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An Evening with Stephen Sondheim
Harris Theater

Also see John's review of Chess

Stephen Sondheim and Gary Griffin
Stephen Sondheim has made himself so available to interviewers that one might have approached this program—a conversation with the Chicago-based stage director Gary Griffin —with skepticism that any new information would be revealed. Indeed, the line of questioning, moving chronologically through Sondheim's professional career, led the discussion into territory that was likely familiar to most Sondheim admirers. Familiar or not, Sondheim so clearly delighted in telling the stories of the many greats with whom he's collaborated that the evening was like a visit with an old friend where you enjoy going over the same old tales for the umpteenth time just because you like to relive them. Even so, the composer-lyricist embellished well-known stories with enough additional details to satisfy the more knowledgeable and voracious of his fans and added a trove of new anecdotes for musical theater historians.

The early influences of Hammerstein and Allegro

After quickly getting in to the obligatory story of his tutelage as a teenager under Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim offered a perspective on the failure of Rodgers & Hammerstein's experimental musical Allegro. Sondheim had assisted Hammerstein on Allegro as a "go-fer" while in college, and that experience has been widely viewed as a major influence on Sondheim's later writing. (He told the audience that Cameron Mackintosh once said to him, "You know, Steve, you've spent your entire life trying to fix the second act of Allegro.)

With Allegro , Sondheim said, Hammerstein was reflecting on a professional crisis he was facing at that moment, in which the many demands on his time that resulted from his incredible success made it difficult for him to simply write. He reflected this conflict in Allegro by writing a story of a doctor who gains such stature that he is compelled to spend more time as a public figure than practicing medicine. Sondheim told the audience, "I said to Oscar, 'some people are going to have a hard time identifying with this problem.'" He went on to explain one lasting contribution of the show, however. "He has fluid staging. It was his invention. He used a serpentine curtain on a track ... the curtain would move like a cinematic wipe, so that as the curtain wiped away one scene the next scene would appear, so that the staging was fluid." Sondheim explained that this technique was used again in Rodgers & Hammerstein's next show, South Pacific. After that became a gigantic hit, this cinematic technique of replacing the standard practice of staging scenes or songs in front of a curtain to cover scene changes became the new convention. "From that day on, musicals became fluid," Sondheim said. "Hal Prince was there on opening night at South Pacific and said 'That's what made me want to direct.'"

Hammerstein's most significant contributions to musical theater were his concepts, not the writing itself, in Sondheim's view. "Oscar is not recognized as an experimental playwright. His major contribution to the theater is not the lyrics, it's the conceptions—of a show like Show Boat, a show like Oklahoma!, a show likeAllegro, a show like South Pacific. These are where he perfected musical theater. He was an experimental playwright, but that's never recognized because the writing seems to be on such a much more na├»ve and unsophisticated level than the thought and notions behind what he was doing."

His first big break with West Side Story

Sondheim added some details on how he came to be hired to write lyrics for West Side Story. He had been performing songs around New York from his then-unproduced musical Saturday Night as audition pieces. One of his audiences was the producers of a planned stage musicalization of the James Cain novel Serenade, which was to involve Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Arthur Laurents heard Sondheim audition these songs for the Serenade producers and after the project was scrapped, Sondheim ran into Laurents at a party. Sondheim repeated for the Harris Theater audience his oft-told tale of how Laurents "literally smote his head" when it occurred to Laurents that Sondheim might be a logical choice to write lyrics to Bernstein's music for the project that would become West Side Story.

By the time Sondheim joined the team, he told the audience, Bernstein had written the first halves of "Cool" and "Maria." There was also a melody cut from Bernstein's On the Town that according to Sondheim, Bernstein had been trying for 20 years to fit into a show. An opportunity to use the melody came when Robbins (who Sondheim called the only true genius he'd ever known) told the writing team he thought the musical needed a dream ballet in which the gangs would live together in peace. Robbins also thought the ballet needed a song to explain what was going on. The song became "Somewhere," and Sondheim amusedly spoke of the challenges in writing a lyric to it to serve Robbins' purpose. The melody's slow pace dictated that "you can't use any two-syllable words," he told the crowd, "so right away you're in trouble. You had to use one-syllable words. And explain Jerry's ballet." He told the audience how his friend (and later collaborator on Forum and The Frogs) Burt Shevelove teased him about the way his lyric 'There's a place for us,' placed its least important word ("a") on the high note of the phrase.

Merman and Gypsy—the origins of "Rose's Turn"

Sondheim chuckled at his recollection that Robbins had also wanted to put a dream ballet into Gypsy. It would have been near the end of the show and in it Rose would confront all the people in her life that are seen onstage. But Robbins ultimately said, "I don't have time to do a ballet, you'll have to write a song." Sondheim said he and Robbins worked out the structure of the song which would become "Rose's Turn" in a two-hour session in which he played through the numbers that had been written for Rose, and Robbins performed them. Sondheim gave the resulting song outline to Jule Styne to set to music. When they initially rehearsed the completed song with Gypsy's star, Ethel Merman, the diva's reaction was, "Well it's sort of more of an aria than a song!" Getting to the section of the song where Rose breaks down and stutters on the word, "Mama," (a moment which he says he stole from Blanche DuBois' breakdown in A Streetcar Named Desire), Sondheim says Ms. Merman asked if the word "Mama" was on the downbeat or the upbeat. Sondheim explained how he explained in detail that this section was to be acted spontaneously, and might be done a little differently at each performance. He says she said, "Uh huh, but is it on the downbeat or the upbeat?"

Perhaps in a belated and gentle retribution for Merman's vetoing of Sondheim as composer of Gypsy, he repeated a story about her rehearsing a revival of Annie Get Your Gun in which she was appearing with Jerry Orbach. Something Orbach was doing in their scenes together was throwing her off, so she called him in to ask what he was doing. Orbach said, "I'm just reacting to your lines." The star answered, "Well, Jerry you don't react to my lines and I won't react to yours." Chuckling along with the roaring audience, Sondheim said "She was a force of nature."

Forum, Mostel and the witch-hunts

Griffin asked Sondheim about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was directed by George Abbott, whose legendary success rate as a director of musicals led to him being frequently called in as a doctor for troubled musicals. Sondheim spoke of the difficulties this show had in its pre-Broadway tryout in Washington and how Abbott spoke to the creative team about the prospects for fixing it. "Gentlemen," he said, "I do not know what to do. I think you should call in George Abbott." Instead, they called in Robbins, whose testimony a decade earlier before the House Committee on Un-American Activities added tension to his reunion with Forum's star, Zero Mostel, against whom Robbins had testified to the committee. Sondheim said Mostel's resentments against Robbins were outweighed by the star's concerns over fixing the show which was at the moment a certain flop, and when the two met again at rehearsal, Mostel broke the tension by greeting Robbins with "Hiya, loose lips."

George Furth and Company lead to experimentation with form

Griffin moved the questioning on to Sondheim's first Broadway show as composer and lyricist, Company, written with his long-time friend, George Furth, who died in 2008. Sondheim explained how Company began as a set of 11 one-act plays. Furth wrote the plays in response to a suggestion from his psychoanalyst that he begin writing. The characters were based on people he knew. "George always wrote about people he knew—thinly disguised and mostly in show business," Sondheim shared. A producer was going to mount seven of the plays as a vehicle for Kim Stanley, with John McMartin and Ron Leibman co-starring. When that project was cancelled, Sondheim (who had known Furth since Sondheim contributed lyrics to the 1963 Mary Rodgers musical Hot Spot in which Furth appeared) referred him to Producer-Director Hal Prince. Prince, noting that each of the plays had an "observer" as well as a couple, suggested Furth and Sondheim turn them into a musical about marriage with the observer as its central character. Just two of the playlets made it into Company (the Harry and Sarah "karate" scene and the David and Jenny "pot-smoking" scene), with some of the others later included in Furth's non-musical play Twigs.

Sondheim noted how Furth's writing style led Company to a structure quite different from that popularized by Hammerstein. "Most of the great playwrights in history have been actors. George was an actor and he understood dialogue from an actor's point of view. The trouble is, he was so dialogue-focused. When I first met George, he did not own a radio or a phonograph. Music was simply not a part of his life, even though he had been in musicals. It was just something that he didn't particularly enjoy. So his dialogue doesn't lead into song. He's the only collaborator I ever had where that was true. I decided the only way to write the songs was to cut into the dialogue. To have a scene, and then a song comes 'boomp' like that." He said this approach was the reverse of what he had been taught by Hammerstein in which scenes lead in to songs. "This was exactly the reverse. All the songs in Company either cut in to the scene or they are scenes in themselves."

Sondheim told how Company's Joanne was written specifically for Elaine Stritch. One of Furth's original 11 plays had a character ("a very wired actress") based on Stritch, so Sondheim listened to all of her recordings to determine how to write for her voice. When sharing his first attempt at a song for Stritch with Furth, Furth said, "that's not who she is" and told a story to illustrate her persona. In that story Furth and Stritch, after a night of heavy drinking, walked into a Third Avenue bar near closing time. Arguing with a bartender reluctant to serve her, Stritch simply asked the bartender to give her "a bottle of vodka and a floor plan." Furth said, "that's who Elaine is."

Follies and the evolution of musical theater songwriting

In response to a question from Griffin about Follies, Sondheim said the pastiche songs of the score—those meant to represent songs of the type that might have been performed in a Ziegfeld Follies—were specific homages to songwriters of the time. He explained how the writers were easy to imitate because in the 1920s and 1930s the songs reflected the personalities of the writers. He said, "It was Oscar who changed the game and said, 'let's write for character instead of just writing songs.' Suddenly, a whole generation, my whole generation—Sheldon Harnick, and Fred Ebb and Jerry Herman—we wrote for character—because we learned that from Oscar."

Sweeney Todd and movie musicals

After recounting the story of how he discovered Christopher Bond's version of the tale and talked Hal Prince into doing it as musical, Sondheim was asked how he responded to the challenges of adapting it for the stage. He gave credit to screenwriter John Logan and director Tim Burton, saying "For my money, I think [Sweeney Todd] is the first movie that's been made from a stage musical that's really good. [The others] all seem to be filmed productions of stage pieces. Burton—and it's really hard—reconceived [Sweeney] as a film." He went on to explain how the filmmakers had developed, even rehearsed, an approach to "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" for the film, but Burton decided it wasn't necessary and wouldn't work because he felt it delayed the telling of the story. Sondheim said that was precisely his purpose in using the song on stage—to clarify that the story was a fable—to give the audience some distance from it so they would laugh with it rather than at it. Sondheim said the conventions of film work differently, though. "Movies are photographic—two-dimensional, not three. There's a huge difference for an audience reaction and what Burton did was remember that. There are things I would like to change, but it's a movie, it's not a film of a stage play and that's really hard to do."

In response to a question from the audience as to which of his other musicals not yet adapted for film would make a good movie, Sondheim answered with Into the Woods, noting with regrets that a planned film version of it by Muppets creator Jim Henson was shelved after the puppeteer died in 1990. Sondheim also said he thinks Follies could work as a movie. He told of an idea Hal Prince had proposed to MGM for a film version of it inspired by that studio's 50th anniversary luncheon that reunited many of its stars. Prince's concept would have changed the locale of the Follies reunion from an old Broadway theater to a movie studio whose backlot was about to be torn down. Actors would wander through the lot and encounter their old selves and old co-stars, using clips of those same actors from films shot decades earlier. The MGM head said it was an interesting idea, but he didn't think it would work out. A year later the studio used that very concept in That's Entertainment.

Upcoming projects Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway and the two-volume book compilation of his lyrics

Griffin asked about the new revue of Sondheim's work, Sondheim on Sondheim, that will begin previews on Broadway on March 19th. He explained that the revue's concept was adapted by its director, James Lapine, from a revue conceived by David Kernan that was performed in London in 2000 as Moving On and New York in 2004 as Opening Doors. The revue juxtaposed audio recordings of interviews with Sondheim along with live performances of his songs. He explains how Lapine has built on this concept for Sondheim on Sondheim. "Lapine said, 'I think it should be visual.' So what he has done is he's interviewed me, intercut this with interviews that I did with various TV shows over the years. It has a band of television sets which are magical—they move and twist and I interact with them." He said there will be other surprises which he would not reveal.

His other new project is a two-volume compilation of his lyrics, the first of which, Finishing the Hat, will be released this fall. He described his reaction when the publishers first approached him about assembling such a compilation. He said he'd agree "only if I could write some essays about lyric writing for the theater and to my dismay they said yes. I'd never written prose before. I'm not much of a reader and so prose is not my natural language." Finishing the Hat will include his lyrics written up to his meeting James Lapine and writing Sunday in the Park with George. The second volume (said to be titled Look, I Made a Hat), to be released in fall of 2011, will cover his work through the present day and include his movie songs. The volumes will also feature alternate and cut-out lyrics in addition to his produced lyrics and his essays written for this series. "It's not autobiographical, it's not chock-full of anecdotes. There are some anecdotes, but it's mostly about songwriting ... when you write or direct, you're not dealing with yourself, you're dealing with more than dozens of other people. It's not like being a novelist or a painter. So, it's partly about what the community is and how many people it takes to make a moment on stage ... a single moment ... everything that leads to the moment, everything that breaks away from the moment. It's enormously complex. And if the show is good, nobody realizes that."

It was notable how infrequently he used the word "I" in his anecdotes. As much credit as is given to Stephen Sondheim for advancing the art of musical theatre, he appears to take much more pleasure in recognizing the contributions of his collaborators and reminiscing about their personalities and uniquenesses. He was clearly happy to share these stories of show people with an audience that seemed to revere them all.

An Evening with Stephen Sondheim took place on March 4, 2010 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, Chicago.

Photo: Dianne Brogan Photography

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