COM­EDY TONIGHT

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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