Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sondheim Week: The Man Himself

Note: This write-up is done from memory and all quotes are paraphrased to the best of my ability, as opposed to verbatim.

What a thrill it was to see Frank Rich interviewing Stephen Sondheim onstage at the Schnitz last night! The audience was so warm and appreciative, even humming along to the Sondheim songs that played over the speakers as we filed in. Portland Arts and Lectures has tried for over ten years to bring Sondheim to town, but he refuses to do lectures, only q&a sessions. Finally, they persuaded Frank Rich to persuade Sondheim to agree to an interview, and it turned into a short West Coast tour between these old friends.

The organizers set up a fake "living room" onstage, with armchairs, a lamp, and a table with a big bouquet of flowers. Sondheim seemed in good health and spirits. My parents guessed that he was only about 70 years old and I had to inform them that he will celebrate his 78th birthday this month!

Many of Rich's questions dealt with Sondheim's younger years, when he was writing West Side Story and Gypsy and working with some of the best theater artists of the previous generation. Sondheim began by telling the convoluted tale of how he got to write lyrics for West Side Story: he originally auditioned and was hired as lyricist for another Bernstein-Laurents-Robbins project that then fell through. Months later, he ran into Laurents at a party and learned that the three collaborators were about to start a modern version of Romeo and Juliet. "Who's doing the lyrics?" Sondheim asked, out of sheer curiosity, not because he hoped to get the gig himself. Laurents smacked his forehead and said "Why didn't I think of that? I didn't like your music much, but I like your lyrics." Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who originally wanted to write the lyrics, were in Hollywood and unable to break their studio contract. So Sondheim auditioned once again for Bernstein, who seemed disappointed that he did not have any "poetic" lyrics in his arsenal, but nevertheless, gave him the job. Sondheim didn't want to accept it, because of his desire to write both lyrics and music, but his mentor Oscar Hammerstein told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and he'd better take it.

Sondheim said that he had a pleasant working relationship with Bernstein, because they were both fans of crossword puzzles and "cutthroat anagrams," and could thus release their tension by playing anagrams instead of yelling at each other. He called Jerome Robbins, though, "one of the two most difficult men I ever worked with," and told of Robbins' attempt to cut "Little Lamb" from Gypsy without consulting the authors, and how the Dramatists' Guild had to intervene. (Sondheim's other "most difficult" collaborator was Richard Rodgers, but he did not elaborate on that.)

Still, Jerome Robbins was responsible for fixing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by adding "Comedy Tonight." That show originally had had a funny opening number, but director George Abbott cut it because he didn't think it was hummable, and Sondheim replaced it with something called "Love Is In the Air"--"a charming song, but it made the show seem more like A Little Night Music than a baggy-pants farce." The show got terrible reviews in Washington, D.C. (a preteen Frank Rich got an excellent orchestra seat because it was playing to near-empty houses), and, at their wits' end, the collaborators called in Robbins for advice. Sondheim showed him the original funny song that Abbott didn't like, and Robbins said "That's just the kind of thing you need--now write another song that Abbott will approve. And don't put any jokes in it, because I'm going to create the jokes with my staging." Sondheim confessed that he thinks "Comedy Tonight" has "a very boring lyric--it's just a list" but because of the physical gags that Robbins choreographed, it became "one of the most brilliant opening numbers I've ever seen."

Oscar Hammerstein died before Sondheim achieved his greatest success, but had already seen enough to be very proud of his student. Sondheim talked about playing "Maria" for Hammerstein--"and it's not one of my favorite lyrics, but it's a very Hammerstein lyric, in its simplicity"--and seeing tears in his mentor's eyes. The whole audience smiled warmly and said "aww." "If you think that's touching," said Sondheim, "there's something else... When Oscar knew that he was dying, he invited his children and me to dinner... Oh God, I'm going to start crying... and on the piano he had a whole stack of photographs of himself, and asked us all to take one. And I asked him if he'd sign mine, which is a little strange, like asking your dad to autograph something... But he did, and when he handed it back I saw what he'd written... 'To Stevie, my friend and teacher,'" Sondheim finished through his tears.

"That really reminds me of his lyric from The King and I, 'By your pupils you'll be taught,'" Rich remarked.

Sondheim also talked about his encounters with Cole Porter. At 18, he wrote a Cole Porter pastiche song, called "The Canasta-Tico," for a Williams College revue, and was invited to play it at Porter's house in Williamstown. Filled with trepidation, even afraid of tracking mud onto Porter's spotless white carpets, Sondheim played his song. "That's not bad," said Porter, "but you know, I usually try to extend the endings of my songs a bit more... Let's see what we can do." And he showed Sondheim how to make his pastiche even more Cole Porter-ish. "What a generous man," Sondheim said to us.

About ten years later, when Sondheim and Styne were writing Gypsy, Ethel Merman invited them to play their songs for Porter, who had just had his second leg amputated and was feeling very depressed. Sondheim played "Together Wherever We Go," singing the quadruple-rhymed lyrics of the bridge:
Wherever I go, I know he goes
Wherever I go, I know she goes
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos
And when Sondheim got to the "amigos" line, he heard Porter give a delighted gasp. "He hadn't seen it coming!" crowed Sondheim, still thrilled at the memory nearly fifty years later. "He didn't know there was going to be a fourth rhyme! And when you realize that Cole Porter loved to use foreign words in his own lyrics--it's a real Cole Porter rhyme! To this day--I'm not kidding--it is my proudest moment of lyric writing."

One of the things I liked most about Sondheim's talk was that his lessons for musical-theater writing also apply to non-musical playwriting. The "Comedy Tonight" anecdote illustrates the importance of telling the audience exactly what to expect within the first five or ten minutes of a show. From Robbins, Sondheim also learned that songs must have an action: Robbins was at first disappointed with "Maria" because it's just a guy standing center stage singing for three minutes about how he's in love. And Sondheim's own favorite songs among his oeuvre tend to be complex musical scenes like "Someone in a Tree" ("the way it dealt with time onstage has, I think, never been done before or since"), "Opening Doors" ("my most autobiographical song, and I love how it compresses two years in the characters' lives"), "God, That's Good," and "A Weekend in the Country" ("like a puzzle--it took me a week to figure it out"). These are not necessarily Sondheim's most musically gorgeous songs, or his funniest, or his catchiest, and they're certainly not the kind of songs you can extract and put in a musical revue. But that's why he loves them: for their specificity, for the amount of dramatic action that takes place within them, and for how they musicalize and dramatize character relationships. Sondheim, it seems, has the soul of a dramatist, more than that of a composer. Perhaps that is what makes his work so innovative.

"As for songs qua songs," said Sondheim, "something like 'Finishing the Hat'" is among his favorites, for its in-depth portrait of the creative process and the toll it takes. Still, a song like "Finishing the Hat" is equivalent to a monologue in a straight play, whereas "A Weekend in the Country" is equivalent to an entire scene. And I know that in my own writing, I am much prouder when I perfect a very complex scene with lots of characters, than when I complete a monologue that could easily be lifted from the play and used as an actor's audition piece--so I understand where Sondheim is coming from.

At the beginning of the interview, Rich and Sondheim remarked that the Schnitz, a former movie palace with ornate plasterwork and chandeliers, "would be the perfect place to do Follies," and eventually the conversation turned to that musical. Sondheim revealed some of the composers that he tried to pastiche: "One More Kiss" is Victor Herbert/Rudolf Friml, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" has a Jerome Kern verse and Burton Lane chorus, "Lucy and Jessie" is Cole Porter, and "Losing My Mind" is a straight take-off on the Gershwins' "The Man I Love." He denied, though, trying to say anything specific about these songwriters through pastiche--he just chose composers that were popular at the time that each female character sang in the Follies, and attempted to recreate their style.

As he has been doing for the last several months, Sondheim praised Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd film for stripping away every song that didn't further the action, and leaving only what was cinematic. Asked which of his other musicals he thinks have the potential to make good movies, he named Company and Into the Woods. Company because it is a "vignette-style" show, like the successful Chicago, and Into the Woods for just the opposite reason--because it is so full of action and plot.

At the end, Rich took some questions from the audience. Though many people wanted Sondheim to name his favorite songwriters of the younger generation, he politely declined, because he doesn't want to go on record as anointing his favorites, and make all the other young songwriters disappointed or jealous. It is nice that he realizes his power in the American musical theater, and wants to use it for good, not for ill.

Someone else asked, "As New Yorkers, could you please give us some insight on what is going on with your governor" --Sondheim burst out laughing-- "and whether you think it would make a good musical." "You know who would have made it a musical, would be the Gershwins," said Sondheim, "a 21st-century Of Thee I Sing."

Next question: Would Sondheim consider writing a show for Elaine Stritch? Sondheim replied that she is one of his favorite performers, but he would write a show "for her" only if he found a story that he wanted to dramatize with a role in it that Stritch should play. He does not write pure "star vehicles."

Another person asked if Sondheim had any anecdotes from his years living next door to Katharine Hepburn. He certainly did! As a younger man, he tended to compose very late at night, and at the time he was writing Company, Katharine Hepburn was in New York rehearsing the musical Coco. In the wee hours of the morning, as he slaved away over "The Ladies Who Lunch"--making a lot of noise because of the primal scream moment, "IIIII'LL drink to that!"--he heard a knock at his door, and there was Katharine Hepburn, in nightgown and babushka, barefoot in the dead of winter, ready to chew Sondheim out for keeping her up all night. (Sondheim tried to do a Hepburn imitation for us, but admitted he is not very good at it.) Sondheim later learned from Michael Bennett, who choreographed both Coco and Company, that Hepburn had been using "that young man next door who keeps me up all night" as an excuse to get out of rehearsal early. "And that's why she was a star," concluded Sondheim.

Rich ended the evening with the perfect audience question: "Can we sing 'Happy Birthday' to you?" And so the entire huge auditorium sang "Happy Birthday, dear Stephen" in honor of his upcoming 78th. It was not a very pretty sound--I think the orchestra section started singing before the balcony section caught on--but the spirit of it was genuine and it made everyone feel warm and happy.

Before that, Sondheim had answered the age-old question about whether he prefers writing music or lyrics. "I love music," said Sondheim. "It's easy. You play a chord, it sounds good--and I love dissonance, so you play a wrong note, it sounds good, too! Lyrics--sometimes the perfect phrase will just come to you, but usually, it's a lot of sweat-work."

But no wrong notes were struck last night--and I will treasure the memory of this evening, and many of the stories Sondheim told us, as much as I treasure so many of his songs.

Further links: An interview between Rich and Sondheim done eight years ago for the New York Times Magazine; my friend Marc actually met the man last night!

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