Sondheim in High Schools
More and more, high schools are selecting Sondheim shows for their spring musicals
Sondheim at 70
Ned Rorem becomes prickly in a session with Sondheim
A glorious concert of Sweeney Todd by the New York Philharmonic
The Library of Congress concert highlights songs Sondheim wished he had written
Other composers pay tribute to Sondheim
Assassins, preparing for Broadway, has a reading in New York
Sondheim and Weidman continue work on the Mizner musical
An unauthorized Merrily in Chicago
The East West Players revive Follies in Los Angeles
Double casting Sweeney in Edinburgh
ProMusica presents Passion as a chamber opera in Columbus, Ohio
A fresh look at Passion in Minneapolis
A tiny space provides an intimate Passion in Atlanta
ProMusica’s Giorgio writes of the journey from Clara to Fosca
Anne Kanengeiser finds a little-girl quality in Fosca
The score captures the locale of the region and the heart
Carol Lawrence remembers Jerome Robbins’ terrifying rehearsals
Fifty years apart, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Into the Woods both explore wishes and dreams
For Your Amusement
Our anniversary special: another puzzle concocted by Sondheim
The new recording of Saturday Night from New York, along with CDs from Craig Rubato, Chuck Wagner and John Barrowman
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Sondheim: On TV, videos, actors and music
Transcribed by Sean Patrick Flahaven
Kicking off the Museum of TV & Radio’s “Something for Everyone: Sondheim Tonight!” screening series, Stephen Sondheim appeared for an interview March 16 in the main screening room at the museum’s New York facility and was simulcast to another room in the museum, as well as the Los Angeles branch.
A half hour of video clips selected from the many programs included Anthony Perkins singing “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” from Evening Primrose (1966); “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from the Donmar Warehouse production of Company (1996); Sondheim singing “Can That Boy Foxtrot” on the David Frost Show (1971) and Elaine Stritch rehearsing “Broadway Baby” for Follies in Concert (1986).
Following the video, Sondheim took the stage with museum president Robert M. Batscha, who asked questions for half an hour before taking questions from the audience. The following are excerpts.
On actors’ contributions:
Performers enrich songs. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I had originally written the role of George in Sunday in the Park with George as a bass-baritone and Dot as a soprano. Mandy Patinkin insisted on auditioning, and we loved him. And we eventually offered the role of Dot to Bernadette Peters. So we ended up with a tenor and a mezzo. Dot ended up with more warmth and George with more fervor, which you can see in the close-ups of Mandy. Angela [Lansbury in Sweeney Todd] is an expert comedienne and her performance is almost too big for the screen–it’s theatrically gauged. It’s rare that a performer really surprises me, but they raise the level. When Merle Louise auditioned for the part of the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, she instinctively played up the sexuality of the character, rather than the insecurity, which gave it a whole new dimension.
On Evening Primrose:
Evening Primrose was shot in just a couple of days, and we had only one Sunday in Stern’s department store. I spent most of the time looking over the cameraman’s shoulder. When Tony Perkins asked where he should look while he sang, I told him not to look directly into the lens, but just to the left and right of it. It was terrible advice and as a consequence, he looks cross-eyed. That was the last time I tried to direct anything. (Laughter.)
I needed a job. I lived for two years after college with my father and his family on money from the Hutchinson Prize for composition that I had received. I wanted my own apartment. Donald Clopfer, a publisher, put me in touch with George Oppenheimer from MGM, who was looking for an assistant. I had written a couple of TV scripts on spec. I went to California for five months until I had enough money for a New York apartment. George and I alternated writing the scripts. It taught me economy of writing in the four-act, twenty-two-and-a-half-minute structure. It’s a rigid framework like a sonnet or a lyric. Arthur Laurents said he learned playwriting structure by writing radio scripts during World War II.
On his acting in June Moon:
I did June Moon as a favor to Burt Shevelove. He needed someone who could deliver wisecracks and play the piano. I think I’m the only person who can’t get a laugh out of a George F. Kaufman line–I kept inflecting all my sentences down. (He demonstrates. Laughter.) Also, I was having trouble finding my character, so I had lunch with Hal Prince, and he said, “Wear a hat, all the time, even indoors.” So I did–that was my character. There’s a real scene I’m in near the end that’s pretty good.
On videotapes of live performances:
They’re second best. There’s an ephemeral, unique experience in one night of live theater, a feeling that they’re performing just for you. But I do approve of the Lincoln Center Archives, which tapes shows for posterity. It’s a wonderful resource. I asked some theater people in London why they don’t do that, and they were appalled at the idea–as if it would take the soul away from the performance.
On changing keys and tempos for performers:
Keys, yes. Tempos, no. You don’t know who will do it when you write a song. In opera, you can believe an overweight, forty-year-old woman can be Juliet, but not in musical theatre. You have to adjust for range. Angela Lansbury couldn’t handle the big tessitura I had originally written for Mrs. Lovett. In West Side Story, Tony was originally supposed to sing a high C. All the tenors who auditioned could hit the note, but they were too old. Lenny would say, “He’s perfect!” (Laughter.)
On changing things in front of an audience during previews:
I learned to make adjustments from watching Oscar [Hammerstein] on Allegro. If a song is too long, cut it. They cut “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which was supposed to be the big hit, from Oklahoma! He was ruthless in adherence to the show. I love changing things in front of the final collaborator, which is the audience. More than one show has closed out of town because the authors refused to make cuts.
On director’s contributions:
Hal [Prince] approaches things from a socio-cultural perspective–he can’t get interested otherwise. He wanted the class structure in Sweeney Todd–I wanted to write a horror show. (Laughter.) In a collaboration, if you ask the authors what the theme of the show is, you may get three different answers. You all have to be writing the same show, though. With the exception of Pacific Overtures, you’d get different answers from me and Hal about our shows. His strength is a sense of mise-en-scene- -a visual arc. Lapine’s strengths are character, detail and visual poetry.
On the demands of his reputation:
Fans: Don’t expect too much. (Laughter.) I’m worried that I’ll let them down, but it’s not my fault. (Laughter.)
On the difficulty of his music:
Some people think my songs are difficult to learn, but if you ask actors who’ve done them, they’ll tell you that they’re not that difficult. Paul Gemignani, who has conducted most of my shows, is wonderful in instilling confidence in nonsingers. Barbara Bryne was trembling at her audition for Sunday in the Park with George, but Paul gave her confidence. When I work with singers, I try to do the same.
On the process of having his shows videotaped: I never go asking for them to be taped. They come to me and tell me. It would have been wonderful if Assassins had been taped for PBS. But at the time, we expected to transfer and it fell through, so there was no chance.
On the difference between London and Broadway productions of his work:
Into the Woods is the best example because it differed most from the New York production. Richard Jones is a wild man–the set was a room with seven doors and the woods on the wallpaper. In the second act, he used a giant eye and finger for the giant. It was truly wonderful and surreal. Into the Woods invites the director to interpret. Sam Mendes’ Company also used the notion of everything in the same room. The Donmar Warehouse has no fly or wing space, so Bobby’s apartment doubled as Bobby’s mind. Sunday in the Park with George at the National was too elaborate, but Declan Donellan did a brilliant Sweeney Todd at the National. It was intimate and scary, with almost no scenery. Mike Ockrent did Follies realistically in London, and it was written to be artificial, so it wasn’t as good.
On the quality of audiences:
Two generations of people who grew up on TV and pop/rock have gone by, so they’re out of the theater -going habit. It’s an “occasion” now–whatever the hot ticket is for the middle-aged and rich. They don’t talk about the show afterwards. Ask them about it and they’ll say, “We had wonderful seats!” (Laughter.) Every show now gets a standing ovation, but I think if you’re really moved, you don’t stand. They want to remind themselves that it’s an occasion–they’re applauding themselves. The TV audience only wants to sit down front and have it paraded in front of them. When Hal and I were young and used to go to the theater, we’d sit in the balcony, where you had to lean forward and focus on the show, so your suspension of disbelief was complete. It’s less true off-Broadway, where the houses are smaller.
On being the savior of musical theatre:
I failed. (Laughter.) Young writers aren’t getting the chance to be produced. It takes two years to write a show and forever to get it on. Rodgers and Hart wrote two shows per season. Talents don’t get honed now. You can’t learn from workshops–you need a paying audience of strangers. That and the state of audiences are why I’m pessimistic now. Theater won’t die, but more of it will become a solely commercial venture. Hal and I used to say we got in just under the wire, and we used to complain that it took two years to get a show up!
On opera versus musical theatre:
I’m interested in storytelling, not in the human voice itself, just conveying emotion and story. I think operas are too long–individual incidents take too long. Also, I don’t want to write opera because there’s no chance to fix it with only six performances and a varying cast and orchestra. Beverly Sills once asked me to write an opera, and I asked if she would give me two weeks of uninterrupted performances with the same cast. There was silence. (Laughter.) It isn’t done that way–opera audiences want the shows in repertory. John Harbison just had his Great Gatsby done at the Met, so now he has a chance to fix it, but the next performance isn’t until 2003! Musicals aren’t rewritten–they’re written with an audience. Sweeney Todd is not an opera, it’s an operetta, and was done at City Opera because they do operettas well. Their audience isn’t concerned with stars. It wouldn’t work in a big (Metropolitan Opera) production. The Lyric Opera in Chicago also does opera well, because it’s more of a theater than an opera house. Pacific Overtures shouldn’t be done in an opera house, as we discovered in England.
The videotape of this event will eventually be available for public viewing at the museum.
Sean Patrick Flahaven is a writer, composer, arranger and producer in New York and is the associate editor of The Sondheim Review. He also writes the LINER NOTES column on BroadwayOnline.com.