Tennessee Williams. What is that?

What can we do to get Oscar a theatre?
SS: Well, you know, somebody has to sponsor it. Cameron Mackintosh made a Noel Coward Theatre in London out of what was…somebody else's theatre. And, theatre names do change. Martin Beck had to cede way to Al Hirschfeld — they were both real people. I've no idea how that stuff starts, how somebody starts the ball rolling. In the case of London, Cameron Mackintosh owns a number of theatres, so he can rename them, just the way the Shuberts renamed two theatres after themselves.

Of course, a theatre naming is only one way to recognize someone. The are generations of people now who don't know that Hammerstein made history.
SS: I know. Well, of course, there used to be a Hammerstein Theatre, as you know, on 42nd Street. That was his grandfather. And then there still is the Hammerstein Ballroom.

And the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where "The Late Show" is taped, is the former Hammerstein's Theatre.
SS: There used to be a George Abbott on 54th.

There's a Samuel J. Friedman. And an American Airlines…
SS: Enough, enough.

Do you hate the question, "What is your favorite Hammerstein song or lyric?"
SS: No, actually. Nobody's ever asked me. It would be hard, you know? Certainly one of my favorite lines of Hammerstein is in "What's the Use of Wond'rin'," when he says, that "anytime he needs you, you'll go runnin' there like mad." That's a line I think is wonderful. So, you know, I like an awful lot of his lyrics, but "favorite"? Gosh, I don't know. Favorites are hard to pick out. Of anything — favorite show, favorite song — anybody else's or one of my own. Also, what's your favorite this week may not be your favorite next week.

At the recent public Times Talk conversation with Frank Rich, you said that "Oscar took the fun out of it for the rest of us" when he started going deeper than his contemporaries.
SS: Yeah, what he did, he just made it — he made musicals more difficult to write because suddenly you had the task of telling story as well as writing songs. That's all that means.

Oscar Hammerstein II

But it suggested that the age of writing diversionary songs — really delightful whipped-cream songs — was over after Hammerstein.
SS: Oh, no, no, I didn't mean that. No, those still exist. I've written some of those myself. But certainly…audiences have demanded more than the sort of fluffy empty musicals of the '30s and '20s. Although, still, a show like Crazy for You gets to be a big hit. Also No, No, Nanette. So, there's still room for them, it's just that, the balance now is towards musicals that tell stories and that try to involve an audience. And that's been true for 50 years.

And, as a theatregoer, do you delight in revivals of more frivolous pieces?
SS: Oh, if they're good, of course.

Like, Me and My Girl, was that — ?
SS: Yeah, I liked Me and My Girl…I saw it in London. Yeah, I liked it very much.

I'm curious to know what you've liked lately on Broadway, in terms of plays —
SS: I don't do that. I don't give opinions.

SS: No, no. One thing that I can unequivocally give an opinion about is the National Theatre production of Hamlet [in the U.K.], which is on right now. That, everybody should go see.

If I can jump around I'd love to ask you some scattershot questions.
SS: Sure.

In your book, you wrote that — after the passing of Oscar Hammerstein — Richard Rodgers sent you three or four ideas for musicals.
SS: Yeah.

Do you remember what they were?
SS: No.

There's always been a rumor that you wrote your own spec score — music and lyrics — for Gypsy.
SS: Rumor, rumor, rumor. No foundation whatsoever.

Well, we can dream, can't we?
SS: (Laughing.) Why would ya? No. When I auditioned for Gypsy, I auditioned with songs from Saturday Night.

I'm a big fan of your score for the TV musical "Evening Primrose." Has there been talk of fleshing it out to be a 90-minute stage musical — adding new songs? Making it a new Sondheim property?
SS: Oh, a lot of people have said that: "Put it on the stage." First of all, we don't own the rights, the [John] Collier estate owns the rights, the stage rights. We only have permission to do it for TV. And also James [Goldman] is no longer with us. And I don't want to go back to old work, so — no. No temptation.


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