BACK ON THE BIKE

Stephen Sond­heim tells Tim Teeman why mu­si­cal theatre is in ter­mi­nal de­cline. That hasn’t stopped him from work­ing on a new piece, though

The Weekend Australian - Review - - In Profile -

IN the room where Stephen Sond­heim com­poses, in his Man­hat­tan town­house, are awards on a man­tel­piece, a Macbook Pro on a day bed, a frayed dic­tionary on a lectern, a line draw­ing of Sond­heim, a col­lec­tion of brass let­ter ‘‘ S’’ or­na­ments and a stained-glass win­dow look­ing out on communal gar­dens sur­rounded by sky­scrapers. Most ap­po­site, for a lyri­cist noted for his fiendish use of words, is a block of stone with the epi­gram: ‘‘ Noth­ing is writ­ten in stone.’’ On a black pi­ano sits sheet mu­sic with notes and phrases in pen­cil. Al­most 10 years af­ter his pre­vi­ous mu­si­cal, Sond­heim re­veals he is writ­ing a new piece.

All To­gether Now, which he is com­pos­ing with David Ives, play­wright of the Broad­way hit Venus in Fur, is based on a ‘‘ small mo­ment’’ in a past Ives play and fo­cuses on ‘‘ two peo­ple and what goes into their re­la­tion­ship’’, Sond­heim says. He be­gan work­ing on it in 1991. Sim­i­lar in struc­ture to the com­poser’s Mer­rily We Roll Along, it fol­lows the story of a re­la­tion­ship back­wards, from the present to the first meet­ing. ‘‘ I’m a pro­cras­ti­na­tor,’’ Sond­heim ad­mits with his af­fa­ble growl. ‘‘ We’ll write for a cou­ple of months, then have a work­shop. It seemed ex­per­i­men­tal and fresh 20 years ago. I have a feel­ing it may not be ex­per­i­men­tal and fresh any more.’’

Sond­heim, 82, and win­ner of an Os­car and mul­ti­ple Tonys and Gram­mys, is com­pact and white-haired, his black stan­dard poodles Ad­die and Wil­lie at his feet. ‘‘ I’m writ­ing very slowly. It’s hard to get back on the bi­cy­cle,’’ he says. His pre­vi­ous mu­si­cal, Bounce, opened in 2003 (a re­vised ver­sion, ti­tled Road Show, ap­peared in 2008). ‘‘ I have spent the past four years writ­ing books [ Fin­ish­ing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat], so I’m rusty. As you grow older your en­er­gies de­plete. Only supreme ge­niuses like Stravin­sky and Pi­casso worked into their 80s and 90s with vigour and fresh­ness. Look at Ge­orge Bernard Shaw’s later plays: it’s like, ‘ Shut up and lie down.’ ’’ He seems avun­cu­lar but sharp.

‘‘ I’m not a re­tir­ing type. I’m not a golf player. I can’t imag­ine sit­ting in front of the tele­vi­sion. Painful as it is, writ­ing is still fun and I don’t have any­thing else to do.’’

Sond­heim calls his home ‘‘ the house that Gypsy built’’, re­fer­ring to the hit mu­si­cal for which he wrote the lyrics. While the pro­duc­tions en­tirely cre­ated by him have not been vast com­mer­cial suc­cesses, they are the­atri­cal totems, in­clud­ing Com­pany, Sun­day in the Park with Ge­orge and As­sas­sins. ( Com­pany can be seen in Aus­tralian cine­mas this week­end in the New York Phil­har­monic’s semi-staged pro­duc­tion from last year.)

Crit­ics haven’t al­ways hailed him. His mu­si­cals, like his songs, are lush but com­plex, peppy but dif­fi­cult, play­ful and painful. Yet along­side his best-known stan­dards ( Send in the Clowns, Los­ing My Mind) they spik­ily en­dure.

New York re­cently hosted re­vivals of Mer­rily We Roll Along and Fol­lies, both pep­pered with those stab-in-the-so­lar-plexus songs about love, loss and the pass­ing of time. This north­ern sum­mer the London re­vival of Into the Woods will play in Cen­tral Park, while the much-hailed Chich­ester Fes­ti­val pro­duc­tion of Sweeney Todd has just trans­ferred to the West End. Based on Christopher Bond’s play about the homi­ci­dal bar­ber and in­flu­enced by the un­set­tling film scores of Bernard Her­rmann and a de­sire to scare au­di­ences, Sond­heim’s mu­si­cal was adapted for the screen by Tim Bur­ton (with Johnny Depp in the ti­tle role) in 2007. ‘‘ It’s grat­i­fy­ing,’’ Sond­heim says of the flurry of re­vivals. ‘‘ It means the shows have last­ing value. But pos­ter­ity doesn’t in­ter­est me. I want to en­joy it while I’m here; I can’t af­ter I’m dead. If I can’t see or hear an au­di­ence’s re­ac­tion, what’s the point? Maybe the minute I’m dead no­body will do any of my shows again, maybe they will do them ev­ery day of the year. It’s ir­rel­e­vant to me.’’

He thinks some of his shows have been ‘‘ un­fairly ma­ligned’’, par­tic­u­larly Mer­rily, which re­ceived brick­bats at its pre­miere in 1981. ‘‘ It was per­ceived as a big­ger fail­ure than it might have been,’’ Sond­heim says. ‘‘ When a show is a fail­ure the first time, it is never for­given, even though we did a lot of work on it.’’ For ev­ery good re­view ‘‘ there’s one that says you’re a piece of shit’’.

This is said evenly; he doesn’t re­gret not be­com­ing a Broad­way dar­ling. ‘‘ If you’re writ­ing ex­per­i­men­tal work, you can’t ex­pect to be pop­u­lar, in the sense of hav­ing large au­di­ences. Very few shows of any real fresh­ness are hits. The most pop­u­lar work is not the best work: that’s true of 500 years of Western theatre.’’

He would like a big Broad­way hit ‘‘ pro­vid­ing I can write the stuff I like, and they don’t usu­ally go to­gether. When peo­ple ask would I like to write a block­buster, my an­swer is: ‘ Pro­vid­ing I don’t have to sign my name to it.’ ’’ De­spite his dark lyrics, haunted char­ac­ters and un­usual struc­tures and melodies, Sond­heim de­nies chal­leng­ing the tra­di­tional mu­si­cal form. ‘‘ Never con­sciously. I just wanted to write some­thing I haven’t seen be­fore. Fol­lies is a dour, ex­per­i­men­tal work. The nun doesn’t es­cape from the Nazis in the end.’’

West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics (his big break), and Gypsy were not con­sid­ered suc­cess­ful un­til hit movies were made of them, he says. ‘‘ They made their money back, which is my def­i­ni­tion of a hit. A Funny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Forum was my big­gest hit.’’ He wrote mu­sic and lyrics but not the book. ‘‘ That was ex­per­i­men­tal but in the tra­di­tion of vaude­ville, which the au­di­ence latched on to. I hardly con­sider my­self a starv­ing artist. I’ve made a very good liv­ing, just not a block­buster one. I don’t have a pri­vate jet.’’

Sond­heim de­cries mod­ern Broad­way. ‘‘ Most in­ter­est­ing plays are done of­fBroad­way be­cause there isn’t a public any more for plays, un­less they fea­ture a star, in which case they will go to see the star; it doesn’t mat­ter what the play is. The same is true of mu­si­cals. There is an an­o­dyne ho­mo­gene­ity that gov­erns Broad­way mu­si­cals, so I don’t see many. There’s noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a lot of com­mer­cial crap as long as you have some­thing else. You want a su­per­mar­ket. Un­for­tu­nately, nearly ev­ery­thing on Broad­way is com­mer­cial crap. The same is true of the West End. When I scan what’s on, my heart sinks into my boots.’’

Is the con­di­tion ter­mi­nal? ‘‘ I think so. Com­mer­cial theatre will only get more nar­row as time goes on. There are so many forms of en­ter­tain­ment, theatre is be­com­ing more marginalised. It’s be­come ‘ an event’: you see Wicked on your an­niver­sary. I don’t think com­mer­cial theatre can ful­fil a func­tion as a con­stant feed­ing ground for emo­tions and thoughts.’’ Broad­way’s most talked­about suc­cess, The Book of Mor­mon (by the mak­ers of South Park), is a ‘‘ fun col­lege show’’, he says dis­mis­sively.

When a Cus­toms form asks where he lives, Sond­heim would like to write ‘‘ the past’’, though his own past wasn’t much fun. He grew up on the Up­per West Side, the only child of Her­bert, a dress man­u­fac­turer, and Etta, who de­signed the dresses. He doesn’t re­mem­ber feel­ing lonely, though when, aged 10, he ex­pe­ri­enced his par­ents’ di­vorce — Her­bert left Etta, nick­named Foxy, for an­other woman — ‘‘ life be­came un­pleas­ant and scar­ring’’. Mother and son moved to Penn­syl­va­nia. ‘‘ I felt un­happy. She was dif­fi­cult. She was trau­ma­tised by my fa­ther leav­ing and took it out on me: not an un­com­mon sit­u­a­tion, the over­bear­ing, grasp­ing, vo­ra­cious mother who both loves and hates her child. I’m afraid my mother never loved me. I don’t think she wanted chil­dren. She was a ca­reer lady.

‘‘ I think I was an ac­ci­den­tal birth. She said my fa­ther had forced her to have two abortions. Since she was a com­pul­sive liar I don’t be­lieve that, but I’ll bet the ba­sis of truth was that she didn’t want a baby. She was cer­tainly no mother to me when they were mar­ried. My fa­ther was more of a fa­ther, he took me to ball games. I think he loved me.’’

The fa­ther sought cus­tody of Sond­heim, but was re­fused — he had left his wife for an­other woman. ‘‘ My mother had no time for me, but the minute my fa­ther left she fo­cused on me be­cause she needed some­one to beat up.’’

Later, Sond­heim says, she wanted him to sup­port her. Did he mind? ‘‘ My an­a­lyst once asked that and I thought, ‘ I guess I do.’ She bled me for as much money as she could. She also stole from me.’’ Once, when she was about to have surgery, she sent Sond­heim a let­ter say­ing that her one re­gret was giv­ing birth to him. Was there any rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­fore she died? ‘‘ No. She was in a nurs­ing home the last few years. I went a cou­ple of times a year.’’

He saw his first mu­si­cal at nine, but cinema was Sond­heim’s first ob­ses­sion. Aged 10, he be­came friends with Jamie Ham­mer­stein, son of Os­car, the com­poser who be­came Sond­heim’s sur­ro­gate fa­ther and men­tor. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one for­gets Os­car was an ex­per­i­men­tal play­wright. Ev­ery­one for­gets that Ok­la­homa! was ex­per­i­men­tal. It didn’t sell out on open­ing night. West Side Story was ex­per­i­men­tal, but if it had been a dis­as­ter I’m not sure I wouldn’t have slipped back into some­thing com­fort­able.’’

He was drawn to math­e­mat­ics but stud­ied mu­sic be­cause of an in­spi­ra­tional teacher. ‘‘ I would have very much liked to have gone into the­o­ret­i­cal math­e­mat­ics, but mu­sic is a math­e­mat­i­cal art.’’ Sond­heim’s am­bi­tion was to see his name on a mar­quee, ‘‘ as proof of my ex­is­tence’’. This hap­pened with West Side Story. ‘‘ I saw it, thought ‘ Oh my god’, then ‘ Now what?’ ’’

Some of his mu­si­cals, par­tic­u­larly Sun­day in the Park with Ge­orge, and his books are about artis­tic cre­ation, dis­till­ing or­der from chaos. ‘‘ I have Ger­man blood in me. I like or­der. I tend to be a con­ser­va­tive artist, then

Stephen Sond­heim says the chal­lenge is to keep his work fresh

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.