“Side By Side: Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich on the West Coast” by Robert Sokol, Ken Kwartler and Terri Roberts
News & Notes
Sondheim 101: An assessment of A Little Night Music
A Little Night Music recorded
Barbara Walsh plays Desirée at Baltimore CenterStage
Comparision: Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music
It should have been wonderful: A Little Night Music on film
Sondheim Speaks: Stephen Sondheim in conversation with Craig Carnelia
Side by Side: Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich on the West Coast
Other Features and Interviews
Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway has lovingly zinged Sondheim
Into the pit
New Jersey high school produces Merrily We Roll Along
Q&A: Jenna Russell
Q&A: Elaine Stritch
Tick Tock: The rationale for dancing in Company
“Sidekicks” in Sondheim shows
Video compilations demonstrate themes from Sunday in the Park with George
Reviews and Reactions
New York critics assess Gypsy
A Little Night Music in Baltimore
Follies in concert in Oakland
Sunday in the Park with George at the University of Florida
Merrily We Roll Along in Oklahoma City
Recording Review: New release of Evening Primrose soundtrack
Singing Sondheim: Songs on new recordings
A new Cryptic Crossword, inspired by A Little Night Music: “Do I Hear a Waltz?”
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
“Side By Side: Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich on the West Coast
Everything’s Warm, Everything’s Cozy”
by Robert Sokol, Ken Kwartler and Terri Roberts
In March 2008, Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich were talking to one another — and a lot of people had the chance to listen in. Having a Sondheim show go on tour is hardly unprecedented, but having Sondheim himself on tour … well, that’s another matter. Tickets to what promised to be the most public display of intellectual affection yet between the composer/lyricist and the former New York Times critic in four West Coast cities moved faster than one of Sondheim’s triple internal rhymes. TSR contributors attended several of these events and filed the following reports.
SAN FRANCISCO. The Herbst Theatre was the setting for Sondheim and Rich’s Bay Area visit on March 9. Early arrivals were encouraged with the offer of a screening of the Great Performances video production of the recent revival of Company. Like Bobby’s romantic encounters, the screening ended prematurely with the arrival of a comfortably casual Sondheim and Rich taking their seats center stage to thunderous and sustained applause.
The pair began with a discussion of A Little Night Music and its origins. In search of a musical subject, Sondheim and collaborators Hal Prince and librettist Hugh Wheeler wanted to musicalize an adaptation of a play by Jean Anouilh, but the French playwright’s agent would not release the rights. Sondheim suggested Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night). He capped the story by revealing that, on the eve of Night Music’s Boston opening, a telegram from Anouilh’s agent offered the rights to the play initially sought.
For 90 minutes, the pair talked and reminisced, with Rich leading and prodding, and Sondheim freely and often enthusiastically sharing bits and pieces of his half-century career. From Rich’s mention of Company’s hostile premiere reception, Sondheim discussed the shaping of a whole from several short plays by George Furth; the perennial debate over Bobby’s sexual orientation; how the gay scene on the balcony came to be included in the London revival (and how Sondheim still doesn’t think it works or is necessary); how the sustained “We looooooove you!” was designed to match the travel time of Boris Aronson’s onstage elevator descent; and how the opening atonal chords of “The Little Things You Do Together,” written while Sondheim was on a transatlantic crossing, were inspired by his keyboarding errors, the result of the severe listing of the ship.
Their discussion offered observations of Ethel Merman’s strengths and limitations as a performer and why “Mama’s Talking Soft” was cut from the show (the actress playing Louise was afraid of heights, and the number could not be staged without her climbing up to a platform). Sondheim shared a sense of wonder as he painted the picture of creating “Rose’s Turn” in dimly lit late-night sessions with Jerome Robbins in the abandoned rooftop garden of Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theatre.
Sondheim was affable, engaging and funny throughout, frequently eliciting laughs from the audience and singing bits of songs to illustrate a point. An “A-ha!” moment came in the discussion of “Who’s That Woman?” from Follies. Sondheim originally saw the number as an intricate, symmetrical routine for an even number of dancers, performed by an odd number, leaving an empty space to imply one of the women had died. He shared his thoughts with choreographer Michael Bennett, only to find a completely different routine being rehearsed later.
“Why’d you throw out my idea?” he asked. Bennett replied, “Steve, if there were 36 dancers, then you’d notice the hole. Nobody’s going to notice with just six women.”
Rich commented that Bennett eventually did use Sondheim’s idea — in A Chorus Line. “You’re right!” exclaimed Sondheim. “Michael’s lawyer will hear from me right away,” he snapped in mock outrage.
Rich drew attention to the fact that few of Sondheim’s works were commercial successes and many received less than stellar notices at first, yet they are frequently revived. Sondheim responded, “It’s very gratifying that the stuff is still alive. That’s one of the great things about theatre — you can do new productions.” He added, “It would be glib to say, ‘Oh, we were just so far ahead of the audiences!’ but that would be self-serving. I think what happens is that when you do something off-center like Company, it’s not so much that it is rejected as that it is approached warily. It takes an audience time to get used to a style or approach or subject matter.”
Sondheim deflected to his librettist collaborators Rich’s praise for the skill of writing in the voices of such diverse characters. “What I’m really good at is imitating what the writers have created. I approach characters exactly the way a good actor approaches them. … I’m both a playwright manqué and an actor manqué, so in order to write a song I become the playwright and the actor.”
Later he observed, “I’m capable of writing bad, but what I’m very careful to not do is to write wrong. Writing wrong songs is terrible.” Asked to identify an example, Sondheim quickly demurred: “Wrong songs are the ones you haven’t heard because they don’t make it out.”
Responding to questions from the audience, Sondheim was asked who are today’s David Merricks (“There aren’t any. Directors are the muscle now.”) and what was his favorite flashy musical (“The Wiz. I saw it six times. Except for my own, I have never seen a show that many times. I thought it was imaginative and just great. Another show I really loved? Taboo. It actually moved me. I cried.”).
While there were probably few revelations for the serious Sondheim devotee, the evening was nevertheless an exceptional pleasure to eavesdrop on an intelligent conversation between two friends and colleagues who clearly care for and hold each other in the highest regard, comparing notes and jollying each other along to share their intimate knowledge of a dearly-held subject. Those not in attendance will have the opportunity to hear excerpts on City Arts & Lectures broadcasts on public radio stations around the country beginning in June. Visit www.cityarts.net for schedules and information. (Freelance writer and graphic designer ROBERT SOKOL edits Bay Stages in San Francisco)
PORTLAND, ORE. Portland Arts & Lectures’ 10-year pursuit finally brought Stephen Sondheim to a local stage on March 11 when more than 2,500 fans packed the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for another 90-minute conversation with Frank Rich. The Hall, a restored 1928 Italian Rococo Revival theatre is so opulent, Sondheim noted, that it would perfectly suit (if not inspire) a revival of Follies. Frank Rich reported that June Havoc herself had told him of performing on the hall’s stage as Baby June.
Their dialogue covered territory largely familiar to Sondheim devotees, but nonetheless afforded an opportunity to share the pleasure of his wit and company. Baby June’s mention got the evening off with a discussion of Gypsy, which Sondheim labeled a “perfect expression” of the Rodgers and Hammerstein form of Broadway musical — at the end of its era. On the heels of such successes, musical theatre soon veered into a period of widespread experimentation, in which he became an eager participant.
He spoke of joining West Side Story as a young songwriter seeking the benefit of collaboration with its legendary creative team. He recalled learning subtext from playwright Arthur Laurents, staging from choreographer Jerome Robbins, and how to take chances and “be less square” from composer Leonard Bernstein. He remains dissatisfied with some of his work for the show, noting for example that “Maria” was a number too “static” to work well today.
Sondheim cited Robbins and Richard Rodgers as the two most difficult people with whom he ever worked in the theatre. He recalled that Robbins once sought a court order to prevent Gypsy’s producers from cutting the “Little Lamb” number during out-of-town tryouts.
Sondheim finds it easier to write for a show during those tryouts, when he can fully grasp the play and the actors’ strengths. “It’s easier at that point — you have the whole thing there in front of you.” He cited “A Weekend in the Country” in A Little Night Music as a number he wrote during previews. He suggested that he’d prefer not to write any show until it has been entirely cast and rehearsed — which garnered one of the evening’s biggest laughs.
Turning to the recent Sweeney Todd film, Sondheim reiterated that he didn’t mind the loss of the play’s musical numbers that “didn’t move the action forward.” Citing many differences between film and theatre, he added that a theatre audience is essentially a collaborator in the event, but a film audience is not. Sweeney, he believes, is the most satisfactory film made of any stage musical.
He cited Company as his show best suited to film, given its episodic, short scenes, and added that there was some movement afoot to film Into the Woods. He also recalled his difficulty in raising money for Sweeney’s original Broadway run, striking out with 13 different backers’ auditions until an “angel” came along to fund it
He thinks that Assassins speaks easily and well to younger generations, as it questions conventional wisdom about happiness in democracies. “The establishment, happiness, are not all they’re made out to be,” he added. Sondheim noted that Rich’s New York Times review didn’t quite “get” Assassins. Rich replied, “I was younger then.”
The audience was invited to submit questions on cards handed out before the program. Ushers collected several dozen, which Rich reviewed as Sondheim spoke. Rich seemed to opt for laughs over insight, however, with the few he chose to ask, including how Sondheim might structure a musical about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, or the (then-current) travails of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. The evening was entertaining, even if it covered little unfamiliar ground, and offered no piano or other musical outlet for Sondheim’s use in discussing his work. (Ken Kwartler is a writer, musician and intellectual property attorney in Portland. See kwartlerlaw.com/commentaries.html)
LOS ANGELES: Local fans earned a double dose of their favorite composer on March 13 when Sondheim paid a visit during his talking tour with Frank Rich. The afternoon began with A Salon with Stephen Sondheim, presented by the Academy for New Musical Theatre (ANMT). Originally conceived to be a small gathering at ANMT’s intimate workshop space in North Hollywood, the 80 available tickets sold out in a three-minute flash. Producers quickly reorganized and, with Sondheim’s permission, moved to the nearby 270-seat Colony Theatre in Burbank. He also allowed the event to be taped for future webcast. (Check www.ANMT.org for information.)
Sondheim was welcomed at the salon with a cheering, standing ovation from the packed house, largely ANMT members, many of them composers/musicians. There were other musical theatre devotees and performers, including Calvin Remsberg, best known for his role as the Beadle in the first national tour of Sweeney Todd (familiar to many via its VHS/DVD recoding).
An informal, onstage chat with ANMT staff was followed by pre-selected questions from the audience that focused largely on the craft of creating new works for musical theatre. Questioners asked about how to work most effectively with a collaborator, the importance of songs as character development tools, the John Doyle-inspired trend of doubling actors as musicians (an artistic concept born out of a restricted budget) and the idea of directors and choreographers trademarking their creative visions (generally with an eye toward future royalties). The subject of writing music for the screen came up as well, and there was a brief discussion about the recent film version of Sweeney; Sondheim praised screenwriter John Logan’s adaptation, citing his efficiency in paring back both book and score and refocusing the story to make it cinematic.
As would happen that evening at UCLA during his conversation with Frank Rich, the discussion was spiced with backstage stories about what happened when — mostly during Sondheim’s early years. There was little-to-no mention of the years/events around Merrily We Roll Along, Assassins or Passion.
While the ANMT event focused on audience participation, the sold-out UCLA engagement with Rich was more of a structured storytelling session presented as a casual onstage chat between professional colleagues and longtime friends before an audience of eager, inquiring minds that filled every one of the more than 1,800 seats in Royce Hall and hung on every word.
Because this was a broader audience, the conversation focused on the more generally popular shows such as West Side Story, Gypsy and, thanks to the recent film, Sweeney Todd. Rich prodded anecdotes involving well-known personalities of the stage out of recently recounted memory. Sondheim recalled surprising composer Cole Porter with the quadruple-rhymed bridge of “Together Wherever We Go” — a memory that clearly still delights him — as well as choreographer/director Jerome Robbins helping to fix the opening of Forum and trying to grapple with the static nature of “Maria” in West Side Story. Most touching, however, were reminiscences about his mentor and teacher, Oscar Hammerstein, and what he learned about the craft of composing for musical theatre.
As had been the case at every stop along the way in this mini-tour, the evening concluded with the audience serenading Mr. Sondheim with “Happy Birthday” as a large cake was wheeled onstage. Though at the time his March 22 birthday was still more than a week away, fans were obviously thrilled (though not always on key!) with the chance to express their affection and good wishes for the man who has filled their lives with magnificent music. (Terri Roberts is TSR’s West Coast correspondent and a freelance theatre and entertainment writer in Los Angeles)