Stephen Sondheim: Interview

Stephen Sondheim is a giant of musical theatre, creator of some of the most original shows of the last 50 years. As a new production of his 'Sunday in the Park with George' hits the West End, Time Out is granted a rare audience with the composer in New York to talk about his early career, the art of the musical and why he may never write another word.

  • The Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark is so small that when its producers first planned to stage ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, a performance licence was issued without the musical’s composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim or the librettist, James Lapine, being told. It was only once the show opened that friends alerted Sondheim that this was something he should see. And the friends were right: awards flowed the production’s way, a transfer was mooted, and the pair crossed the pond to see the show. They too were pleased with what they saw and gave their approval for the move into the West End.

    Prior to the transfer to Wyndhams Theatre, I am sitting in Sondheim’s townhouse in Turtle Bay, New York City where he has lived and worked since the early ’60s. It was bought on the proceeds of ‘Gypsy’ for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics in 1959. Katharine Hepburn used to live next door and when I say that she had some style, he drawls in agreement, ‘Hm-mmm. Feisty, I think, is the word,’ as if he could tell me a story or ten if we had time. His own house once belonged to Maxwell Perkins, editor to Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Best of all, the area is one of the few in Manhattan to have maintained its communal gardens. Importantly for the composer, they soak up the noise and it’s true that the New York frenzy disappears the moment his assistant, another Steve, closes the front door. Throughout the interview I can hear the sound of someone chopping in the kitchen, preparing lunch, hopefully unlike the pies that Sweeney Todd’s wife bakes to dispose of her husband’s collection of corpses in the Wheeler/Sondheim 1979 musical ‘Sweeney Todd’.

    Opposite me, Sondheim sits on his sofa with one leg propped up to protect his back. Although he is 76, you can still see the boy in the man, appropriate for someone who loves to juggle with time in his work. As we talk over an hour and a half, he reveals a lugubrious streak spiked with an engaging, enthusiastic use of old-fashioned slang. He is always eager to give his ‘Sunday...’ writing partner, James Lapine, his due, at times is crisp and business-like, and at others takes the trouble to give me an illuminating briefing in the art of writing a musical. Over a career of more than 50 years, he has won passionate fans and disgruntled others by bringing a complexity to the musical form, which has led to his shows being performed in opera houses and subsidised theatres, as well as commercial theatres, the musical’s natural home. He has sometimes disappointed those who come for a night out that’s easy on the ear and the emotions. Cultural imperialism (‘Pacific Overtures’), the sexual merry-go-round (‘A Little Night Music’), serial killers (‘Sweeney Todd’), relationship phobia (‘Company’), and the art of making art (‘Sunday in the Park with George’) are all subjects that no playwright would be criticised for tackling but which can baffle musical audiences, especially when the music itself doesn’t either pound out the beat or reach the melodic resolution they yearn for.

    This latest production of ‘Sunday…’ is one of a series of small-scale revivals in London over the last decade which have allowed audiences to appreciate more easily Sondheim’s always dense lyrics. The ‘Sunday…’ team is a young one, including director Sam Buntrock and the Menier Chocolate Factory’s producer, David Babani. Typically melancholic, the musical is inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ and is the story of two Georges. One is Seurat, and the other an invented, contemporary American artist, a descendant of Seurat, who has created his own response to his grandfather’s painting which now hangs in Chicago. When the show first opened, Frank Rich, then the New York Times theatre critic, suggested the musical was as radical in its field as Seurat’s technique was in his. In that it is about the drive to keep on painting and, in the words of one of the songs, to keep ‘Finishing the Hat’ regardless of any emotional upheaval, it’s tempting to see Sondheim and Lapine’s own feelings mirrored in the piece. The great innovation of Buntrock’s pared-down production is that it uses computer technology – so often abused in the theatre – to allow the audience to see Seurat’s brushstrokes on a screen even as the actor makes them onstage. In his sonorous voice, Sondheim says he was immediately gripped. ‘At the risk of touting my own show, I thought it was just thrilling. That second when that line first goes across the back of the stage, tears literally burst from my eyes.’

    Although the piece is often criticised for falling into two disconnected halves, Sondheim says it was always his and Lapine’s intention to look at the painting from different angles, since it was first inspired by an issue of a French magazine devoted to themes and variations based on the Mona Lisa. Linear plots rarely feature in Sondheim’s work, instead time, as in ‘Sunday...’, is more often used as the unifying force. Naturally, while working on the piece, he and Lapine travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting hangs, and lost themselves in front of Seurat’s mesmeric masterpiece. ‘We discussed the fact that nobody in the painting was looking at anybody else and we started to fantasise about that and the fact that it looks like a stage set. And then James said, “The main character is missing,” and I said, “Who?” and he said “The artist.” Once that was spoken it immediately became a play.’

    The first act is set in La Grande Jatte, but Sondheim’s music, he says, was more influenced by Benjamin Britten than any French composer. This in spite of the fact that Maurice Ravel is one of his heroes. ‘Boy, it’s hard to explain verbally but I was haunted by the vision of that man putting those dots in. When you go up close to the painting what you find out is that they are not dots, they’re daubs. I’m sure he painted them this way,’ he mimes dragging a brush down, ‘and then changed colour.’ I say that he and Lapine could hardly have called Seurat’s mythical mistress Daub instead of Dot and am ridiculously pleased when Sondheim laughs and says ‘That’s funny’. He goes on: ‘It seemed to me that the music should be sparkly, as opposed to Ravel, which I think of as swooning.’ And he also wanted to suggest Seurat’s rhythm? ‘Yeah, really. That rhythmic verve, if I may be pretentious about it, is very much part of early twentieth century British music.'

    He’s more of an art enthusiast than a connoisseur. ‘I don’t have a good visual sense. After you’ve gone, I won’t remember what you were wearing, but I will remember what you sounded like.’ Instead of paintings, he collects board games – he’s also famous for his ability to do crosswords, something he shares with several Sondheim enthusiasts – and there are many examples in the room in which we are sitting. Wistfully, he says he doesn’t play any more. ‘Everyone I used to play with has either given up or is dead.’A musical about art leads to a discussion about the art of writing musicals. Sondheim is not keen on those that are sung all the way through because he loves the contrast between dialogue and song. But then how do you negotiate the moment when two people who are talking suddenly start singing? ‘There’s the old cliché,’ he explains ‘that the character bursts into song when the emotion becomes too great for dialogue. That’s nonsense. You can see why people would say that after the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution when the songs became part of the story as opposed to just entertainments in between comedy scenes. But for me it’s more fun to find an unexpected moment for a character to sing when you don’t expect them to. I always feel a slight chill when I can hear the orchestra under the dialogue, when people are starting to have a love scene and you think: Uh oh! Here comes the love song. So it’s nice if it’s unexpected.’

    The right moment is even harder to achieve in the cinema and it turns out that Sondheim is fiercely critical of filmed musicals. ‘There’s something inimical about the camera and song. Musicals are, by nature, as far as I am concerned, theatrical, meaning poetic, meaning having to move the audience’s imagination and create a suspension of disbelief, by which I mean there’s no fourth wall. Whereas the camera is different, you can put the camera at different angles and it’s all realistic. The movie adaptations of stage musicals that I’ve seen, without exception, in my opinion don’t work. A lot of people would disagree with me in the case of “West Side Story” [for which he wrote the lyrics] and “Fiddler on the Roof”, but they don’t work for me at all.’ It’s not just the realism but the fact that a close-up on screen can say all a song can: ‘What justifies a character singing one idea, no matter how cleverly, for three minutes on the screen? I get impatient and want the story to carry on. I don’t get impatient in the theatre.’ Unexpectedly, he then pauses: ‘That doesn’t mean… Probably – if the fates are kind to us – there will be a movie of “Sweeney Todd”. It’s a wonderful script in that the screenwriter has, I think, solved the problem of “Sweeney Todd” and the difference between stage and screen.’

    And how will he do that, Mr Sondheim? ‘I’m not going to tell you.’ he replies emphatically. ‘I may be eating my words in four years’ time but nevertheless I’ll say it.’

    One of the admirable things about Sondheim is that he is always open both to new interpretations of his work and supportive of new talent. James Lapine, with whom he has written ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Passion’ as well as ‘Sunday...’, is an example. He’s a generation younger than Sondheim and came from an Off-Broadway sensibility. Even Frank Rich, when a young critic in Boston, unexpectedly received an invitation to lunch in response to his review of ‘Follies’. The composer is following in a benevolent tradition, since he himself was hugely helped by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein’s son was Sondheim’s best friend and the young boy sought refuge in their household, escaping from his own unhappy home dominated by his mother, with whom he cut off all contact later. In contrast, the Hammersteins were welcoming, and even took Sondheim to the Broadway premiere of ‘Carousel’. Given their radically different styles, I wonder whether, for all his gratitude, he didn’t find Hammerstein unbearably sentimental?

    ‘Oh sure, of course. Well,’ he thinks again. ‘Hah! No, I think I fell for it in those days when I was in my teens. When I got into my twenties, I had an interesting moment with him. I was writing my first so-called professional score and I was writing a love song, a song about the wind in the trees, and the willows, and the stars, and the birds, which is something – I’m a city boy – that had nothing to do with my life. And Oscar said “You are writing my images, write your own.” The funny thing was that he was a city boy too, but he believed in all that stuff. It seems like such banal advice, but for somebody 17, 18 years old, that’s an enormous revelation, particularly when you are being encouraged by the man you admire so much to go off on your own path.’ Hammerstein obviously knew Sondheim well, because he then adds: ‘If you do that, you’ll be 99 per cent ahead of the game. As soon as he put it in competitive terms, I thought: Okay, I’ll go write my own images.’

    Pop musicals dominate Broadway these days. He won’t comment on any of the work on either side of the Atlantic, beyond saying that he hopes that ‘Billy Elliot’ makes it to Broadway. Asked whether Broadway audiences are more understanding of his work today, he replies, ‘Oh boy, I haven’t had a new show open on Broadway for over ten years so I can’t say.’ He acknowledges that his work divides people: ‘If people have split views about your work I think it’s flattering. I’d rather have them feel something about it than dismiss it. When I listen to my work, I think what’s so inflammatory about it? It’s not really that dissonant. One of the nice things is that a lot of people who used to hate my stuff have come round to it.’

    ‘Bounce’, his latest project with John Weidman, is based on an idea which came to Sondheim half a century ago, and he has been working on it for many years under various different guises. Recently performed in Chicago and Washington, the show didn’t go as he hoped. ‘It wasn’t a disaster but it was a disappointment for people and for us too. We’re going to make one more re-write attempt because it’s almost there but not quite and we either get it up that further inch or give up.’

    I wonder if he still has an appetite for writing? ‘No,’ he says somewhat dejectedly. ‘No. Since you ask. Age. It’s age. It’s a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas. It’s also an increasing lack of confidence. I’m not the only one. I’ve checked with other people. People expect more of you and you’re aware of it and you shouldn’t be.’

    He may be disappointed if nothing new emerges, but we should be grateful for what we’ve got. ‘Company’, ‘A Little Night Music’, ‘Sweeney Todd’ are my personal favourites, alongside ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. ‘Send in the Clowns’, the number first made popular by Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra, has become a standard. Sometime in the not-too-distant future there will be a theatre named after Sondheim on Shaftesbury Avenue, a 400-seater built by Cameron Mackintosh that will be a recognition of the strong link between the composer and our capital city. Long may that connection continue.

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