Vol. 9, No. 1, Summer 2002
Sondheim is interviewed by Frank Rich at the Kennedy Center
News & Notes
Into the Woods is named Best Revival; Gold! scheduled in Chicago
The start of the repertory series in Washington
Sweeney Todd is a strong opener
Brian Stokes Mitchell tries on another dark role
Christine Baranski repeats her Mrs. Lovett
Hugh Panaro gets to play Anthony
Company has a shallow Bobby
Jonathan Tunick leads the orchestra this time
Lynn Redgrave finds her Joanne
Alice Ripley is the frantic Amy
Sunday in the Park is new and original
Melissa Errico stars as Dot
Donna Migliaccio repeats another Sondheim role
Kids put on the junior Into the Woods
Into the Woods
Some new wrinkles in a faithful revival
What the critics said about Into the Woods
Melissa Dye, Woods' Rapunzel, kept a journal from early rehearsals to opening night
In this Company, Marta became Marty
Pegasus opens Sunday; a Passion concert in San Francisco
For Your Amusement
On Sunday evening, April 29, the celebration began. The first event of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center was "Sondheim on Sondheim: An Interview with Stephen Sondheim by Frank Rich," and the Concert Hall, which seats 2,700, was virtually full with an exuberant and enthusiastic audience.
Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center and the force behind the celebration, described his initial vision to "create a theatrical version of a museum retrospective." He brought in Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., as the artistic director, and together they finally wooed a doubting Sondheim into accepting the repertory concept of six new productions of his shows.
Using lines from the song "Putting It Together," Kaiser made allusions to "a vision's just a vision if it's only in your head" and that getting to this evening had entailed working "link by link, drink by drink" and even, here and there, a "mink by mink" over the two years of planning and fundraising.
Sondheim looked and sounded strong and upbeat. Much of what he said has been said publicly before, but there were interesting details and a few entirely new things in this free-form conversation. Rich, the former theater critic and now a columnist for The New York Times, began by commenting that it was forty years ago to the day that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum had opened its out-of-town tryouts in Washington. What did Sondheim remember of that performance?
There may have been more people on the stage than in the audience, Sondheim replied. He had joked to Hal Prince: "Why don't we invite the audience back to the hotel room after the show?" Sondheim said he had urged that Jerome Robbins be brought in to help with the show, and it was Robbins who suggested that the opening number, "Love Is in the Air," be replaced with something that more clearly told the audience what kind of show lay in store for them.
Sondheim had already written one such version of an opening number--"Forget War"--but the director, George Abbott, had not liked it. Robbins told Sondheim he should write a new number like the earlier one anyway. The result was "Comedy Tonight," which he wrote while staying at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. Most interestingly, Robbins told Sondheim not to put jokes into the lyric--Robbins would supply the necessary visual jokes in his staging--which he famously did.
Regarding Gypsy and Ethel Merman, Sondheim said the idea behind the stutter in "Rose's Turn" was inspired by a moment toward the end of A Streetcar Named Desire when Blanche is taking a bath and calls out to her sister, telling her what clothes to lay out. Blanche's mind starts to crack, and she begins stuttering as she visualizes her dress. Sondheim thought it would be interesting to use the technique in the song. When Rose sings "Momma's gotta let go," she suddenly remembers that her daughter had earlier told her "Momma, you have to let go of me!"--and Rose begins to stutter in recognition of this reality. When Sondheim first sang the number for Merman, her typically practical response was, "Sort of more like an aria than a song. Now that 'M-M-Momma' stuff' is that on the upbeat or the downbeat?"
Sondheim has often recounted Oscar Hammerstein's recommendation that he take the job writing the lyrics for West Side Story just for the opportunity to work with such top-notch professionals as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Robbins. Was there any particular thing he learned from the collaboration?
"Lenny was never ashamed to fall off the high rung of the ladder," Sondheim replied. He added that he would like to think of his own failures as big failures. By the time of his collaboration with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?, Sondheim was afraid that Rodgers' "well had gone dry." This made Rodgers loathe to revise or replace songs, all but guaranteeing a less-than-satisfying final product. Sondheim said that he is a fan of Rodgers' music up through The King and I, after which he "became less inventive--so did Oscar." His favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein show is Carousel, mostly because of the score.
Asked if he prefers any of his characters over the others, Sondheim said that he has enjoyed all of them --"they become family"--but that Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George was the most interesting because he was so secretive. This made him an ideal character to fictionalize, as opposed to a well -known artist: "What could we do with Van Gogh? Have him cut off a toe?"
But Sondheim said he thought he and James Lapine came quite close to creating a character who is probably very close to the actual Seurat. Asked about the song "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim said he wanted to recreate that moment known to any artist in any medium--the trance-like state during the creative process. He also wanted to show the difference between life and art, and how, unfortunately, George could not have both.
Regarding the state of the art, Sondheim said he is still gloomy about the future of a healthy commercial theater. He thinks the trend of sung-through pop/rock operas has, for now at least, passed, having been replaced by self-referential shows like Urinetown and The Producers that tend to make fun of such spectacles. Anything that is fun and funny is welcome, he said, but then easy shows will always be bigger hits.
"I suspect Aristophanes outsold Euripides," he joked. But he was excited by the prospect of three new productions of his work--the then-imminent revival of Into the Woods, the likelihood of the Roundabout Theater's production of Assassins next season, and his current collaboration with John Weidman and Hal Prince on Gold! Into the Woods has since opened to good reviews and ten Tony nominations. Sondheim said he and Weidman feel that audiences are now ready--as they were not immediately after September 11--to accept a new production of a show like Assassins that raises issues of what Americans expect of their country and the difference between a right to happiness and the right to pursue happiness.
Perhaps most encouraging was his excitement about his renewed collaboration with Hal Prince after so long a hiatus. "The minute I leave a meeting with Hal, or get off the phone with him, I can't wait to get to the piano or to writing. He inspires you."
One fascinating comment stood out in an evening of illuminations radiating from Sondheim, some of which were not pursued by Rich. In discussing the tension created by the combination of music and lyrics, Sondheim said: "Poetry is about concision and music is about explosion."
As for the future, he still gets attracted to stories or "ways of telling stories." With the recent trend of musicals based on movies, are there any movies he had been interested in musicalizing? Groundhog Day was the surprising answer. It's the Bill Murray comedy in which the main character relives a day over and over, making different choices. It would be a great musical, Sondheim said, and would lend itself to the idea of "theme and variation," a method that he has not tried before. There are "so many wonderful stories to tell, I'd like to find some that would lead me to music you haven't heard before."
An exciting thought with which to begin the Kennedy Center's retrospective.
Mark Eden Horowitz is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress. He will be reviewing all of the shows in the Sondheim Celebration.
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