Friday, March 11, 2011

Stephen Sondheim Talks Theatre

Earlier this week I went to see Stephen Sondheim lecture at a local college. Fortunately I was on spring break and the event was open to the public. For those of you that aren't familiar, Sondheim is one the most prolific and ingenious composers/lyricists to grace the musical theatre stage. The conversation was moderated by Frank Rich, a journalist from the New York Times that actually first met Sondheim when he wrote a review of the try-out production of Follies in his college newspaper. The production team stumbled across it and thought it a good assessment, so they met with him.
Student journalist that I am, that is a dream to imagine. I took extensive notes through the night that I will transcribe into an article for my college's paper. Here are some of the highlights of the night, however.
Rich took Sondheim through some "pivotal songs" of his career. They started with "Something's Coming" from West Side Story which was written during rehearsals in 48 hours according to Sondheim. He revealed that the music for "Gee, Officer Krupke" came from another show that Bernstein was working on, Candide. With that song, Sondheim was determined to have the first four letter word in a musical. However, they would have violated obscenities laws if they shipped the soundtrack over state lines, so the final line was changed to "Krup you!" and remains so to this day. It also turns out that Sondheim was not a fan of the movie of West Side, when asked what he thought of it he said, "Really? You really want to know?" The main problem was that he felt that the stage conventions did not translate well to film-- there was no realism or danger.
The next song was "Losing my Mind" from Follies (which is one of my personal favorites, I often entertain myself by singing and banging it out on the keyboard when I can't sleep). He purposefully made it in the style of torch songs such as Gershwin's "The Man I Love." Follies also took five years to get up, he wrote about eleven drafts by 1968, he admitted.
Rich seemed to like to throw out little details to see how Sondheim would react, when discussing Follies, Rich asked him if he discussed his writing with his therapist, "If by any chance you were in therapy...." Sondheim gracefully dodged taking the evening in a personal direction. Later, the song "I'm Still Here" from the show was also discussed. A lighthearted song full of innuendo, "Can That Boy Foxtrot" originally filled that slot in the show, but they decided to put a more serious song in it's place. Even if it didn't stop the show, "The audience will know they've been served a meal..." said Sondheim.
"Being Alive" from Company came next and Rich and Sondheim discussed that though the emotions of such songs are universal, the specific way the lyrics are written makes this a male song in the same way "Losing my Mind" is a female song. Another prickly personal detail was revealed by Rich, who pointed out that Sondheim had 'never been in a committed relationship' at the time he wrote Company. Sondheim said he never thought to himself, "I can write about myself through the guise of Bobby." The themes of yearning for connection are pretty universal, especially in the theatre. "An awful lot of yearning goes on in the theatre," said Sondheim.
A Little Night Music and "Send in the Clowns" came next. Sondheim seemed genuinely surprised that this particular song became such a hit where songs like "Losing my Mind" never did (until Liza Minnelli and The Pet Shop Boys got their hands on it any way).
"Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George is one of Sondheim's few choral pieces (the opening of Company was the first he ever attempted). The song, performed by a group of people immortalized in a painting finally culminates to the word "Forever." "Forever-- when I wrote that, I cried," confessed Sondheim.
Sondheim said that the biggest failure of his career was Do I Hear a Waltz. It was a failure because unlike some shows that were panned by critics (like Sweeney Todd on it's first outing in London, in spite of it being Sondheim's "Love letter to London."), it was received "politely." What made it a failure was the fact that he wrote it for the wrong reasons, there was "No passion, no blood, no reason to be," Sondheim said.
Near the end of the evening he took some questions that the audience had scribbled on scraps of paper beforehand. His advice for young theatre writers was not to write for Broadway, but just keep writing. He also said that the most creative person he ever worked with was Jerome Robbins, Robbins was creative on many levels, he would apparently even invent games at parties.
What's next for Sondheim? There is a production of Company staring Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, and Patti Lupone coming up as well as Follies starring Bernadette Peters in DC and Roadshow in London. Sondheim himself is not working on any new shows currently, but writing the sequel to his book Finishing the Hat, his collected lyrics with commentary and essays. The second volume, Look, I Made a Hat will contain "Essays that will irritate a lot of people," Sondheim said.
It was a great evening and now that I've been in the same room as Sondheim, I have one to two degrees of separation from practically everyone on Broadway over the past fifty years. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photos, but the entire evening was filmed for an upcoming documentary on Sondheim. He was extremely well spoken and very funny. Even my father, who isn't a huge musical theatre fan (but I dragged him along anyway), was very impressed with him and interested in seeing more of his shows.

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