With the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, interest in his music, books and shows has produced an outburst of Sondheim-o-mania. A new, gender-bent revival of his acclaimed musical, “Company”, just opened on Broadway; the revisionist film adaptation of “West Side Story”, directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, opens today in theaters world wide; and the first volume of his collected lyrics is disappearing from book store shelves throughout the world. This tribute to a genius of the musical theatre is well deserved and Aisle Say.ca is pleased to have our colleague Robert Cushman recount the evening 11 years ago when he interviewed Sondheim in Toronto.
Robert, exactly 11 years ago, the maestro was in our midst and you interviewed him in front of an SRO crowd at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto on the occasion of his 80th birthday and the publication of his memoir, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes” (Alfred A. Knopf). As I recall the evening, your interview with Stephen Sondheim lasted just over 90 minutes that went by like a flash with people willing to sit for a second act had there been one. As a theatre critic, how did you prepare for that evening? Were your questions vetted in advance?
RC: Well, thank you for all those compliments. I’m glad you enjoyed the event so much (I did too) and especially glad that it seemed to go by so fast. I can’t really recall how much preparation I did; probably not very much. I had some questions prepared of course, but I hoped that the conversation would develop its own momentum, which I think it did.
Questions certainly weren’t vetted in advance. Remember, this was essentially the Canadian touring version of an event that Sondheim had done all over the US with Frank Rich as his interviewer. So I was the road company Frank Rich. I did e-mail Steve and ask if there were questions that Frank always asked and he said no, that they usually took off from whatever Sondheim show was playing in the neighbourhood at the time. He told me, essentially, to ask anything I wanted to ask. I was of course flattered that he’d asked for me to do the interview. My wife said the experience was like listening to the two us chatting in his living-room in New York – she’d had to listen to a lot of that. The audience seemed to take it that way too.
What was the high point of the evening for you?
RC: This will seem very self-serving, but the highpoint for me was when we were wrapping up and Steve told the audience that we had known one another, and been talking like this, for fifty years. To which I said “I don’t think it’s been quite that long”. And he said “really?” And I said “we first met when “Company” and “Follies” were both playing on Broadway”. And he said “that was 1971” – more like forty years. So I had the double satisfaction of correcting Steve Sondheim on a matter of fact, and hearing him speak warmly of our long friendship.
I remember early on in your interview, you asked Sondheim which talent declared itself first when he was growing up – the need to compose music or the desire to write lyrics? Could you refresh my memory on how he answered that? And as he matured as an artist, did he labor more on the music or the lyric side – which came easier for him?
RC: My memory’s hazy too but I don’t think he had a definitive answer about which talent declared itself first. I got the impression that they grew together. And I think that’s how he wrote his scores; words and music evolved together, organically. I did once ask him (not at that event) which took longer to write, the music or the lyrics, and he replied, not unexpectedly, the lyrics.
Over the past week, much has been written about Sondheim’s life and work with “West Side Story”, “Gypsy”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, “Company”, “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “A Little Night Music”, “Into the Woods”, “Sunday in the Park with George” all called out as exemplary of his best work. In your recent eulogy that appeared in the National Post, you rank “Assassins” and “Into the Woods” as Sondheim’s two masterpieces with “Pacific Overtures” being your favorite show that he did with Hal Prince directing. Could you expand on that a bit? Would you call “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures” his two most political shows from a dramaturgical point of view?
RC: As I said in my National Post obituary/tribute, my favourite Sondheim tends to be the one I most recently saw. But of the Prince shows, “Pacific Overtures” stands out for me as the boldest, even the craziest: I mean, a Broadway musical about the forcible opening up of Japan to the West, done Kabuki style with an all-Asian all-male cast, though with the music becoming progressively more American as Japan itself did. And with the focus more on the country than on individual protagonists. And beautifully designed, staged, written and composed. I think of “Into the Woods” in its original Broadway production and of “Assassins” in its Toronto staging at Theatre Centre.* They were great ensemble shows, bursting with performing talent, something that always gets to me. And they were about ensemble or, to use a word of which I’m usually suspicious but which these shows reclaimed for me, community; Woods shows disparate people coming together to defeat a common enemy, “Assassins” bonds together a group of loners who have been rejected by their community, or feel they have, a community that seemed to promise them everything (yes, the American dream again). There’s a wonderful completeness in those two shows that left me feeling “yes, I’ve seen a masterpiece”. Sondheim, incidentally, once said that “Assassins” was the one score of his of which he wouldn’t change a word or a note.
“Pacific Overtures” and “Assassins” are certainly his most obviously political shows. (“Assassins”, incidentally, was Hal’s favourite of the shows that Steve did without him.) But they aren’t political in the tub-thumping manner; they’re deeply, sadly but sometimes hilariously, ironic.
Of course “A Funny Thing Happened…” is another masterpiece. A perfect show.
In the final chapter of Finishing the Hat, Sondheim addresses “Merrily We Roll Along“ (1981), his musical based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (which opened on Broadway in 1934). Over the years, the musical has achieved almost mythical status (look for a new production by New York Theatre Workshop to be announced soon). I’ve always wanted to see a production of the dramatic play but with a cast of 55 actors (!) it would be a challenge for any local company to take it on. Like the dramatic play, the musical adaptation begins with the ending and works its way backward in time over two acts, ending with the beginning. Kaufman and Hart’s original reverse chronology, worked backward from 1934 to 1916 during the Great Depression that included the period of FDR’s New Deal, the Algonquin Round Table (one of the characters was based on Dorothy Parker), the Group Theatre, and finally ending with the expression of youthful idealism in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Sondheim moved the chronology forward to capture the optimism of the Camelot-Kennedy era but still working backward (from 1976-1956). Do you think he dealt with this show last in his book because he still considered it to be a work in progress or was it just chronologically last?
RC: No, it was a matter of chronology. Finishing the Hat deals with all the shows up to and including his 1970s six-show collaboration with Hal Prince. It ends “And then I met James Lapine” – an arrow pointing to the sequel Look, I Made a Hat which covers the post-Prince shows, with Lapine and others. (So, yes, there was a second act in this American life.)
Referring to the proliferation of jukebox musicals on Broadway and the West End over the past several decades, Stephen Sondheim once said, “Today the audience is humming the tunes when they walk into the theatre.” Do you think this genre, where a book is cobbled together around an already existing songbook, is a lowering of the art form for musicals? There was a time when songs from the musical theatre entered the international repertory and became standards with “Send in the Clowns” being the most obvious example from Sondheim’s own work. Will we ever see this again? Is Stephen Sondheim’s passing also the passing of an entire era?
RC: Well, I’ve perpetrated a few jukebox musicals of my own, so I wouldn’t want to dismiss them out of hand. But, yes, they are a lesser form than musicals with original scores and cohesive scripts, and it’s a bad sign that the theatre has become so swarmed with and dependent on them, especially when the songs were never theatrical in the first place. A favourite Sondheim quote: “Rock music is fine for rock concerts, whether they’re rock concerts called rock concerts or rock concerts called “Hair” or Jesus Christ Superstar” . He went on to say that for telling stories and developing characters – for his kind of show –rock was hopeless. (He didn’t feel the same about rap or country music.)
“Send In the Clowns” was an anomaly – not just Sondheim’s only pop hit but the only song by a traditional Broadway writer to become both a hit and a standard in – my God, forty years. At least.Of course there are talented writers of musicals around, some of them tutored or inspired by him, but they don’t have the support system that previous generations enjoyed. Fewer shows get done, and they cost fortunes. And the ones that succeed run for ever, which further gums up the works. (And the ambitious ones can be awfully humourless.) So yes, the end of an era and maybe of a tradition; remember, Sondheim was tutored by Hammerstein and collaborated with Bernstein, Rodgers, Jule Styne. I’m sure the musical theatre has a future. I don’t know if it will be an interesting one.
*UPDATE (01/01/22): In January, 2011, as part of an Aisle Say.ca retrospective of outstanding current Toronto productions, I filed this snapshot review of “Assassins” that Robert Cushman refers to above.
Produced by Birdland Theatre (Zoranna Kydd, Artistic Producer)
and Talk is Free Theatre (Arkady Spivak, Artistic Producer)
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Adam Brazier
Musical direction by Reza Jacobs
Featuring: Graham Abbey, Whitney Ross-Barris, Kevin Fiddes, Lisa Horner, Martin Julien, Paul McQuillan, Janet Porter, Steve Ross, Christopher Stanton, Jonathan Tan, Alicia Toner, Geoffrey Tyler, Ezra Tennen
Extended run through February 13th.
Zoranna Kydd (artistic producer, Birdland Theatre) and Arkady Spivak (artistic producer,Talk is Free Theatre) are the up and coming producers to watch in Toronto. Their impeccable sense of timing in the re-mount of their 2010 Dora Award winning production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical, Assassins (here directed by Adam Brazier) sets a high standard for political engagement that couples with entertainment. Somewhat chillingly, I saw the show on the same day that Jared L. Loughner added his name to this rogue’s gallery of disturbed, limelight seeking individuals who believed that violence against the body politic was an acceptable way to file a grievance. With limited resources but plenty of talent, this ensemble is simply the best thing going at present for musical theatre in Toronto.