Sondheim at the Southbank Centre

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Stephen Sondheim interviewed by Jude Kelly


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

For the fourth time in London in his 80th-birthday year, Stephen Sondheim talked about his career, and here – at the Royal Festival Hall – particularly about the content of his new book, the first volume of his complete lyrics (and assorted other thoughts), published by Virgin Books.

For those who had been at the pre-performance interview at the Donmar Warehouse last Monday (on the set of “Passion”), there had been a pre-publication opportunity to buy the book. Five days on and Foyles’s mobile sales desk in the RFH’s main foyer was groaning under its signed copies before and after this talk. This first volume, “Finishing the Hat” (a lyric from “Sunday in the Park with George”), only takes the Sondheim story up as far as “Merrily We Roll Along”, and ends at the point when Sondheim’s life was going to change on meeting James Lapine, with whom he then collaborated on “Sunday in the Park”, “Into the Woods” and “Passion”. The second volume, taking in “Assassins” and his latest, “Road Show” (both with books by John Weidman, and reputedly coming to the Menier Chocolate Factory for its UK premiere), will be published in October 2011.

I had managed to get to two of the other talks – with Jeremy Sams on the stage of the Olivier Theatre in March, and just this week at the Donmar. Although I was at the Albert Hall Prom in July, I was far too late to squeeze into the jam-packed Royal College of Music talk, but did catch the edited version used as BBC Radio 3’s interval feature. Given Sondheim’s long career and playful love of words, it’s not surprising that there was relatively little overlap between these various events. Where previously he commented on his position as “playwright-manqué” (his argument being that he couldn’t be a playwright as he can’t plot well, despite the intricacy of all of his songs), here he revealed that he has no sights on posterity (unlike Hal Prince who, we were told, always wonders what people will think of him after his death). While, obviously, Sondheim would like his musicals to be enjoyed when he’s gone, as he won’t be around, he’s not worrying about it!

The unique aspect of this Southbank Centre appearance was that it was not part of the Literature strand and also not ‘pre-performance’. Sondheim and Jude Kelly were sat centre-stage in front of a packed Royal Festival Hall as the main event. So we had a delightful uninterrupted 90 minutes of thoughts and anecdotes. Well, uninterrupted may not be the right word, as Kelly had arranged musical excerpts, accompanying screened photos from “Finishing the Hat”, which in the end provided some unscheduled entertainment and even suggested a new musical to the maestro. Kelly expected the first excerpt to be ‘Pretty Women’ from “Sweeney Todd”. What got “Sweeney”, but the very opening of the musical with the oft-repeated choral telling of the Todd myth. The photos that accompanied the music were from Sondheim’s early life, including a school one of him at the piano with fellow pupils surrounding him. From then on, each musical example was illustrated by the wrong picture – “West Side Story” to “Company” for example, before a single frame of Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” coincided with the fade from a song from that show. As Sondheim shook his head, he commented that it gave him an idea for a new show, where the action was completely divorced from the narrative of the songs!

At the Donmar he explained why he was not happy with most of the lyrics of “West Side Story” (they’re not “natural”); at the Southbank Centre he obliquely referred to Ethel Merman’s dimness in her inability to grasp the requirement for some freedom in uttering a stuttered lyric at the end of “Gypsy” (insisting to know whether it came on a down- or up-beat, even when Sondheim explained that the music director would follow her nightly improvisation).

At the Donmar we heard how “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was a different type of musical to all the others (in which the songs, mostly in the first half before the farce picks up, are written to allow the plot to breathe, and that in all his other musicals the songs carry the plot forward), and how “Do I hear a Waltz?” is his one regret. At the Southbank Centre Sondheim revealed another important song-writer connection, while reiterating Oscar Hammerstein’s pivotal place (“surrogate father”) in his chosen career, for it turns out that Dorothy Fields was a real aunt of Sondheim’s, one of the very few female Broadway writing legends. She not only wrote the book for “Annie Get Your Gun” but also the lyrics for “Sweet Charity”. You learn something new every time Sondheim speaks.

Where Sondheim had alluded to his dislike of Gilbert (as in ‘… and Sullivan’) at the Donmar, here we found he equated Gilbert with Noel Coward, whose lyrics he finds insincere, if not caustic (there’s more in the book on both). At the Donmar, Sondheim dissected why he particularly liked the Act One closer from “Pacific Overtures”, ‘Someone in a Tree’ and also the importance to the plot of “A Little Night Music” of Petra’s song ‘The Miller’s Son’ (only the servants – Petra and Frid, whose ‘Silly People’ was cut from the show early on and was only reinstated at Trevor Nunn’s first-ever Sondheim production at the Menier, though not in its West End or Broadway transfers and recording – actually take the plunge in love, everybody else just dallies with the idea). At the Royal Festival Hall he admitted how nervous-breakdowns were so much fun to set to music, and how the unerring trajectory of “Company works”, leading all five at-times unhappy couples to recommend Bobby go get a relationship in ‘Being Alive’. Indeed, in a segue not unlike an out-of-town run, when Kelly cut two of the musical examples, the evening was rounded off with that very song.

Pivotal to Sondheim’s success, even as a solo lyricist/composer, is collaboration. And he offers much praise to those few who have written his books. The trio with John Weidman offers something of a historical gloss on America: “Pacific Overtures” about the country’s imperialist designs on Japan by economic stealth (only to backfire); “Assassins”, which is about as analytically critical of the ‘American Dream’ as you can get, and now “Road Show” (that started out as “Wise Guys” and, for a time, became “Bounce” before assuming its new title in 2008 on Broadway), about the “South-Sea-Bubble-like” boom and bust in Florida in the 1920s.

Hugh Wheeler’s duo, “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd”, both take their starting points, respectively, from extant art-form stories: Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night” and Christopher Bond’s play about the demon barber (which Sondheim had seen at Stratford East’s Theatre Royal). George Furth’s duo, “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along”, are both experimental, the latter based on a George S. Kaufmann comedy, which neatly brings the new book something like full-circle as Hammerstein had charged the young Sondheim to try to write five sorts of musicals, including one on an existing play, for which teenager Sondheim had chosen Kaufmann’s “Beggar on Horseback”, receiving the author’s permission to convert it. Lapine’s first two collaborations (“Sunday in the Park” and “Into the Woods”) were highly original, though based on a painting and fairy-tales respectively, while “Passion” turned to an Italian film (and before that) a book, so perhaps is the one that’s the odd one out.

At the Royal Festival Hall, the audience – including Tim Rice, Julia McKenzie and David Babani (from the Menier Chocolate Factory) – learnt Sondheim’s golden rules: “clarity is all”, “content dictates form”, “devil is in the detail”, and “less is more”. We heard that Kelly had interviewed Sondheim in New York, intriguingly, the night Sondheim’s house had burned down! And, in passing, we heard that, since the preceding Monday (when he had arrived in London after an overnight flight), Sondheim had received an Honorary Doctorate at the Royal Academy and been to see Rory Kinnear in “Hamlet” at the National just before the Festival Hall show. There were tears in his eyes as he stated how good it was; but, then, he’s a famous crier at the theatre!

And if you missed Sondheim this week, don’t despair – “Passion” runs at the Donmar until 27 November, and the Donmar is also mounting rehearsed readings/singings of two of the other four Sondheim shows it has done over the years at the Queen’s Theatre on up-coming Sundays: “Merrily We Roll Along” (31 October) and “Company” (7 November) with original members of the casts.


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