Stephen Sondheim - In Conversation (cont'd)

ES: Well, Garry Brough here mentions the technology and was bowled over by it. He wondered whether you felt technology had finally caught up with your vision of the show?

SS: As far as I’m concerned, James’s vision in the first place was his vision, why not? It was perfect, but this is just a whole other way of doing it. And incidentally, technologically, you know, there have been a lot of off-off-Broadway pieces that have been done that have used the technological advances of the last ten years well. There’s a group called the Worcester Group that does very experimental and very avant-garde stuff, but they use absolutely up-to-the-minute technology involving all kinds of visual effects, sound effects, television, etc. It’s just that Broadway hasn’t, meaning commercial theatre hasn’t; that’s what’s so startling here is that this is, you know, commercial, but that kind of stuff has been going on for quite a while.

ES: Well from my point of view, watching, one forgot the technology completely and I thought act two of his worked just wonderfully. It’s so moving and so sort of intimate.

SS: As you all we’ve often been criticised for having written two separate acts; the same thing happened with Into The Woods, which is always why don’t they quit after the first act? If we’d just done the first act of Sunday In The Park it’s a stunt, it’s nice but it’s just a stunt; ‘look how this painting got painted’. We always thought of it as a two-act structure; as having a lot more to say about art and the artist than just ‘look how we made this painting cleverly’.

ES: Well I’ve always felt that your pieces, anyway, develop in the second act.

SS: Well, yes that’s the way I feel, but I think for the first time, because of what’s going on visually in the piece, I’ve noticed that now people think the second act is attached to the first, I mean they get the total arc of the piece now, in a way they may not have gotten before and it’s partly because of the technological.… the audience ties in the two acts because of things that are going on visually in the background in the first act, and they see echoes of it in the second act just the way the script has many echoes of the first act; the way the parallel between Putting It Together and The Day Off which are parallel musically, are now pointed up more because there’s a parallel visually. It’s as one of the characters says “theme and variations”, which is always what it was intended to be.

ES: I hadn’t thought of that, but I can see it now.

SS: Musically it’s theme and variations.

ES: There is a question here from Kim Philpotts, ‘what do you feel about Tim Burton directing Sweeney Todd’. I was worried, concerned about it, when I first heard because I have certain problems with musicals on film. There are a couple that I think have worked supremely well, interestingly enough the two Kander and Ebb shows Cabaret and Chicago I thought worked very well because of the stylisations, but is there going to be an angle in Sweeney, without revealing anything, which I’m sure you can’t?

(NOTE: This interview took place in May 2006, way before the film of Sweeney Todd started production. Tim Burton's finished film of Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp, is released before Christmas 2007.)

SS: No, it’s not an angle. The script is by a man named John Logan, who is a very well-known screenwriter out there. He wrote The Aviator and he wrote Gladiator, he wrote Last Samurai and his script is quite wonderful. Unlike you, Ed, I don’t think any film has worked, any musical has worked on film, including those two; they don’t work for me! {laughter} It’s because the stage is so different than film, I mean Chicago was very entertaining but as far as I’m concerned it was better on the stage. I have great hopes for this but the translation from one medium to another is difficult. There’s no gimmick on it, he’s got a visual metaphor, which I will not tell you about, and a way of tightening and speeding up the story because obviously the difficulty, as you all know, is that a single shot of a person’s face on the screen can convey what three minutes of singing can convey. So there is a tendency as people start to sing on screen to say ‘come on, come on, let’s get on with the story, let’s get on with the story’, whereas when you’re in a theatre it’s part of the compact you make when you come in the door to see a musical, that people are going to sit on the stage, break the fourth wall, meaning already, it’s unreal, and sing at you, and that you will enjoy the singing. It goes to extreme in opera where they sing at you, but people who go into an opera house that’s not only the compact they make; that’s what they want. That’s what’s enjoyable. In the same way (in) musicals, it’s fun to hear somebody take one subject and sing about it for four minutes or three minutes, if it’s sung well, if the song is entertaining or clever or surprising or whatever, but on screen, which is a reportorial medium, it is not such fun, at least not for me, and I get impatient right away. I think John has found a way, although those of you who like the piece a lot will probably be dismayed at the number of cuts in the score, but I think so far, what we’ve done is cut it quite well I think, but you have to tell the story swiftly. Luckily, Sweeney has a very, very good plot; things happen and you don’t have to linger on moments, you can keep the plot going while people are singing. There are numerous songs in Sweeney Todd where you can keep an action going as people are singing, where you don’t just have to settle and have somebody sing one idea for three minutes and keep the camera on them and you get impatient. So I think there’s a chance that it might work very well.

ES: Can I pick up there, Steve, on the issue of when and where people sing in musical theatre, because the old idea (is) that they sing because the emotional stakes are so high that they don’t want to speak? But I know you like to subvert and surprise, so how are you led into deciding where to put the songs?

SS: You’re led into that - I am anyway - by working with my collaborator; whoever’s writing the libretto. We decide where can music do something either better, wittier, swifter, more interestingly, more surprisingly in a scene than perhaps the dialogue can do? But I usually try… it was Rodgers & Hammerstein who essentially - they didn’t pioneer but they developed the idea of a scene reaching a certain emotional peak – Carousel is a great example of this, where the emotions, the dialogue and the characters in the dialogue rise to such a peak that the music has to take over. So that became the cliché; that’s where songs occur when dialogue rises to that point. When I was writing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Burt Shevelove, who wrote the book with Larry Gelbart said, “you know there are other ways to write musicals too,” “Oh?” I said, because I’d been bought up by Oscar. He said “Sometimes you savour the moment.” Forum is a score in which none of the action rises to, or emotions rise to a peak, even the comic emotions, where singing is necessary, it’s just given a moment, let’s say, like Free where a slave is entertaining the idea of being free if he does a favour for his young master and you just play with the idea of free or freedom from the slave’s point of view and the delight, supposedly, for the audience, is to take this idea and watch the ball bouncing; it’s the delight you get in a Cole Porter song; Let’s Do It – the idea is over in two lines, but the rest of the song is let’s see what he does with it and it’s just such fun. And because of Rodgers & Hammerstein, as I’ve said in the past; they ruined it for the rest of us, they said ‘No, you’ve got to tell the story’, so that’s what led to the cliché of you reach a certain point in the story, the emotions take over and then you gotta sing. And now, for myself, every time I hear that underscoring I think, “Oh my God here comes the love song,” and the idea is to try to, to use your word, subvert that, at least for me, to surprise the audience, to, not necessarily, come in unexpectedly, but either a tonal twist or a timing twist, something so you can keep them alert, because audiences now are smarter than they were in 1943, which is when Oklahoma was done, and so to keep their interest going, I think, and to keep my interest going, you got to do something that makes me wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s hard, but it’s fun.
ES: Are your problems with opera to do with the fact that ideas are endlessly developed…

SS: Part. {laughter} There’s just not a lot of story going on and it’s filled with longueurs, it’s filled with pauses and it’s filled with savouring the moment and because I don’t enjoy that kind of savouring the moment. . . First of all, I like the contrast, as I’ve said many times, I like the contrast between singing and speech, for me that is a kind of music in and of itself. I am not a fan of sung-through musicals, people ask me why don’t you write a through-composed music, as we all know, nobody’s written a through-composed musical, they’ve only written through-sung musicals; there’s never been a compositional principle, but whatever it is, it’s constant singing. I don’t find that as much fun as having music drop out, or underscore and having people talk and particularly if the talk is good and I work with collaborators who write really, really good dialogue and actors who know how to play that dialogue and for me that’s the fun. My big feeling about opera is I get weary of the singing and that is exactly the pleasure that opera-goers like; the glories of the human voice. I can take a little glory. {laughter}

Question from the audience: What about Porgy and Bess?

SS: Porgy and Bess does have dialogue in it, very little, just the way Carmen has dialogue. Very little, and I got to tell you some of the recitative in Porgy and Bess drives me a little crazy. When I saw Trevor Nunn’s production here, I thought, “Gee, this is longer than I remember it!” {laughter} And as most of you know I worship Porgy and Bess; for me there’s Porgy and Bess, then there’s everything else but nevertheless I thought, gee this is long, and I wanted to take a little out.

ES: Interestingly enough, when you were talking about the amount of singing in opera, I was thinking about how someone like Benjamin Britten turned that on its head with Peter Grimes and made the most important line in the opera spoken.

SS: Yes. Well, the first act of Peter Grimes is one of the few operas that I would go anywhere to hear or to see; the first act of that is remarkable. Well, so did Marc Blitzstein, the climatic line of Regina, you know, when Regina says “I hope you die”; he saved that, and it was spoken. And “bring me my goat” is the great line in Porgy and Bess and it’s spoken.

ES: We’ve got a couple more questions here on Sweeney and then we’ll go into some of the general questions, ‘cause there’s some fun things there. This is kind of a cute one…

SS: Why did my stomach just go… {laughter}

ES: I tell you this audience is strange. Is there any conscious connection between your organ writing in Sweeney Todd and Bernstein’s in the opening of the third movement of the chamber version of his Chichester Psalms? Well there’s a thought…

SS: The opening of the third movement? Well first of all, there isn’t because that’s the one piece of writing in Sweeney I really… I tried twice to improve it; it still sounds so academic, it’s just… look who’s been studying counterpoint. {laughter} And you know, writing for organ is writing for organ; it’s as idiomatic as writing for piano and I made the mistake of thinking they were the same; they’re not. I can write for piano. But writing for organ is its own animal and, you know, I like it when it’s not there. Or I would like to rewrite it – I did rewrite it once and it isn’t any better than it was in its original. That’s not modesty, it just isn’t. It sits there, it just doesn’t have the effect that I… Bernard Hermann would know how to do it, he really would. The whole idea was just to make an audience slightly tense before the thing began but then Hal capped it with the factory whistle anyway, which so alarms the audience and so irritates the audience that it didn’t need the organ prelude.

ES: Apropos writing for voices, Steve, are you ever conscious when you’re actually writing the numbers of the vocal difficulties that you sometimes present people with? {laughter}

SS: Well, no, partly because I can’t sing very well; it’s all easy for me. You know. I’m leaping a ninth so I think ‘oh that’s no problem’, ‘cause it’s what I hear in my head. But it’s odd; some things that sound very difficult are not if the singer relaxes into it, and some – I remember Larry Kert who played the lead in Company, you know, I was just talking to him, maybe I was talking about a specific number he was having trouble with and I said “are there any passages that are difficult for you?” he said “yes”, and the one he picked was the song Someone Is Waiting. Now Someone Is Waiting is almost all stepwise motion, and I would think, you know, that is what’s easy for a singer, I would think what’s hard for a singer is leaps, a leap of a seventh, or a leap of a ninth, but not at all. Sometimes it’s the way the tune is built and the answer is; I don’t know until a singer says to me “I’m having difficulty negotiating this”. But sometimes what I think is difficult, turns out not to be. I probably should have studied singing more. I regret two things in my education: one not to have studied orchestration, but I never had the chance because I went to a small college, there was no such thing. The other is, I’m sorry I didn’t sing in the glee club and the reason I didn’t, was I just didn’t like the activity, but I would have learned something about how voices blend and what is easy to sing and what is hard to sing. And I didn’t.

ES: I think in some of Anne Egerman’s stuff in A Little Night Music is very, very difficult.

SS: I asked Vicky about that, the lady who played the original, and she said “no,” she said “it’s just rangy”. The thing is I wrote Anne Egerman for a total of octave and six but the tessitura is all over the place; she’s got to sing up there and she’s got to sing down here, and she’s got to be beautiful and she has to be young and she has to act selfishly without being a bitch and the result is, nobody has ever been able to play the part except Victoria Mallory! {laughter} That’s unfair to the Annes; I’ve seen many Annes – I loved Joanna Riding here because she could do it, she’s a good singer, so she could do it; there have been others, but the point is it’s been very difficult to cast that part, always, because of all the requirements, not the least of which is a tessitura of an octave and six.

ES: But also, to give you credit for the way the music and text relate, if you play the sense and the emotion that will help also with the vocal line.

SS: I’ve always had that experience with anybody who sings Getting Married Today, the end of the first act of Company. They say “Oh it’s impossible…”, I say “If you just sing it and play it you’ll find that the inflection of the lyric will tell you where the notes are”, and sure enough it does. The other thing is, if you sing it very fast, you’ll have no trouble. They all say “oh, it’s impossible” – sing it fast, where you don’t run out of breath. And I worked very carefully to make the lyric so it trips off the tongue, which unfortunately it doesn’t in the last chorus, {laughter} but the first parts of the song, I make no excuses for. And sure enough, whenever they sing it fast they hit the notes and they have no trouble with breath control at all.

ES: I always thought it was extraordinary what Julie Andrews did with that number, I mean just putting the emphases and the points, so that it wasn’t just a patter, it actually had real shape.

SS: Absolutely, because she’s a good actress.

ES: This is interesting; this is David Oldcorn: “We understand that from the moment you saw Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd we’re told you wanted to turn it into a musical. Are there any other plays or books that you immediately felt that way about?”

SS: Well I felt that way when I saw the movie of Passione D’Amore and wanted immediately to do a musical which ten years later I did. Off-hand, no, I don’t think so. I don’t want to keep everybody sitting here while I rake through my rapidly failing memory. {Laughter}

ES: Carnival?

SS: I wanted to do Carnival after I saw the show. I saw the show Carnival, which was based on Lili – I did not like the movie Lili, I found it wet and sentimental and embarrassing; when I saw the musical I thought, “Oh my God, I wish I’d written that,” and I wished that David Merrick who produced it had asked me to write it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen which I thought “Oh I wish I’d written that.” But no, when I saw the movie Lili, it was the farthest thing from my head; I thought it was creepy.

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