Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway hit is 50 years young and about to be revived with Geoffrey Rush in the lead. Deborah Jones talks to the key players
GEOFFREY Rush was at a London hotel a few years ago, enjoying a drink with cast members from the musical Chicago — he was staying in the city ‘‘ either for The King’s Speech or the fourth Pirates; they were at about the same time’’ — and in walked Stephen Sondheim. Not surprisingly the musictheatre lot went feral: Sondheim is, by a margin that may be measured in light years, the most revered figure in their business.
As it happened, Rush could claim a slight previous acquaintance with the composer. ‘‘ We met in the [hotel] elevator and grunted at each other. He said: ‘ Mr Rush’; I said: ‘ Maestro Sondheim’.’’ Sondheim busied himself with his laptop but would later join everyone for a chat. He and Rush talked about subjects as diverse as opera — ‘‘ not a lot’’, Sondheim said, when asked what he thought about it — and eminent Victorian director Harley Granville Barker. ‘‘ I thought, ‘ This guy’s terribly erudite,’ ’’ says Rush.
Sondheim can indeed be erudite. And elegant, sophisticated, multifaceted and well, perhaps a bit highbrow and difficult, depending on where you stand. Such qualities have long disqualified him from top-of-the-pops status on Broadway but, simultaneously, those who love Sondheim musicals really, really love them to the point of idolatry. He has done all right for himself.
In 2010, during a feast of celebrations for Sondheim’s 80th birthday, British theatre critic Benedict Nightingale wrote: ‘‘ It’s almost a truism that his musicals regularly lose money and win awards,’’ going on to describe him as ‘‘ certainly . . . the only Broadway music-man with a world view’’. Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times in 2002, called Sondheim addicts ‘‘ a breed second only to Wagnerians in the depth of their fanaticism’’.
Going back even further, in The New York Times in 1986, Herbert Kretzmer called Sondheim ‘‘ the Broadway musical’s dominating figure for almost two decades, advancing its frontiers with austere intelligence and rare literacy’’, and quoted Alan Jay Lerner — he of My Fair Lady fame — as saying: ‘‘ It’s a federal offence to criticise Steve Sondheim in any way.’’ You get the picture.
He’s one of those people of whom the mighty Cole Porter would have approved: he noted that Some Enchanted Evening was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘‘ if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song’’. Sondheim can do it all by himself, as he proved after his starry early start as lyricist only for Gypsy and West Side Story. Then, in 1962, came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first produced musical for which he wrote music and lyrics and in which Rush will star next month as wily Roman slave Pseudolus alongside a bevy of the country’s most accomplished comic actors, including Shane Bourne, Magda Szubanski, Christie Whelan and Mitchell Butel.
Rush calls this torrent of talent ‘‘ a miracle of spontaneous wand-waving’’. Director Simon Phillips agrees it came together pretty easily. ‘‘ Geoffrey and I have talked about it for a long time,’’ he says. ‘‘ I thought it was a part he was destined to play. A delight of watching Geoffrey in the theatre is to see him celebrating the act of theatre and involving the audience complicitly in the act of theatre. The ideal role in the music-theatre canon for him is this role.’’
Phillips had also been talking to producer John Frost about Rush. There had been a lot of interest in touring Phillips’s final production as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company, The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Rush played Lady Bracknell. ‘‘ But I think that was a finite experience for Geoffrey,’’ Phillips says. When he heard Rush intended to spend much of his time in Melbourne for the next year or so he pounced. ‘‘ Why not twiddle your thumbs on Forum?’’ Phillips suggested to Rush. Hearing of this, Frost naturally suggested they all put it in their diaries. With Rush on board it’s not surprising that casting ‘‘ was like a self-saucing pudding’’, according to the actor. Pretty much everyone they thought of who’d be good for the show said yes.
Forum’s plot is simplicity itself. Pseudolus is determined to win his freedom by helping his young master secure the affections of the lovely lass next door. There is no subtext or higher meaning; what you see is what you get. ‘‘ The essence of the show is that these characters are archetypes; they have a single desire, something they want to achieve. It’s right there on the surface,’’ Phillips says.
‘‘ The humour comes from people under pressure,’’ Rush says. ‘‘ In Forum, in the course of one day everything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s the heart of it. The play needs high-powered comically inventive ratbags. We seem to have them all.’’
Another part of the miracle is that this production of Forum falls in its 50th anniversary year and is, says Sondheim, the most highprofile production of it this year; ‘‘ not only most high-profile but the only major production. I don’t know of any others in Western theatre. I think there’s a production in Japan.’’
Speaking from his office at home in New York, Sondheim sounds in remarkably good form for a man of 82. He is unfailingly courteous — a trait much mentioned in interviews — but brisk. ‘‘ I’m fine,’’ he says firmly and briefly to a query about his health. He must be, as he’s planning to be in the opening-night audience for Forum. ‘‘ Yes, I can’t wait,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’ve been to Sydney three times but never been to Melbourne.’’ A FUNNY Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was in out-of-town tryout and in big trouble. Sondheim, then only 32, already had the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy under his belt but this was his first musical as composer and lyricist to be produced. The reviews in New Haven and Washington were dreadful.
Sondheim’s recollection of the time is clear. ‘‘ No, it’s not like yesterday, but it’s like the day before yesterday. I can remember it well.’’ The show, based on plays by Roman comic writer Plautus, had a relatively long gestation of about four years and plenty of hurdles to negotiate. Jerome Robbins had agreed to direct but pulled out. George Abbott, then 75, took over, and although Sondheim liked him he thought the director humourless, something of a disadvantage when staging a farce. (Although when the show was in trouble, Abbott — a noted play doctor — did say something amusing. ‘‘ I don’t know — I guess we’ll have to call in George Abbott,’’ he said.)
Milton Berle was to be Pseudolus but withdrew; Zero Mostel came in. As Meryle Secrest recounts in her 1998 biography of Sondheim, the show went through draft after draft, and Larry Gelbart, co-author of the musical’s book with Burt Shevelove, wrote: ‘‘ It’s not that we kept getting it wrong all the time. It was more a matter of never getting it right all at the same time.’’ Sondheim wrote and discarded many songs.
Indeed, there is to this day no locked-down version of Forum. Phillips visited Sondheim in New York late last month to talk about the show and says the two had a great discussion about a section that has never been performed that Sondheim ‘‘ has a really soft spot for’’ and that Phillips will take a close look at.
By the time the show was ready to go into rehearsals — in early 1962 — Sondheim ‘‘ should have been feeling exhilarated at the prospect. Instead, I felt a rapidly burgeoning panic, which I attributed to hysteria from the excitement of finally launching myself as a composer, but I didn’t trust such an easy explanation,’’ he writes in Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collected lyrics ‘‘ with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes’’.
His instincts were correct. A friend who read the script and heard the score liked both, but not together. Sondheim writes he had made the mistake of being ‘‘ witty instead of comic’’, and focused attention ‘‘ on the songwriter rather than the characters’’. The songs didn’t need to imply complex emotional needs or forward the plot. They needed to sell a joke and provide a bit of respite from the hectic action. Or, as Phillips puts it, they are ‘‘ a still moment of thought-bubble outside the farce’’.
Sondheim didn’t have the time to take on board what he recognised as astute criticism, and ‘‘ just plunged ahead with the songs, but the sad fact is that the book and the score didn’t go together, and they still don’t’’, he wrote.
Audiences didn’t find that a problem, nor did most of the New York critics. Forum was a hit when it got to Broadway, running for three years and winning the Tony award for best musical in 1963, although Sondheim’s music and lyrics didn’t receive a nomination (book and score were in different categories). A subsequent London production was also a success. Before that, however, there was anguish of the most intense kind. The thentraditional out-of-town performances were ‘‘ a