Stephen Sondheim - In Conversation

On Sunday 21st May 2006, Stephen Sondheim spoke to Edward Seckerson in front of an audience at The Queen's Theatre in London. Hosted by the Sondheim Society, the event gave us a unique insight into this extraordinary creative genius. Many of the questions came from the audience and over the course of about 2 hours Sondheim gave what is arguably one of his most in-depth and fascinating interviews. Below is a slightly edited transcript of the conversation, which we present in 3 parts (Part 3 available next week - Sign up for alerts by joining our eList!).

Stage and Screen Online would like to thank Lynne Chapman of the Stephen Sondheim Society for allowing us to share this wonderful interview.

Edward Seckerson: Over the last few years a number of your shows have played in London in compact, reduced versions that have been extremely effective, and to your credit you’ve been immensely flexible in giving encouragement to these productions. Sweeney Todd - I don’t know if you saw it at the Watermill itself?

Stephen Sondheim: No, I didn’t. I saw a videotape of the Watermill.

ES: Because it was extraordinary. You really felt like you were kind of locked into this asylum.

SS: Well you know that with the production at the Bridewell, where you were locked in! I did not see it unfortunately, I missed it by one day, but from the description it’s exactly my kind of thing. Where the doors closed at 8 o’clock and the only light came through some small windows at the top and you were literally trapped in the room.

ES: It’s a tribute to the material though, Steve, that you can get up close and personal with it and really scrutinise it and it stands the test in these productions. Does that thrill you though; the fact that it actually withstands this kind of scrutiny?

SS: Most of these shows, not true of Follies, not true of Pacific Overtures where I thought of them as chamber pieces than as say as intimate pieces. I certainly thought of Sweeney Todd as an intimate piece, it was Hal Prince who wanted to make it what he called an epic, because he likes epic theatre, as you know from his work. And I’d always conceived it as a small thing that would scare you to death because you would be enclosed in the little world. And Sunday in the Park with George, everybody says you have such a small orchestra, but we only had 11 pieces in New York City, so it’s not that much reduced.

ES: Sweeney though, I mean you must miss, to some extent, the power of the orchestration.

SS: The power of the full orchestration, yes, to a certain extent, indeed. But not that much. There are moments in Sunday where I miss a certain amount of sweep of the orchestra, even though it was only an 11 piece sweep, but it’s more than made up for by what’s going on.

ES: I was interested because I hadn’t read, until recently, that Bernard Hermann, the composer, was a kind of influence in the Sweeney sound.

SS: Oh yeah, Sweeney is a response to a film score he wrote for a film called Hangover Square which I was bowled over by when I saw it at the age of 15. I saw it in a small town where I lived in Pennsylvania at that time, called Doylestown; they only had two showings of a movie each night, one at 7.00 and one at 9.00, and I saw this I felt, wonderful film. It’s a little creaky now but it’s still quite marvellous, called Hangover Square, which was about an insane composer in Edwardian times, who’s way ahead of his time and every time he hears a particular high-pitched sound he goes out and murders the nearest beautiful girl.{laughter}. He’s played by a man named Laird Cregar, and he’s a completely innocent man because he blacks out during these episodes. And therefore he’s very sympathetic and your heart sort of breaks for him because you know that’s he’s going to somehow meet his evil self at some point in the film, which he does, during the piano concerto he wrote, which Bernard Hermann wrote. And there was one shot when he came back from one of the murders where he does not know what he’s done but he sits at his piano, he comes out of the foggy London streets and sits at the piano and proceeds to play the first 16 bars of the concerto and there’s a shot that lasts maybe two seconds of the score on the piano. And I stayed for the second showing so that I could memorise that page. {laughter} And I can still play it! {Laughter and applause}
But anyway, the only person who recognised what I was doing with Sweeney was my friend Anthony Perkins, Tony Perkins, who is as much of a fan of that kind of melodramatic movie as I am, or was at any rate, and he was in New York (he lived in California) and he came and I said “do you want to hear some songs from the show I’m writing?” and I started to play Sweeney Todd and he said “It’s Bernard Hermann”. I said “You’re the only person who got it”. Because there’s a specific chord that Bernard Hermann uses in all his films, and Sweeney is, I won’t say it’s built around that, it’s not, but the chord recurs. It’s a C sharp minor chord with a major seventh underneath, so it’s B#, C#, E, G#. You play it, it’s immediately Bernard Hermann.

ES: Now I gather we have Sarah Travis in the audience this afternoon.

SS: Sarah, welcome. I hope she’s here. As long as she’s here that’s all that matters.

ES: Sarah did the arrangements for Sweeney; extraordinary arrangements. There is a question here, from Hugh Craig actually, who was asking for your response to the Watermill approach of actors playing instruments. Are there any disadvantages as you see it Steve, because Doyle, it’s very clever what he does but what do you see as the disadvantages? Is there a sense at times that one’s focus is pulled away?

SS: No because one of the things that Doyle does is that he makes the instruments extensions of the characters, so that somehow - even though in London Mrs Lovett played a trumpet and in New York she plays a tuba - it’s somehow an extension of the character. He changed the instrumentation, as those of you who saw it in both places may know, although the two the lovers still played cellos, the others are distributed differently. Tobias, over here, played wind instruments; in New York he plays a violin. But Doyle has a way of making these instruments so infused into the characters that far from being a disadvantage, it enriches it in a certain way.
ES: I was particularly riveted watching the show, both here at the Watermill and in New York, by the way Sarah had actually, where someone needed to do something physical, somehow she’d replaced that instrument with another instrument and you never felt that there was any drop-out.

SS: There’s a way of viewing that production as a ballet because, between Sarah and John, they have managed to make the putting-down and the taking-up of instruments part of the action. It’s quite remarkable, once you see the show a number of times to see exactly how and where the various players put their instruments. I mean, you know, carrying a cello around is one thing, putting it down and picking it up is another; how do you lay a cello down? You have to lay it on its side or you have to lean it against….at one point somebody just holds the cello by the top of the finger there while the actor playing the cello moves into the scene. Watching that is an entertainment in itself, it’s quite wonderful. There’s one point where one piano player is replaced by the other in the middle of a vamp…

ES: That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

SS: Exactly. And one of them stands by the piano while the other one sneaks away to enter the scene and the first one takes over the rhythm - it’s the “Pretty Women” rhythm - and slips onto the bench while the other one enters the scene. It’s wonderful when you know that it’s there, it’s fun to look at.

ES: And it has its own kind of tension, in a way; that whole process. There’s a question here from Wendy Callan which ties in with this whole business. “You’re admirably open to and supportive of companies making sometimes quite radical alterations to your shows”, she says. “Are there or have there ever been any changes to which you would not give your permission?”

SS: Radical alterations - except for this production where John wanted to take, had to take a number of cuts, because we didn’t have the resources, the forces to, with things in “God That’s Good” when you don’t have a full chorus and you don’t have an actual chair coming in, that sort of thing. But radical alterations in the other shows..…I don’t remember any. This is the only show, and I restored some of the cuts that John made and even suggested some (cuts) to make. So the answer is no, I have no objections because there hasn’t been very many radical alterations. There have been tiny alterations, but not radical ones.

ES: How’s John’s production of Company working in Cincinnati?

SS: It’s wonderful! It’s entirely different in tone, even though it uses the same technique of having the performers play the instruments. It is very elegant, it’s also rather jazzy and there are also 14 of them instead of 10 and those extra four instruments make a huge difference; but in this one the double bass is carried around the stage, whereas in Sweeny Todd it’s barely moved at all. It’s also very elegantly clothed and elegant to look at – it’s a whole different tone although it’s the same technique, and it’s turned the piece inside out in a way that I would never have anticipated. Ever since Company’s been done it’s always, even by people who like it, been characterised as a group of interesting people kind of circling a cipher, that Bobby is a sort of cipher, a tabula rasa on whom everybody reacts, they react on him, and in this version an odd thing has happened. It is absolutely a show about Bobby, and everybody else is a satellite. The whole thing has been reversed and as a result, George’s book, George Firth’s book which has always been underrated, even at its best it’s been considered a smart-ass wise-crack book, but it isn’t, it’s got a lot more substance than that and it comes out in this production, partly through the performance of Raul Esparza who plays the lead, but partly because of John’s approach. It has much more substance and weight; that does not mean it’s solemn – it’s still very funny and it’s still sharp and brittle, but brittle in the best sense. So it’s brought out a quality in it… you know Sweeney Todd also has made people appreciate Hugh’s book, Hugh Wheeler’s book, much more than they ever did before, and in the same way his production of Company has made people, and I think even many of you will appreciate the book more than you may have done so before.

ES: You mentioned Raul Esparza there, who I thought was extraordinary in Tick Tick Boom, the Jonathan Larson piece that we saw put together. Just as a little addition here, what did you make of that really very amusing, I think very amusing take on Sunday?

SS: Those of you who saw Tick Tick Boom know it’s very funny and I was sort of a mentor to Jonathan so I’m proud to say that and I knew he liked my stuff a lot.

ES: Extraordinary stuff. My assistant here, Lynne, is handing me things as we speak. From Mark Smithers: “how do you feel that the current London production of Sunday In The Park With George compares to the previous US and UK productions?” Well, you’ve sort of answered that already but is there anything that you might want to add?

SS: Well the major thing is that good, bad or indifferent, the National Theatre production was sort of a gloss on James’s production in New York, it was more elaborate and it had some changes in it but mostly it took from James’s production. What’s lovely, and James would agree with me a hundred percent, because we felt the same way about Richard Jones’s production of Into The Woods, it’s so much better when a new director takes an entirely different tack. It’s full of surprises and full of that director’s take on it as opposed to that director’s take on James’s take. And the nice thing about this production of Sunday, the major thing, is that it’s entirely different. I take that back; there are moments that are alike, but most of it is very different, because of the whole technologically, digitalised versions of the set and of the painting; it gives it a whole other flavour, just the way Richard Jones’s take on Into The Woods was completely different. That’s the good part.

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