November 26, 2022 marks the one-year anniversary of Stephen Sondheim's death, who died in 2021 at the age of 91. The eight-time-Tony-winning titan of the American theatre was productive up until his death, checking in on the Company revival on Broadway and working on a new musical (Buñuel with David Ives). In between, he was conducting interviews from his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. One of those interviews is the foundation for the new book Finale, Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by New Yorker writer D.T. Max.
Over the course of the last three years of Sondheim's life, Max conducted numerous interviews with the composer, for a profile to be published at the premiere of Sondheim's new musical. Those interviews—with Sondheim relaxed, thoughtful, and sardonic—are part of Finale (a portion was previously published by the New Yorker). Below, Sondheim reflects on Merrily We Roll Along and that time Meryl Streep starred in The Frogs.
On Merrily We Roll Along:
Stephen Sondheim: Up until a few years ago, I had never re-used a trunk tune.
D.T. Max: Did you call it “a trunk tune”?
Yeah, you have a trunk in the attic with all of your—some writers have a bottom drawer in the den. My trunk, unfortunately, is a briefcase. [We laugh.] A melody in Bounce was taken from a version of Assassins, for a song called “It’s in Your Hands Now.” But it’s a very rare case. Music has just as much flavor for its purpose as prose does, so, you know, a tune that fits Passion is unlikely to be a tune that will fit the atmosphere of Merrily We Roll Along.
For you, which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
Oh, they come together.
Merrily is the show where whatever period of your life you see it in, it means something different, because that’s what it’s about. I’ve had a lot of people say, “My God! I feel so differently about it.” And I’m not talking about good or bad different—just their emotional reaction.
I always cry at the climax of “Opening Doors,” when they say, “We’ll worry about it on Sunday.” I identify with the show very intimately. It relates to my life. It’s not about my life, but it relates. And gosh, you know, it just touches me. Also, I love George’s writing so much. George Furth [the book writer] is one of the most underrated writers in the American theatre.
Is Merrily one of the shows you feel most close to?
It’s one, certainly. Well, partly because it’s always been slapped around, and you tend to like the child who gets the least attention the most, you know? So I keep wanting people not only to like it, but to appreciate George’s work. It’s the Dickensian child in the corner.
On how Sondheim met Meryl Streep:
D.T. Max: How did you meet? Through Into the Woods?
Stephen Sondheim: Noooo!
Meryl Streep: Long before that!
Tell me how you met.
Streep: I was in a production of The Frogs, which was at Yale when I was a first-year student. And I was in the chorus. And he was very legendary.
Sondheim: It was 1973. It took place in the Yale swimming pool.
And you spotted her on the chorus?
Streep: No, no, I don’t think he even noticed me. But it was really hilarious. There was a lot of vying to get into the chorus from the women in the drama school because most of the cast were young men in bathing suits. Everybody wanted to be in the chorus! [Laughs]
Sondheim: The Yale swimming team played the frogs.
Streep: And they were fantastic.
And when you made Into the Woods, you probably didn’t see a lot of each other either, right? Because you weren’t on the set.
Sondheim: We did at the beginning, because I wrote a song for her.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I listened to it last night—the bonus track. [The song is called “She’ll Be Back.”]
Sondheim: I love it.
Were you sad that it didn’t wind up in the movie?
Streep: I was, but I really understood why, thematically.
Sondheim: Me too.
Streep: It made great sense.
Sondheim: I think, in fact, when I wrote it, I said, “You’re going to cut this song, because it is going to hold up the action. And it’s wonderful to have her sing a solo, but . . .” And sure enough, they cut it.
You sing it so beautifully.
Sondheim: Yeah. But you can always tell when you’re writing something—whether it’s good or bad. I learned that from Oscar Hammerstein, who was completely ruthless about cutting songs. When they wrote Oklahoma! their big song was a song called “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which was played in the overture, sung in the first act, played in the entr’acte, and reprised in the second act. [He pauses for effect.] And they cut it in New Haven.
Streep: Wow! Let’s get a hold of it!
Sondheim: Well, it eventually ended up in an MGM movie, and Judy Garland sang it, and then it was cut.
But you autographed Meryl’s sheet music for that song, right? With the inscription “Don’t fuck it up”? I read this—
Sondheim: How did you find that?
Sondheim: She must have told somebody. I didn’t tell anybody.
It popped right up!
Sondheim: He spends his life looking at chat rooms and YouTube . . . but no, he’s really a literary person. [I’m being teased.]
I use it to figure out where my kids are. [Streep and Sondheim laugh.] So, you guys have no current plans to collaborate on anything at the moment?
Sondheim: No, I wish we did.
Streep: I’ve written a new thing, Steve. [Laughs]
Sondheim: Well, in actuality—we actually discussed something in London. But I’m not gonna tell you what it is.
Streep: I’m hoping. I’m sitting on my hands and hoping.
Sondheim: I’m thinking. I have actually given some thought to it.
A full-length theatrical work with music?
Sondheim: I haven’t—that’s as far as we go.
[To Streep] And you know what this thing is?
Sondheim: No. Well, we decided on something that interested us mutually.
That’s exciting. Is it bigger than a bread box?
Sondheim: Don’t probe, because we’ve done nothing but talk about it. It hasn’t gotten any farther than that. But we have, and I have not forgotten.
Streep: And you know, the kiss of death for a new project is to talk about it before it’s become a thing. It’s a kinahora. [She taps the table.] You don’t buy a crib—
Sondheim: Yeah. And you don’t tell everybody “I’m pregnant!” You don’t do that.
People do that now.
Streep: They post their sonograms!
Sondheim: Oh my God!
They do. Is that inviting the evil hand?
Sondheim: Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s inviting the curse.
But medical care is so much better than it was.
Sondheim: I’ll tell you one thing: When you say, “Guess what? I had the baby yesterday,” the listener is so bored. You know, you’ve been waiting for the premiere? Enough already!
Finale, Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim was released November 22 from Harper Collins. Click here to purchase.