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
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