Last week, I posted some of my notes from A Life in the Theater - An Evening With Stephen Sondheim, a conversation between Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Mass. There was so much good stuff, I decided to break my notes up into two different posts. In my first set of notes, I included Sondheim's observations about some of his earlier shows, including Follies, Company, and A Little Night Music. Here, musical theater's greatest living practitioner discusses some of his later shows, as well as one of his first.
- Sondheim said that, in general, he's not really a fan of movie versions of stage musicals, and that most definitely includes A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Because they weren't conceived for film, they don't tend to work well in that medium.
- The film version of Sweeney Todd, he said, was a notable exception, because director Tim Burton completely re-conceived the piece for film. Burton cut all the chorus songs -- what Sondheim refers to as "peasants on the green" pieces -- and retained the songs that came from the emotional life of the characters. The cast actually rehearsed "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," but didn't make it into film, because it's really a theatrical piece.
- Rich asked Sondheim why he thought Sweeney Todd has become such an admired and accepted work, given the (ahem) distasteful subject matter. Sondheim said it was because the musical is based on the Christopher Bond version of the Sweeney Todd legend. Previous versions portrayed Todd and Mrs. Lovett as merely greedy, bumping off customers in order to steal their money, and cooking them into pies to hide the evidence. Bond added the revenge plot, the Count of Monte Cristo tale of the wronged man seeking justice, and the tragedy that unfolds. "Bond made the story human," said Sondheim. "That's what makes the story sing."
- Sondheim said that although he loves working on plot-less musicals (Company, Follies, Assassins), he also loves shows with solid plots. That's why Sweeney and A Little Night Music work so well, he said, because they have very strong stories upon which the music hangs.
- One of the most difficult numbers to write for Sweeney Todd was "Epiphany," the point in the show when Sweeney decides to take his vengeance out on all of humanity, rather than simply the people who done him wrong. But mass murder is an awfully hard thing to justify dramatically. Sondheim says that "Epiphany" was actually based on "Soliloquy" from Carousel, a song that Sondheim says "changed the face of musical theater." Obviously, the two songs are entirely different in terms of tone and intent, but they both set out to justify major, life-altering decisions on the parts of the characters singing them. The key to making "Epiphany" work, said Sondheim, was in having Sweeney break the fourth wall and threaten the audience, which made the threat more credible.
- Sondheim said that there really isn't any moral to the story of Sweeney Todd. "It's really just meant to be a horror movie," he said. "We just wanted to scare people."
- Sweeney Todd did reasonably well on Broadway (although the production closed at a financial loss), but the show positively flopped in Britain. The show played the famed Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and was basically a recreation of the Broadway production, and it folded within a month. Sondheim says it was probably because Sweeney Todd is just a silly folk tale in Britain, a ruse to scare children into going to bed, lest Sweeney Todd come and get them in the night. As playwright John Guare put it to Sondheim, "Imagine someone coming to America with a serious musical based on 'I Love Lucy.'"
- Sondheim compared "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd to "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy. "I love to write nervous breakdowns," he said, then added wryly, "I understand them so well."
- Apparently, Gypsy director/choreographer Jerome Robbins had originally intended "Rose's Turn" to be a ballet. In an early version of the show, there were three different actresses playing June and Louise at various ages, and at the end of the show, all six of them were going to come out for a kaleidoscopic ballet portraying Rose's breakdown. But Robbins turned to Sondheim one day in rehearsal and said, "I don't have time to stage it. Go write a song."
- Robbins and Sondheim went to the rooftop theater above the New Amsterdam, the place where Ziegfeld used to hold his Midnight Frolic revues, and talked for hours about what the song should say. Robbins played the part of Rose, and began to ad lib, dipping and swaying across the stage, a la Mama Rose in Gypsy Rose Lee mode. Sondheim took his notes to composer Jule Styne and the two of them filled out the song into the tour de force that we know today.
- Oscar Hammerstein didn't live long enough to see Sondheim write both music and lyrics for a show, but he did get to see both West Side Story and Gypsy, and was impressed. Hammerstein approached Sondheim after seeing Gypsy, and said that there were three problems. First, the doorknob in the kitchen scene wasn't working. Second, "You'll Never Get Away From Me" shouldn't end with dialog, but rather with the end of the song.
- And third, "Rose's Turn" was ending in such a way that robbed the audience of an applause break for Ethel Merman. Instead, it was ending by having the character slowly lose focus, and trail off into confusion. You have to let them give Ethel a hand, Hammerstein said. Because the audience wasn't able to acknowledge Merman, they were uneasy and unable to focus on the following scene, the pivotal one in which Louise and Rose have their final resolution, and the mother/daughter roles reverse. But that's not true to the emotion of the scene, said Sondheim. There's a difference between real truth and theatrical truth, said Hammerstein. Some things that are false emotionally are right for the stage. So they added the now-iconic "For me!" at the end of the number, gave Ethel her applause, and suddenly the audience was paying attention for the final two pages of the show.
- Rich asked Sondheim whether Hammerstein might have been put off by the subject matter of some of Sondheim's shows. Sondheim said that he would like to believe that Oscar would be proud of all of his shows, because, although he and Hammerstein have different tastes in subject matter, the shows are all in keeping with Hammerstein's artistic principles. People wrongly think of Hammerstein as old-fashioned and sentimental, but he really never was, and neither are his shows. He was a man of very strong artistic ambition and opinions and was very articulate about voicing those opinions.
Sunday in the Park With George
- Working with James Lapine changed Sondheim's creative life in a number of significant ways. Sondheim had never worked Off-Broadway before; he had usually written shows for out-of-town tryouts or opened them cold on Broadway. But with Sunday, for the first time, he had the luxury of developing a show in a not-for-profit setting, and he says it made for a much more relaxing experience, even if the production was in fact only a few geographic blocks from Broadway.
- Sondheim wrote the song "Finishing the Hat" to express what he called "the joy of trancing out." "When you're creating," he said, "the world is going by while you're making your own world." Of course, at the end of the song, the character Georges has no one to share his creation with except the dog, which expresses one of the key themes of the show: the sacrifices that an artist makes.
Into the Woods
- After Sunday in the Park With George, Sondheim and librettist/director James Lapine were looking for a quick way to make some money. They briefly toyed with the idea of creating a musical that was based on a TV special, featuring such iconic TV characters as Ralph Kramden, Lucy Ricardo, and Mary Richards. They even contacted TV producer Norman Lear to see if he might be interested in collaborating. But they eventually decided to focus on fairy tale characters instead.
- Sondheim also talked about various productions that he's heard of in which people change certain aspects of his shows, including an all-male version of Company, another in which Bobby shot himself at the end, and a version of Merrily We Roll Along that did the show "backwards" (i.e. "forwards").
- Sondheim is currently working on a two-volume, annotated edition of all of his lyrics throughout his career. The books will include historical background and essays about each show. The first volume, titled Finishing the Hat, appropriately enough, is scheduled to come out in late 2010 with second to follow in 2011.