The Celebration Ends
A new Sondheim Q&A on the Kennedy Center festival
News & Notes
Merrily We Roll Along cast to reunite for a concert; Lyric Opera’s Sweeney cast; a WSS tour.
The festival was a huge success
Merrily’s book may be flawed, but the score’s great
Michael Hayden takes on another challenging role
Miriam Shor was worried at the start
A strong production of Passion
Michael Cerveris gets to wear pants
Rebecca Luker explores Clara
A lovely Little Night Music
Blair Brown plays Desiree
Randy Graff is in a familiar role
An assessment of the festival
Into the Woods
Woods settles in on Broadway
Edelman and Sieber have fun as the princes
The Tokyo production is seen in N.Y. and D.C.
Sondheim and Weidman talk about the show
A flawed Follies in L.A.
Justine Johnston sings “One More Kiss” again
A smaller Overtures in Dayton
LuPone and Hearn in Night Music at Ravinia
Kerryson directs Follies in London
The Shaw Festival presents Merrily
Forum frames a director’s views
For Your Amusement
The solution to the Sondheim puzzle
Into the Woods, a chorus concert, a compilation and Geraldine Turner, all on CD
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and Canada
A Sondheim Q&A on the Kennedy Celebration
By Sean Patrick Flahaven
Shortly after A Little Night Music opened in August at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration in Washington, D.C., The Sondheim Review sat down with Stephen Sondheim at his Manhattan home to reflect on the festival.
TSR: What was your reaction when the celebration was first proposed?
SS: Flattered and embarrassed, in equal amounts.
TSR: What was your involvement in casting?
SS: I decided to let each director have his own way. I asked them to run their selections by me, in case there was anybody I would think would be miscast or wrong for the role, which rarely happened. The first time I saw the actors and gave notes was at each show’s run-through in Washington, and then a week later, I went down for two dress rehearsals, two previews, and sometimes the opening performance. Otherwise, the only meetings I had were a dinner with the four directors here in New York, and of course meetings with Eric Schaeffer (the artistic director of the celebration) and Michael Kaiser (president of the Kennedy Center).
TSR: You’ve stated in a previous interview that you encouraged the directors to find their own interpretations. Yet the six productions were not radically different from the originals.
SS: That’s true. Those were their choices, and the restrictions of the material: You can’t do Sunday in the Park about a guy who cuts off his ear. The shows that lend themselves most to “reinterpretation” are Company, Merrily and Passion. But Sweeney? In a proscenium arch, there isn’t a lot you can do differently. In Sunday, Eric did extraordinary things visually. I suppose it does lend itself to new interpretation in that way.
TSR: Did any of the directors propose unusual ideas that you thought wouldn’t work?
SS: No, nothing startling. Of the six shows, the most abstract and open to interpretation is the opening to Merrily. Everything else is more conservative.
TSR: Did you see the designers’ plans in advance?
SS: I did, but because I have an ordinary eye, it all looked swell to me. I couldn’t fully imagine what it would look like. I just trusted Derek McLane (the set designer)–I knew his work from Saturday Night, which was terrific–and it seemed that he and Howell Binkley (the lighting designer) knew what they wanted.
TSR: Given the short rehearsal period and repertory performance schedule, was the production process somewhat like high-pressure summer stock?
SS: No, it’s not summer stock, because most of the performers would not operate under the old two -week summer stock rehearsal period. This is a professional, four-and-a-half week rehearsal process. What is restricted is the tech rehearsal period.
When I grew up in the theater, tech rehearsal was two to four days. In the ’60s and ’70s, suddenly that period started to stretch. Today, tech often takes up to three weeks for a Broadway musical. That’s just for adding sets, lighting, costumes, and sound. In Washington, Derek and Howell worked on all six shows with their respective costume designers, and were able to tech each show in three-and-a-half days. And every single show is teched virtually perfectly. If that process could be done on Broadway that way, it would save an enormous amount of money.
I think that the various unions charge more in New York because it’s commercial theater. In Washington, however, the stage managers and crew loved what they were doing and made a point of telling me so. Considering that they were working on some weekends to change sets for three shows in repertory, I don’t know what the overtime was. All I know is that the shows were budgeted so that they had to be teched in three-and-a-half days, and they did it. Every show, whatever one might think of it, looks professional. That’s not just dedication, either–that’s skill.
TSR: Having seen so many productions of your work over the years, what was your reaction to seeing them presented all together?
SS: I was impressed by the variety.
TSR: Was there any disadvantage to seeing them all together?
SS: None at all.
TSR: Were there any standout moments?
SS: Yeah–the audience reactions.
TSR: How did that compare to the audience reactions to the original productions?
SS: Oh, much better–much more energetic.
TSR: Was it a special treat to hear the full orchestrations?
SS: Obviously, it was terrific to hear a big orchestra play Company, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. For Merrily, we had to use the smaller orchestration because of the changes in the score that Jonathan (Tunick) hadn’t fully orchestrated, and the Kennedy Center understandably couldn’t afford to commission new orchestrations.
I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve never known a conductor of a musical to get a standing ovation. It only happened one night, at the beginning of the second act of Company, when the conductor usually gets a hand. Suddenly, Jonathan got a standing ovation. I know that part of the reason was that the audience knew his whole career, and there he was, conducting one of his most spectacular orchestrations.
TSR: In watching each production, are there moments you still wish you could revise?
SS: Oh, sure. In any show, yes, there’s something you wish you could solve.
TSR: Any examples?
SS: In Sweeney Todd, I wanted very much to make the scene in which Mrs. Lovett sings “Wait” into a musical scene. It seemed to me too much like a song in the middle of the scene. And the same thing is true in the scene with Mrs. Lovett and the Beadle in the second act. I’d like to go back to Chris Bond’s adaptation and write a trio in which Mrs. Lovett is trying to poison the Beadle and the glasses get switched. So at the same time that she’s cajoling him into singing the parlor songs, she’s getting the drinks and poisoning them. Then Tobias would join in from the cellar in a comic trio. That’s the kind of thing I sometimes think about when I look at these shows. But revising old work isn’t easy–getting yourself into an “old mode.”
TSR: Does seeing the shows in the celebration inspire new creativity?
SS: Just the reverse.
TSR: When you were interviewed for the CBS Sunday Morning piece on the celebration, you were asked what you would say to Oscar Hammerstein if he could have seen the shows, and you responded, “Aren’t you proud of me?” What else would you say?
SS: That’s pretty much it. He died in 1960, which was before Forum, which he would have loved, because he had a bawdy sense of humor. He would have been intrigued and probably disapproved of Anyone Can Whistle. But he probably would have approved of the effort at doing something weird, like Allegro. It’s like what Cameron Mackintosh said to me: I’ve been spending my life trying to fix Allegro.
TSR: Did you have any hope for the productions transferring to New York?
SS: No, that wasn’t in anybody’s mind. First of all, we cast people who wouldn’t have been available for a long run. The whole idea was to do them in Washington, and that’s it. There was never any intention of moving them.
TSR: Why was the decision made not to videotape Company for public broadcast?
SS: George Furth and I didn’t want them to tape it until we had seen it, and by that time, it was too late to get all the union approvals and contracts ready in time.
TSR: Are you involved in picking the material for the highlights concert in New York on October 21?
SS: Yes, Eric Schaeffer and I spent an hour or so last weekend picking the songs, but I don’t have the final list yet.
Sean Patrick Flahaven is a writer, composer, orchestrator and producer in New York City. He has worked with Stephen Sondheim on several projects and is the associate editor of The Sondheim Review.