Sondheim at Trinity
Sondheim talks about compromise, the issue of race and his favorite moments
News & Notes
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For Your Amusement
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Sunday on a campus with Sondheim
By Frank Rizzo
If you had Stephen Sondheim sitting in a comfortable arm chair next to you for a Sunday afternoon, what would you ask him?
How about something philosophical, such as his thoughts about the art of the compromise? How about something more prickly, like a question about race and why some people think his shows are about “rich white guys”? Or how about his favorite moments in his shows?
Gerald Moshell, professor of music at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was faced with such a situation during “A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim,” which took place at Trinity before a packed house of 450 people on Sunday, March 9.
Moshell, who has presented college productions of Sondheim’s shows over the years, decided to ask all of the above–and more. One was a basic question of life in the theater. What is compromise and does he ever do it?
“First of all, anybody who doesn’t take the audience into account is a fool,” Sondheim said. “I always think about the audience and I always try to write something an audience will enjoy. But I have to enjoy it first.
“I’ll give you an example of compromise. When I wrote ‘Rose’s Turn,’ which is the climactic moment in Gypsy in which a woman has a nervous breakdown, I felt you don’t write a nervous breakdown with a big chord, followed by a hand. So I had her ending the song by screaming, ‘For me! For me! For me!’ Then the music died down with some violin harmonies so it had a very thin, screechy sound. And then the music died out entirely and she was just yelling ‘FOR ME!’ There was dead silence and she realized where she was and she snapped out of her madness. And in the wings was her daughter who applauded her and a two-page scene occurred and the show was over.
“When we were in Philadelphia, Oscar Hammerstein, who was my mentor, came down and saw the show. He liked it very much but had two objections. And I got my little pad out. He said the doorknob in the kitchen set keeps falling off. And [he said] you have to give Ethel Merman a hand at the end of ‘Rose’s Turn.’ And he saw me just drop. He was the one who taught me never to be dishonest about a character. The trouble was, the audience wanted to applaud her. They had just seen her do this spectacular number and they were not listening to the last two pages of the play, which were the most important. It’s what the show is all about: the mother becoming the daughter and the daughter becoming the mother. And they weren’t listening. And he was absolutely right. So we put in this ending, which to this day makes me turn away, ‘For meeeeeeeeeeee!’ Now that’s not a woman having a nervous breakdown, but the audience screams and applauds and the tension goes out and there is dead silence for the last two pages and they are really listening. And the show is driven home. That’s an example of compromise. You’re making this size compromise [small gesture] and getting this size result [huge gesture].”
Sondheim said the need to applaud is as genuine an emotion as tears or laughter and just as important. “You ignore it at your peril, which is precisely what I wanted to do with Passion. I wanted to tell a story that was so intense that for an hour and forty minutes you don’t feel like breathing until the whole thing is over. I think applause would have hurt the storytelling. It’s a very intense one-line story about one obsessive moment. I think applause would have broken the tension. I know it frustrates some people.”
The issue of race–specifically the almost exclusively white world he creates on stage (as opposed to Hammerstein’s exploration of race in Show Boat, Carmen Jones and South Pacific)–had Sondheim responding by mostly talking about nontraditional casting.
“Nontraditional casting, which is happening now, is perfectly fine if an audience chooses not to see beyond the color of the people. In England, audiences do not see the color of the people they are looking at. American audiences do, and they bring with it all the weight and the baggage that comes with that. I think if you had presented Oklahoma! in 1943 [with nontraditional casting], it wouldn’t have run a week. I think the audience would have been appalled. It’s only in the last twenty years that Americans have begun to accept nontraditional casting, and even then, look at the big flap over Miss Saigon. The level of prejudice in this country is enormous. In London Bobby [in Company] was black. Over here, it would mean something– ‘aaah, Bobby is the outsider, aaah.’
“I write the stories that interest me. And if they’re about ‘rich white guys’ [referring to a criticism by another], then they’re about rich white guys. If they’re not, they’re not. So it’s sort of an irrelevant question, but an interesting one because it’s about audiences rather than about writers.”
In matters more musical, Moshell asked Sondheim to reflect on the moments and songs that he felt he “nailed,” or were special to him.
Sondheim said he used to say that “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures was one of his favorite songs. “The idea of the song–which gives it such force–came from John Weidman, but I also like what I did with it.”
He said his most personal song, although not specifically autobiographical, is “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along. “It’s the one personal song I ever wrote. People think I write about myself. I don’t. I write about characters.” But Sondheim said the song reflects a time when he, Harold Prince and pal-composer Mary Rodgers were starting out in the theater.
“It’s not based on the three of us, but it has the feeling of what it meant in those days to be an eager young writer, pounding on producers’ doors, and getting turned down. It really captures the spirit of that time, not the details–the details aren’t true to life–but the spirit of it. It’s up. And when it’s over I always get a kick because with all the stuff that [the characters] have gone through, they’re still barreling ahead with what they want from life. That’s as affirmative as Oscar ever wrote. I always get a huge lift out of that song.”
Other favorite moments of his shows?
“The end of the first act in Sunday in the Park with George is as good as anything I’ve seen in the theater. I also love the murders in the second act of Sweeney Todd when the entire audience gasps as the barber sings a love song while slitting throats. The shocking laughter that it elicits! The opening number of Company, staged by Michael Bennett. The mirror number in Follies [also staged by Bennett]. When The Baker [in Into the Woods] starts to tell his infant son the fairy tale.”
Moshell took the opportunity to ask Sondheim, who turned 67 in March, to respond to a series of his song titles, having him reflect on how they categorize him at this stage of his life:
“Sorry/Grateful”: “Who hasn’t been sorry/grateful? People who are just sorry, I’m sorry. People who are just grateful, you’re fools.”
“Rich and Happy”: “It was significant that we cut the song from the show.”
“I Know Things Now”: “That’s true of everybody. It’s a song about experience.”
“Something’s Coming”: “Yeah. I anticipate the future. As you get older the possibilities get fewer and fewer. I hold out for the possibility.”
“No One Is Alone”: “I believe that, too. Most people don’t listen to that song carefully. That song is not about being alone but being connected to everything in the world. And that is something I believe in profoundly, that every action anyone in this room takes affects everybody. ‘No man is an island,’ as someone better said. That’s not a personal statement, that’s a philosophical one.”
“I Read”: “No, I don’t–and that always surprises people. I’m not a reader. I’m probably less literate than anyone in this auditorium in terms of books I have read. I read newspapers and a few magazines and one or two books a year. I’m a slow reader and that’s why I think I don’t read. I have a quick mind and I’m into language, but I tend to get stuck on a sentence, or by a word.”
“Move On”: “That’s certainly something I believe in. I’ve been sort of mired down in the writing in the last few years, but I’m beginning to move on again and feel good.”
Frank Rizzo is an arts and entertainment writer for the Hartford Courant.