A London Chat with Stephen Sondheim
Pacific Overtures on Broadway
Pacific Overtures sails back to Broadway
Review excerpts for Pacific Overtures
They were younger then: Sab Shimono & Alvin Y.F. Ing
John Weidman: One thing led to another
Biography of a Song
“Send in the Clowns”
Words from Stephen Sondheim
A London Chat
Carping, Correcting and Cutting: Sondheim writes letters
Patti LuPone: Telling the Story
North American Report
Night Music blows into Orlando
Cerebral, delightful Night Music in L.A.
Celebrating good Company in Boston
A Passionate reunion in New York City
Vivid panache: Sweeney in Cleveland
Chicago’s Porchlight bakes a hot Sweeney
Strong cast boosts Toronto’s Side by Side
Curtain’s for London’s Bridewell
Australian Woods in the open air
Review excerpts for Watermill’s Sweeney
Sweeney braves an Icelandic autumn
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
A London Chat with Stephen Sondheim
By Mark Shenton
TSR’s London correspondent, Mark Shenton, interviewed Stephen Sondheim in front of a live capacity audience, on the set of the National Theatre’s recent Olivier Theatre revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that Sondheim had just seen that late October afternoon. Shenton began by asking him about the continuing popularity of Forum.
MS: To start with Forum — this is the fourth major London production. Why do you think it continues to be so popular?
SS: Because it’s so funny. It is, and this is not an immodest statement. The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is for my money the best farce I’ve ever read or seen. It is so intricately put together, and it comes across so easily; it’s like it was written in an afternoon, it has a kind of breeziness to it. … [But it actually] took four years to write; for most of those four years we didn’t work on anything else, and it shows.
MS: You saw it today — what did you particularly like about this production?
SS: My favorite moment was Miles’ entrance. Miles Gloriosus is the braggart warrior, played by Philip Quast, and you hear him offstage saying, in a booming, stentorian voice, “Watch out there, I take large steps!” And he does. It’s really inventive and funny. Burt originally did this show when he taught at Yale, and did it with undergraduates. He took one play of Plautus, namely Miles Gloriosus, the Braggart Warrior, and he wrote that line — “Watch out there, I take large steps!” — and cast the warrior with a fellow who was five foot one.
MS: Philip Quast was your original George here at the National in Sunday in the Park with George, which is what began your association with the National, and you’ve sort of become the house musical dramatist here. You’ve created one original work for the National, which was a song for The Chain Play.
SS: Oh yes, indeed. I wasn’t here to see it unfortunately.
MS: It was the 25th anniversary of the National Theatre being on the South Bank, and they commissioned a bunch of playwrights to write something as part of The Chain Play. You wrote new lyrics to “Something Just Broke.”
SS: Yes, it was a song that had been cut from Assassins, and I wrote new lyrics for it.
MS: The current London Sweeney Todd, which you haven’t seen yet …
SS: … I’ve seen a tape of it.
MS: It’s the smallest production it has yet had.
SS: Yes, it’s even smaller than the one that was at the Cottesloe.
MS: I’ve heard it described as “The Toddler” or “Teeny Todd.” This is the fourth major London production we’ve had; it was also produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden last year. It’s an incredibly popular show.
SS: Well, it wasn’t when it was first done here. It was not popular at all. The press did not like it. I think what happened was that they thought, “Who are these Americans to tell us a British story?”… I meant it as my love letter to London, because I love London. I saw Chris Bond’s play out at Stratford East in 1973, and thought it would make a musical. I’m not quite sure why the original production was as poorly received as it was, but it was not a success. Then when Declan Donnellan did his production in the Cottesloe, which was brilliant, it was well received. I don’t know what happened to British taste over the period of time, because the show wasn’t changed at all, except for Declan’s work on it.
MS: We’ve also had a promenade production of Sweeney, at the Bridewell. Did you see that?
SS: I missed it by one day. It sounds terrific. The audience was ushered into a vault-like room, lit only by slit windows high up, and when the show started, the doors to the room were shut and the entire audience was trapped. There were very few seats, and bodies started to drop all around you, blood splattering — it’s my idea of what the show’s supposed to be!
MS: The Bridewell is also responsible for the only British premiere you’ve had of one of your shows — Saturday Night.
SS: Yes indeed, a show I wrote when I was 23 years old.
MS: You’ve heard about the fate of the Bridewell, which is threatened with closure?
SS: Yes, I’m really sorry. It’s one of the few venues that existed in London for the production of new or interesting musicals. It’s a small and intimate house, but they did wonderful work there. I saw a couple of things there.
MS: Moving On also began life there, which was what became Opening Doors that has just been done in New York.
SS: Yes, that’s a revue of songs, like Side by Side.
MS: Is there a further life for that?
SS: I think so, yes, we just did it for six performances in New York at a concert hall. It’s a revue of songs I wrote, but the gimmick, devised by David Kernan, is that the groups of songs are introduced by my voice-over, talking about various subjects. What happened was that David and John Kane came to my house a few years ago and asked questions about everything from writing to living, and then they edited the tape … That started at the Bridewell.
MS: Pacific Overtures is about to be revived on Broadway. How did this production come about?
SS: Pacific Overtures is a show that dates back to 1976. It was brilliantly put on the stage by Hal Prince , and then four years ago I was in Japan and coincidentally there was a Japanese production at the Japanese national theatre. I happened to get there with my collaborator John Weidman, who wrote the libretto, one day before the limited run was over. We went out of a sense of politeness and were knocked out. It was directed by a man I think is touched with genius. His name is Amon Miyamoto. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in the theatre, and not because I was connected with it. When I got back to the United States, I did something I’ve never done before. By nature I’m not very aggressive, but in this case I thought this show must be seen, so I hustled. I called the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Lincoln Center in New York and I said, “You have got to get this show.”
They both got a videotape of the production and they were knocked out by it too, so they brought it over. It was all in Japanese with subtitles. … Here was a Japanese production about the invasion of Japan by America, written by Americans, performed in Japanese. The ‘Japanese box’ of it that you could feel in that theatre in Japan was extraordinary. It worked so well at Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center that we decided to take a chance and do it [again] in the original English but with an Asian-American cast and with Amon directing it.
MS: We also had a studio production of it here at the Donmar last year, courtesy of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
SS: Yes, an entirely different approach, much more ritualized.
MS: Do you have a preference for large-scale or studio settings?
SS: No, the first time I ever worked in a studio setting was on Sunday in the Park with George. I was brought up on Broadway and in Broadway houses. Off-Broadway wasn’t even invented till I was in my early 20s, and that was the first time shows were presented anywhere in New York except near Times Square.
When I first started working with James Lapine on Sunday in the Park with George, he was kind of house playwright at one of the better off-Broadway organizations called Playwrights Horizons. I loved working there, because you know you’re just writing a show for the love of the show, and it’s not-for-profit theatre, in other words it’s subsidized by private subscription. …
It was good to know that you weren’t letting down a lot of backers who’d put a lot of money into a show. When you would do it on Broadway in the old days you would think “Oh my god, my aunt Molly is going to lose her $1,500 if this show doesn’t work.” But when you do it there, there’s none of that pressure. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it gets bad reviews, it gets bad reviews. There’s nothing riding on it except the love of doing it, and that’s of course why any sane writer writes — for the love of it — otherwise it’s a fool’s game. So in that way, I prefer to write for studio theatres. Assassins was also premiered by Playwrights Horizons, and so was Into the Woods.
MS: What did it feel like seeing Assassins on Broadway this year for the first time?
SS: Well, it’s at Studio 54, which is on Broadway, but it really feels off-Broadway. It used to be a nightclub, a rather notorious one as a matter of fact, in the latter part of the last century. … It used to be an opera house. It has its own raffish atmosphere. We were worried that Assassins wouldn’t work there, not having a proper stage. It’s thrust like this [the Olivier]. …
MS: The Frogs didn’t even begin off-Broadway, it began in a swimming pool. How was taking it to dry land at Lincoln Center?
SS: The Frogs is an academic piece that I wrote with Burt Shevelove in 1973; it was 55 minutes long. Yale University, where Burt had taught, asked him to come back, and he did a production of Aristophanes’ Frogs with the Yale swimming team in their Olympic-size swimming pool. … We did a concert version of it a number of years ago down in Washington, which was narrated by Nathan Lane. Nathan fell in love with the piece and asked me if he and Susan Stroman, the director of The Producers, could put this on, and if I would write some more songs and make it a full-length piece. We did it on dry land, but Susan Stroman’s choreography made water on the stage.
MS: Talking of more recent shows of yours, Bounce didn’t bounce to Broadway last year, and presumably you were very disappointed by that.
SS: Bounce is a show that I wrote with John Weidman; it was directed by Hal Prince. We like it a lot, and the problem is that usually, when you stand at the back of a theatre watching a show that’s not quite working, you can feel what the audience is feeling, what they’re disappointed in, what they’re not getting, why they’re not having the kind of good time you want them to have, why they’re not involved, whatever it is … Then you go about fixing the show.
Forum is a great example of that. It was a terrible disaster out of town, when it was first done; it almost closed out of town because audiences hated it so much. We worked on it, mostly by giving it an opening number. The guy who directed Forum originally was a legendary Broadway director named George Abbott, and what he was famous for was farces, musicals, comedies. He was also famous for being called in for plays that were in difficulty out of town. He was known as a “play doctor.” We opened in New Haven, and on about the third or fourth night, when the show was clearly landing like a dead fish, George Abbott turned to Hal Prince and said, “Hal, you know what? You’d better call George Abbott in.”
We thought the play was screamingly funny. The audience didn’t. What it needed, and what changed it around entirely, was the opening number. I wrote “Comedy Tonight” in Washington, which was the other city we visited before coming to New York, and it was a number which told the audience what to expect …
In the case of Bounce, we stood in the back and we all were having a good time, a very good time. The audience wasn’t having a bad time, but the plane didn’t take off. It didn’t exactly lay there, the soufflé would start to rise, then — I can’t be more articulate than that.
So what we’ve decided to do is let it sit for a while and then maybe just look at it again and see what happens. It’s had a long history, we started the first draft maybe nine years ago, and we’ve been working on it sporadically and with some persistence, and with a number of different directors. Each director had a different take on the show, and I think there may be a case of too many cooks. It started as a real farce, a cartoon, a Hope/Crosby movie. It’s about two brothers, and the relationship between the patsy and the finagler. It’s changed character over the years and I think maybe the original intention was the right one.
MS: Jeremy Sams, who interviewed you here 10 years ago, recently said about you in an interview, “I venerate him as a human being and as an artist. The only thing I have against him is that he’s covered every exit and nailed it up, and it’s very hard for everyone else. He’s as big to musicals as Wagner is to opera, and the history of musicals will never be the same again until he’s written out of it, and that will take a century.”
SS: He’s a friend!
MS: But is it hard to carry this legacy?
SS: I don’t think of that. I don’t see myself from a bird’s-eye viewpoint. It’s very complimentary, but you know, the good news about what’s happening to musicals is that there’s much more talent out there, both in New York and in London. People have really inventive ideas about how to use the stage, how to use music, how to incorporate pop music into a musical theatre tradition, ways of involving an audience that are unconventional, but there’s no place to put them on in London, and no money to put them on in New York. The theatre- going public in New York is not interested in anything that they haven’t seen before, and I fear that that’s happening here too.
This phrase, the “dumbing down of America,” the whole culture is getting less interesting, and theatre -going is very expensive. People are less willing to take a chance on something that either they haven’t heard about or isn’t a hot ticket. They’d much rather see a revival of a show they really like, or a compilation of songs by, say, ABBA — Mamma Mia is a huge hit. …
Audience Question: What is your favorite new musical from the last three or four years, here or in New York?
SS: The last musical that I saw that knocked me out was quite a while back. It was called Floyd Collins, and it was on here at the Bridewell. It was by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, and if you don’t know it, get to know it.
Audience Question: How do you react when people say Forum is sexist? And do you think it is?
SS: No, I don’t. I hadn’t heard that. Vaudeville humor was sexist, of course, and there is a vaudeville tone to this, but in fact if you’ve got to lay the blame at anyone’s feet, it’s Plautus. This is very faithful; it’s based on four plays.
Audience Question: What advice would you offer to young musical writers who are facing the problem that there’s not enough money or theatres?
SS: The advice I can offer is sort of empty, in the sense that I believe the only way to learn writing, at least for the theatre, is to write for the theatre. Obviously there’s a certain amount of academic training, and certainly reading of plays can help, but it is a practical profession. Therefore I always advise people, because it’s the advice that Oscar Hammerstein gave me, to write something and put it on some place, even if it’s a neighbor’s living room, even if it’s just read by a cast and you play the piano and just listen to it, you’ll learn a lot about writing. … The problem for young writers in London is quite different from that in New York. There is no equivalent of off-Broadway here. Songwriters in New York have just as much trouble getting their work heard as they do here, but what can happen is that a piece can be done off-Broadway and have what they call an open-ended run, as opposed to four weeks or six weeks. In so doing, if it runs a while, it can attract not only a public but professional interest. So there’s a chance that a show can then go somewhere. In London there’s no such venue. Whatever you call theatres like the Almeida, Tricycle, Royal Court, plays can only go for limited runs. They might transfer to a West End house, but nothing gets a chance to run for a while.
Cameron Mackintosh is making a transfer house now on Shaftesbury Avenue, for perhaps 500 seats, and one of its purposes is going to be that if a piece isn’t ready or shouldn’t go to the West End (because there are certain pieces that shouldn’t go to the West End) it has a chance to run and the audience that it can appeal to will have a chance to see it. That’s the thing that’s sorely lacking in London for young writers — showcase places.
MS: Next year you are 75.
SS: I am.
MS: How should we mark that, do you think?
SS: Passage of silence? I don’t know. Wish me luck!
The full transcript of this interview is available on the National Theatre’s Web site, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk, along with transcripts of two previous interviews with Sondheim in 1990 and 1993. TSR is grateful to the National Theatre for making this material available to readers.