Stephen Sondheim - In Conversation (cont'd)

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Audience member: “I think that in Sunday, Putting It Together is a great synergy of the technology and the song.

SS: Putting It Together was always about the difficulty of raising money for whatever you’re doing. It’s really, essentially all it’s about, is how in order to get a show on, in order to get a chromolume financed or put together a movie, you have to go out and you have to raise money and you have to put it together in terms of not only that, but in terms of support, support groups, your fellow artists etc etc etc. There’s a great deal that goes into a work of art, even if it’s a work of commercial art or popular art which is what I deal with. That’s all it’s about. The whole technological thing; because we decided that we wanted George, in 1984, to be on the cutting edge, in fact what James Lapine wanted to do was, he wanted to have George developing holograms, and so we did some research into holograms and unfortunately realised that in order to make a hologram work in the theatre you’d have to have one row of seats, 400 deep, {laughter} because a hologram has to be viewed exactly like this; as soon as you’re over here you don’t see the hologram anymore! But we wanted him to be experimenting with something really on the cutting edge so George is supposed to be technologically exactly where the people who put together Sunday In The Park With George are. And that’s why we had a light machine and in fact, Bran Ferren who designed the chromolume, in the original production was on the cutting edge, he then went out to Disney and he has his own kingdom now, like George Lucas and his light show organisation, Bran has this extraordinary, experimental... he’s always on the cutting edge of technological stuff. So essentially Putting It Together was supposed to be how you finance, how you support, how you help grow something that is technologically expensive and immediate and cutting edge. And also the critical response to same.

Question from audience on underscoring during the chromolume scene in Sunday In The Park

SS: That comes from the fact that; given that you’re going to do a chromolume in 2006, what are you going to do? What would you have? Because installations now, that artists are doing –contemporary artists – are in no way theatrical for the stage, they may be theatrical when you go into a Tracy Emin installation, but you can’t do that on the stage, so what do you do on the stage? Well, the solution that they came up with, which is the same solution that we came up with in Washington in 2002 when we did the production down there- in which incidentally Raul Esparza played George - was to have the chromolume out there where the audience is and see the reaction of the people onstage to the chromolume, rather than having them show it. If we put a light machine on now, you’d say “Oh, come on, where has this guy been for the last 25 years?” {laughter} That’s the problem; what do you do that is cutting edge now, and the only way you can do it, I think, is you have to suggest it. Once you’ve done that then of course you have to change the underscoring because it now lasts half as long as it did when there was an actual lightshow; those of you who didn’t see the original production – there was a lightshow; there were laser beams, coloured laser beams from all over the theatre, criss-crossing over the stage; it was very spectacular, and though to any really sophisticated contemporary artist it was old hat, to the audience in a theatre it was extremely sort of cutting edge and unusual, and it was in itself a number, so it lasted maybe two-and-a-half minutes, maybe two minutes. Now it’s shorter because there’s less to do because once the audience registers what’s going on on the stage; that a group of people are watching some extraordinary exhibition, ‘up there’, then as soon as the audience registers that it’s over so you want to get out of there and get on with the scene.

ES: I think it’s much better. I really do.

SS: Better or not, it’s the only solution that we could think of.

ES: A couple of questions on Assassins. When we were talking a while ago Steve about when people sing, one of the most powerful gestures in that show was that in the last scene of the show nobody does (sing), until the very end and there’s that immense scene with Lee Harvey. Do you remember how that came about, that bold decision to just let the book take over at that point? SS: You know the songs in Assassins are like the songs in Company for the most part, not true of the Booth scene, but for the most part they’re comments or they are entirely musicalised scenes, they don’t come out of dialogue, for the most part. And that scene – what could you possibly write for Lee Harvey Oswald to sing before he shoots Kennedy that wouldn’t dilute the power of the scene? It never occurred to John and me to have a song in there. Didn’t occur. We didn’t design it that way, we just did it. Part of it is that originally our intention for Assassins was that we were going to open in the Texas Book Depository and it would start with Oswald preparing to shoot Kennedy and because it was about books we thought “isn’t that interesting?”, because what can happen is that the assassins would pop up behind the stacks of books and in fact occasionally look at a book; Booth would look at it and say “that isn’t what happened!”, you know, but the whole idea of history coming to life through books. So the whole piece was going to take place in that, so it always was meant to lead to a spoken scene where there would be confrontation between Booth and Oswald, and Booth giving Oswald the courage, along with the other assassins to go and kill Kennedy. And then, actually it was James Lapine suggested to us that we should not give away Lee Harvey Oswald ‘til the very end of the show and he was right because even though you know that somehow Oswald’s going to appear, one of the wonderful things about Assassins is you forget it and so when he does appear you think “Oh my God!”. And if we’d given it away at the beginning… But it was always meant to be spoken; Oswald was never a singing character.

ES: It’s the best example I know in musical theatre of not through-singing.

SS: Through talking.

ES: There are a couple of little questions here from Laura Horsfall, who’s eleven, and, not surprisingly, one of the questions is about Into The Woods. How long did it take you to write it?

SS: I went to James Lapine after Sunday In The Park With George because we had such a great time writing it together and said “I’d love to do a quest musical,” meaning like The Wizard of Oz, and James started a plot and then he couldn’t he said “it’s too arbitrary to plot something like that.” And, without going into great detail, he finally came up with the notion of taking these fairy stories and blending them together and having all the characters collide. I would say between the time I said to him “let’s do a quest musical” and that moment, was probably two to three months. Then I’d say that we talked about the show, as I remember it, over a summer at great length and then wrote it. I’d say the total time was maybe a year to a year-and-a-half. Then we tried it out at the Old Globe Theatre in California, San Diego, over the Christmas holiday period and from that decided what we wanted to do to develop it a little further; to improve it if you will, and we figured that would take four to six months, also in terms of recasting it and then we would go to rehearsal and that is in fact what happened, and we went into rehearsal that fall. So I guess if you put all the time together, including the tryout, it was about two years, but about a year of actual writing, maybe three to six months of planning, and three to six months of fixing.

ES: Laura’s sister, Emily, asks a question which he’s not going to answer, I’m afraid: of all the shows you’ve written, which is your favourite Steve?

SS: I’ll answer: I like each one for a different reason and so I can’t say they’re all my favourite because there’s no one that I like better than another. I like them all. There’s one I don’t particularly like which is Do I Hear A Waltz? simply because - it’s not a bad show, it’s just it was written under a kind of duress and we did it more as a job, Arthur Laurents and I, rather than out of sheer love and there were numerous motives going on and none of them were the only motive that counts when you write a show, which is you do it because you want to write it so badly that you just do. But we had our eyes on other reasons and it was a mistake.

Question from the audience: “I had to learn a couple of songs, to my shame I haven’t seen Into The Woods, but I had to learn a couple of (the) songs for various performance-related reasons. Everyone obviously interprets lyrics in their own way, but I just wanted to get your take on it. The lyrics of the title track to Into The Woods, would the subtext relate in anyway to emotional breakdown or depression?”

SS: No, The Woods, obviously as has been pointed out by many analysts . . we took a Jungian approach, you know this whole thing about how we based it on Bruno Bettelheim is nonsense – it’s nothing to do with Bettelheim, in fact I don’t know if James read the book, I didn’t. But we did go into the Jungian interpretation of fairy tales and the notion of the woods as the unconscious mind is exactly what goes on, so it was never meant to relate… there’s no subtext of depression or anything like that, it’s merely that the woods are a metaphor for that part of the mind that is dangerous, in which many unexpected things happen and that’s the unconscious mind, or subconscious: I’m not quite clear on the difference; I know there is a difference. But that’s all, there is no subtext of any specificity at all.

ES: Just to come back, very briefly, to Do I Hear A Waltz? this the show you wrote with Richard Rodgers. We did a programme on Stage and Screen with Carol Lawrence and we were playing Next Week, Americans…

SS: This Week, Americans {laughter}

ES: This Week, Americans, forgive me, which I though was fine – came up fresh…

SS: Oh there’s a lot of good stuff in Do I Hear A Waltz?, it’s just it’s a plane that never takes off, it’s very well-made, it’s very well-written, it’s just something that doesn’t rise and I think it’s because there’s no urgency underneath it. When you write something out of love there’s an urgency underneath it, it can be dreadful, but you feel that there’s a need to have written it. You look at Do I Hear A Waltz? And it’s like a well-made dead object, in someway; that’s not to denigrate it, because it’s really well-made, which is not a small compliment to it and I say it with no modesty but it just doesn’t have the pulse of life in it. If you look at the original play, which I’m afraid today seems somewhat arch and old-fashioned, nevertheless you can feel that the author - it’s a play called The Time of the Cuckoo – you can feel that the author wrote it because he had to write it, not because he was out to make money or out to do a favour for somebody or anything – all those various reasons that we did the musical. That’s all.

ES: Is it true that Rodgers wanted you to reprise one of the big numbers in act two . . ?

SS: Richard Rodgers believed that you had to reprise things all the time and I said “but there’s no point in reprising unless the emotion arises again”. That cut no ice with him. {laughter} And he was the producer. {laughter}

ES: Here’s a question relating to Rodgers & Hammerstein from John Farrar: “You once said you would have written Oklahoma from Judd Fry’s situation. Is that true?”

SS: Did I? {laughter}

ES: OK, assuming you did and clearly you didn’t; how would you have structured this? Would it have been a flashback from the lonely room scene?

SS: I can’t imagine I would ever have said that unless I said it facetiously because I mean he’s not… he’s a major character, but he’s not really a major character. The point of view is the author’s point of view and even in the original play Green Grow the Lilacs he’s the villain, but the play is written from Curly’s point of view and so is the musical. Gosh no, I wouldn’t know what to do, and you can’t because he’s not witness to anything except his passion for Laurey, I suppose, well, now that I’m talking about it {laughter}, I suppose you could. You could, I suppose. Unfortunately I can’t answer the question because I’ve given it no thought; I’ll be happy to give it some thought, but… {laughter}

ES: A question here about classical music from Tony & Sue Shepping. ”What would be the one classical orchestral piece that you would take to your desert island?”

SS: Well, for me the greatest orchestral piece is the Brahms 2nd piano concerto. If you want my favourite orchestral piece I suppose that’s it but I have a lot of very close seconds. I only use that because I have been on the Desert Island Discs show a couple of times and had to think in terms of number one, two, three, four... But certainly, that piece of music is monumental for me. On the other hand for sheer enjoyment I would rather drown in Ravel.

ES: Is Ravel still your…

SS: Oh sure, and the left hand piano concerto is, also. But no Ravel is… but there’s so many, come on! What would you say?

ES: I change every week.

SS: That’s it, of course.

ES: A Percy Grainger kick you were on last time – The Warriors.

SS: The Warriors – what a piece.

ES: You need to hear it live though, Steve. Mark Love: “Can you discuss the relationship between your book writers and you when lyrics are sung to music in your shows? Are the words we hear being sung to your music always all yours or are there any examples within songs you can think of where you’ve set the book writer’s words to music in either a collaborative effort or an exclusive one.”

SS: There are many examples. There are many examples where I’ve stolen lines, phrases and notions from the book writer – and I say steal, which is not really the right word, because also, the book writer takes from me . . the whole idea of a collaboration is that you feed each other, but yes, I can give you innumerable examples of times when I’ve done it. For example; we started out talking about Sunday In The Park With George – Dot’s first song; James wrote a monologue, which begins with the phrase ‘a dribble of sweat’; she’s standing in the sun and she feels herself sweating, and so I just took it. And the monologue went on; she started to think about her life and her life with George, and though I don’t know that I used any actual phrases, the whole notion and then I took the development and went into the dream sequence where she’s talking about ‘but he had said, concentrate, concentrate’; all that sort of stuff. I’ve been off and on over a period of years preparing a book of collected lyrics and I wanted to have some little essays on some of the songs and one of the things I want to do is show some of these monologues – James did one, Jim Goldman did one for Evening Primrose that became the song I Remember - and show what happens. And in Sweeney Todd – Mrs Lovett’s The Worst Pies in London, you look at the speech that Chris Bond wrote and then look at what I wrote and you can see the relationship very clearly. It’s not so much any actual phrases, although sometimes actual phrases come into it, but whole notions and whole ways of developing thought and whole ways of the character expressing him or herself; it goes on all the time. In fact, I doubt if I’ve written a show where I didn’t take something from a book writer and turn it, expand it into a song; transmute it in some way. I’m not in any way ashamed of it – it’s exactly what makes a collaboration a collaboration. That’s what makes a piece seem to be a piece. One of the things I like about the shows I’ve written is they seem to be a piece; you may like the show, or not like the show but it doesn’t feel like the book writer and the song writer were in different rooms; that’s not true of a lot of musicals. A lot of musicals you feel like they were in different countries, even. So the answer is, there are many, many examples.

ES: Yes, it’s that whole thing of picking up on the style and feel and rhythm of the book writer.

SS: As a song writer you have to imitate your book writer. Again, as many of you know, so at the risk of reiteration, I always wait until the book writer has written a couple of scenes before I start actually writing the songs. I collect musical ideas and maybe even lyric ideas, but until I know the exact diction of each character and even discussed that with the book writer until I am in, until I am the actor playing the part – because that’s what it’s about; it’s about acting, and I act these people that the book writer has created. Granted we have in a way created them together but the actual drawing of the character; the actual filling in of the character, that’s the librettist’s job and I wait and then I’m a really good mimic, and I can get inside the character so that when I start to write the lyric, whether I’m taking a phrase or an idea from the book writer, or making my own up all entirely, it’s not entirely off the cuff because I know the character and I can figure out what the character would say if she got hit by a car, even though she may not get hit by a car in the script, and I can imitate very well and that helps the shows be of a piece which is something I like, because what I was taught by Oscar Hammerstein is try to make the show a piece. That’s why he wrote both the libretto and the lyrics so they were a piece.



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