Stephen Sondheim - In Conversation (cont'd)

ES: I know you’ve said before that the writing doesn’t get any easier, in fact it gets harder because there are more expectations, on yourself as well, not just from people outside. Do you still though have that kind of zeal for it, that kind of appetite?

SS: That’s a hard one to answer. It is when I get down to work. It’s fun to work once you get down to it, but getting down to it is a whole other thing. And then, when I see something like this production of Sunday In The Park With George it does rouse me, I think, “Gee, it really is fun to put on musicals”, and so that’s an encouragement. But you look at the state of the theatre, and look at the state of audiences and look at the state of America and you know, it’s hard to get the enthusiasm up again. It just is.

Audience member: On that note, what are your thoughts on the state of musical theatre today and where do you think it should go to keep fresh and alive and to keep attracting audiences, while retaining integrity?

SS: Well the thing is, it is attracting audiences it’s just that what attracts audiences is stuff they’re used to, that’s why there is this profusion of jukebox musicals, you know, of compendiums of songs that they’re familiar with or what they hope is spectacles, huge amounts of money – fifteen, twenty, twenty-five million dollars which is what they cost now, those big Disney musicals, and they think that will attract audiences. Well, in some cases it does and in some it doesn’t, but it’s dead-end in so far as any kind of creative excitement goes, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s all pablum, you know it’s feeding an audience what they want, as opposed to something that might excite them. Where all theatres should go, first of all, all theatres should - please, a little more straight play and a little less musical wouldn’t hurt - but within musical theatre, to allow young talent, who have lots of creative ideas, to have a hearing. You’ve all heard me say this many times, you’ve heard other people say it; there’s no life unless there’s new writing talent being given a hearing, and writing talent that has something to say, not writing talent that merely imitates what other people have done, because that goes on all the time and that the stuff that gets on Broadway, but there’s a good deal of interesting and even exciting stuff going on off-Broadway or in regional theatres or even off-off-Broadway, or perhaps here in the fringe, it’s just it rarely gets onto the commercial stage where it can attract large audiences. Instead of 150 people a night, 1000 people a night, and that is very rare, because it costs so much to put on a show that you have to be a very gutsy producer to take a chance on unknown writers, there are very few stars left so you can’t guarantee a show by, you know, there are no Ethel Mermans and Mary Martins, and Barbra Streisand is not going to come back to the stage, so how so you attract an audience? Well, the way you attract them is by using songs that they’re familiar with, or styles that they’re familiar with or telling stories, quote, ‘they want to hear’. Sunday In The Park With George would not be on Broadway now. I don’t think we could possibly get it on, and certainly not Sweeney Todd. And it was hard enough to get on, believe me, in 1979 – I’d do thirteen auditions to raise the money and didn’t raise a cent; thirteen auditions, and finally because I knew some people who desperately wanted to put a lot of money in a show I got half the backing by calling them and saying “do you want to do that? Fine.” and the producers through some of their standard backers got the rest of the money but otherwise Sweeney Todd would never have gotten on and that’s back in ’79. So it’s very discouraging for a young writer and young writers have families, so where are they going to go? They’re going to go to Hollywood, they’re going to write for Disney of course, or they’re going to write pop or they’re going to go to television. It’s very discouraging; I would really hate to be a young writer today, with good ideas. On the other hand, every now and then, one comes through. You know, The Light In The Piazza, the show by Adam Guettel gets on, it gets on in a non-profit theatre, but it gets so well-received that it has a chance to run and now it’s run for over a year, it’s attracted audiences and those audiences, their appetites will be whetted for something equally fresh, if they get it. Otherwise they’re going to have to go back to the jukebox musicals.
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Audience member: Billy Elliot?

SS: Oh, Billy Elliot; the first 45 minutes – the staging – is one of the most exciting things I ever saw in my life, I think the staging of Billy Elliot, particularly the first half of the first act is wonderful. But for me it’s a triumph of staging, but at least it has something to say. It tries to deal with character; it isn’t a jukebox musical.

ES: The issue of platforms for young writers is, I think, more acute in this country than it is in the States. It really is a serious problem here, particularly since regional theatre, in this country; I mean rep used to be the most fertile ground for new writers - not any more; they take visiting productions. But then you occasionally get a young writer; I know you were kind of struck by what you heard of his work – Connor Mitchell – who has been specifically writing in Northern Ireland for the theatre in Belfast. Perhaps the theatre here, in your name, the 500 seater, would you like to see it be a new forum for new writers?

SS: Oh, absolutely. I can think of nothing I’d rather have then have that as the fertile ground for new writers and that will be up to Cameron Mackintosh, and he wants to encourage young people – he gave young people a chance, you know, with Witches of Eastwick and also additional songs for Mary Poppins. He’s one of the few producers who a) can afford to, and b) has the imagination, taste and courage to encourage young writers.

ES: There’s a question here from Chris Storer, you’ve already mentioned Adam Guettel: are there any other writers that you think we should keep an eye on.

SS: I hesitate to answer that because if I mention any then the ones I don’t mention; their feelings will be hurt, seriously. And I only mentioned Adam because I have gone on record so often saying that Floyd Collins is the most brilliantly original musical, for my taste, in recent memory. So I am a champion of Adam’s, but if I bring up other people I worry that…

ES: There’s a question here: which musical written by others do you wish you’d written? Are there many of those, or are there any of those?

SS: Porgy is it. It’s not that, I would have loved to have written the music for Carousel, there are many shows I admire. But I couldn’t have, so there’s no point in worrying about it! {laughter}

ES: Thomas O’Connor: “You mentioned previously that Oscar Hammerstein advised you to write about what is important to you, but how do you decide when something is just too important, or too personal or too much a part of you to write about.”

SS: He didn’t say write what’s important to me, he said write from my own point of view, which may seem like a subtle difference, but it isn’t. In other words, say what I feel – given a story; how would I feel about the story not how he would read the story, to use the humorous example that Ed bought up: if I would write it from Jud Fry’s point of view, that would be my take on the story and his would be writing it from the point of view of the territories, of America expanding itself into the plains etc. I don’t find anything ‘too personal’, I tell stories, with the librettist, we tell stories and all stories that interest you, clearly, there’s something in you that responds to the stories, there’s something personal in them, but they’re never autobiographical. I haven’t led that interesting a life that I would want to write anything autobiographical. {laughter} Seriously. But the whole point is, anything that attracts you as a story becomes then a part of you, or you become a part of it, so no, nothing would be too personal and nothing would be too bizarre.
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ES: David Oldcorn asks if you could tell us which show, if any, you had the greatest difficulty in writing the songs for and what were the kind of problems you faced?

SS: Oh, the two shows that I had real difficulty in were A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Merrily We Roll Along. The first because it represented everything that I had not been trained to do as I said earlier, it was Burt Shevelove saying this is a score in which the songs do not carry the story forward, they do not exploit or explore the characters, because that’s not what the show’s about; it’s a farce, and it’s about plot and the songs are respites, he said, as they were in farces in the past and as they were, in fact, in Roman plays, they were just respites, they were little points of punctuation. And that was really hard for me to do because I’d been trained to explore character and I thought “what do I write about, what do I write about?” And Burt was a great help in helping me find things to write about in that show. Merrily was another matter; I was trying to write about young song writers in a period when I was a young song writer and, very easy, I thought, “I’ll just be personal about it”, then I realised to write in a style that is 25 years old without making a comment on it, is very hard to do. As you all know, I write a lot of pastiche and I know how to write pastiche, and it’s always written not as a take-off but with love, but I am imitating Jerome Kern or I am imitating Cole Porter or someone like that. How do you imitate yourself without making a comment on yourself. Particularly when your style, by that time, my own personal musical style had progressed. I think it’s progression, some people would think it’s regression {laughter}, but it had changed. I didn’t write that kind of vamp anymore, I didn’t write those 32 bar songs anymore and here I was writing about two song writers who wrote 32 bar songs and believed they were going to change the world. So you can’t just write take-offs, and at the same time it wasn’t my style anymore, so it was immensely difficult to write that score.

ES: We’ve got a couple of questions about that score actually. One from Jo Webber which says “Why did you make the chorus lyrics in Merrily We Roll Along so difficult to learn”. {laughter} From the heart.

SS: I have no answer to that! {laughter}

ES: A question here really about the versions of shows relating to Merrily, I assume…

SS: Before you go onto that, actually there’s a sort of an answer to that. One of the things I have to be very careful about and I’m not often careful enough, is that I like to write when… I hate, what I call ‘peasants on the green’ singing where everybody sings “isn’t it a lovely day” and I keep thinking well somebody there might not think it’s a lovely day so why are twenty people singing “isn’t it a lovely day”? And so, what I try to do is characterise. Well the result is, he’s singing his line, she’s singing her line, I’m singing mine… and it gets difficult because it becomes contrapuntal and the words bump into each other and you hear somebody else doing… and that’s why those choruses sometimes are very clumsy and it’s very hard to make them work and be honest and not do the peasants on the green. And that I think may be why it strikes you that those lyrics are difficult. Individual lyrics should not be difficult to sing; that would be my fault if the words don’t sit on the music properly, if the inflection is wrong, if it’s difficult for the tongue and the teeth, that’s one thing. But when you are singing, as in the choruses off of Now You Know and things like that, I can understand why you would complain about it, but it was my attempt to be honest to have Jerome the lawyer sing one thing and, I can’t even remember the names of the characters now, sing different things at the same time. So I think that’s why.

ES: Steve, what is your favourite kind of day. This is a question from me really, because I’m just curious to know what kind of day you have planned, or don’t you plan your days?

SS: No, that’s a baffling question. Could you answer it? Could you answer such a question?

ES: I mean I know the kind of days that I like when I get to do certain things.

SS: Well give me an example and I’ll answer it.

ES: When I have no deadlines, when I can read a book, when I can go to a movie in the afternoon, you know that sort of thing.

SS: Oh! I’m lazy so I guess every day is pleasant. {laughter}

Question from the audience: “How did you spend your birthday this year?”

SS: In as much isolation as possible.{laughter} I just went “Shhh!”. No, what I did was, as I often do on my birthday, I had eight to a dozen close friends and we celebrated together, like everybody else.

ES: We’re kind of winding down nwo folks but there’s a question here from Rona Topaz which is kind of personal but it’s about a song which I’m particularly fond of too; the title song in Anyone Can Whistle. It says “the song Anyone Can Whistle is about an emotionally repressed person who would like to learn to become less inhibited. Have you ever felt this to be an issue applicable to your own circumstances and if so, do you feel as if you’ve changed as you’ve matured, into a more relaxed person and if you feel that you have changed as you’ve matured do you feel as if this is change for the better?”

SS: I’m afraid that was the beginning of this thing of, “oh, you see, he writes about himself”. Anyone Can Whistle was a song written about a very specific character; a girl who could only feel free when she put a wig on, and who couldn’t whistle which was Arthur Laurents’ metaphor for being repressed. Arthur wrote a lot of plays about repression, Do I Hear A Waltz, I’d say; Time Of The Cuckoo is about a repressed lady, and so I wrote strictly for the character and people said “Ah you see he’s singing about himself”. It may be true of me; it may not. I think of myself sometimes, as I think all of us do, as repressed and sometimes as not repressed, but Anyone Can Whistle is no more a personal song. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it to all of you again, the only personal songs I’ve ever written are in Merrily We Roll Along and it’s Opening Doors and the cocktail party, Good Thing Going, not the lyric but the idea of performing at a party where everybody talks while you’re singing. Those two years that are covered by Opening Doors where you are young and eager and you think you’re going to conquer the world and you knock on doors and you get accepted then you get rejected, all that sort of stuff and where you are close with people who are doing what you’re doing – that’s very personal. And Opening Doors is, in its own way, my life at that point in my life and the cocktail party thing. But otherwise, everything is for the character, and if the character has characteristics that match me, then maybe it makes it easier for me to write, I don’t know. Maybe my understanding of Fay in Anyone Can Whistle was quicker and greater because there’s a part of me that is like Fay, but it certainly was not autobiographical in any way and in no conscious way. I wrote that song as far as I know, as far as my conscious mind goes, entirely for the character and that’s not a cop out, it’s just true.

ES: Here's another question: 'Are the sub-plots of Sweeney Todd in some way related to The Barber of Seville?

SS: No, they’re entirely Christopher Bond and then Hugh Wheeler doing a slight gloss on it. Hugh changed the love story a little bit in terms of how it is apportioned throughout the show. In Chris Bond’s script, the love story starts later and so we start it earlier, but essentially it’s Chris Bond’s invention. If he was influenced by Barber of Seville, which I don’t think he was, then there would be. But no, if there’s any operatic overtones for you, it’s coincidental, it’s merely they sing moderately elaborate duets and that sort of stuff. I think when people say Sweeney Todd is operatic, they’re not so much talking about story, or even attitude as they are about the use of trios and quartets and duets that, you know, are marginally more complicated than a lot of shows, well more complicated than a lot of shows and marginally more than some. But you know, they’ve been done before it’s just that there are a lot of them in Sweeney and it’s also because Sweeney works very well as a story and I think therefore the totality is greater than the sum of its parts.

Audience Member: “How do you feel about your work being translated into foreign languages?”

SS: Well the trouble is I have to rely on the expertise of the people in those countries to tell me whether they think the lyrics have been well translated or not because I know very few foreign languages. I have a smattering of French, and a smattering of Italian – the romance languages - but you know when I see a Swedish translation all I see are those little lines and dots. You know, Sweeney Tödd, I can recognise that, but that’s as far as it goes, and when it came to the Japanese, luckily I knew an American, John Weidman and I both knew an American so when they did Pacific Overtures over there he was able to tell us, in fact he worked on the translation and saw to it that it sort of was close as possible to what we wanted. But you know translating, particularly as I’m a very verbal writer as you know and often in the shows there are tongue-twisters and elaborate puns and plays on words, translating into a foreign language is very, very, very, very difficult for the translator. So all I really care about and I try to find out, is the sense of the song and the sense of the story and the sense of the script being translated because as far as nuance goes, a) I wouldn’t know, b) I wouldn’t know how to improve it even if I thought it was wrong. So all you can go for is, is the thrust of the show coming across to the foreign audience? And generally, the answer is yes, because usually the translators who take it under their belts to do a very thankless and hard job must love the material, and if they love the material then they’re going to try to be as faithful to it as possible in terms of what it’s saying as opposed to the individual moments, so generally I think it probably comes out very well.

Audience member: 'I just wanted to ask – a lot of your songs portray dysfunction in relationships brilliantly and whether you’d say you ultimately have a pessimistic or optimistic view on human relationships.'

SS: I’m neither because I’m pessimistic about that relationship, I’m optimistic about that one… you know. As all of us. But people forget, they say “Oh you see he’s the master of disillusion”. Well hello, let’s look at plays from the Greeks on – they’re all about dysfunction! What is drama about, it’s about dysfunction! Is Macbeth happily married? {laughter} Where is the drama unless there’s dysfunction? It’s the coin of the realm, it’s the lingua franca, it’s the currency, so yes I’m optimistic about some, and pessimistic about others. Not only in my own life and friends but I’m optimistic about one couple in Follies and not about the other couple. But that’s just my opinion.

Question from the audience: “If you could be a fruit, what would it be?” {laughter}

SS: I would like to have a lot of thought on that subject so I could give a clever answer like a strawberry because the seeds are on the outside, but I have to really think. I don’t know, that game of if you could be a blank what would you be, I don’t know, a fruit. Goodness. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I wish I had a good answer for you, but I’d have to sit here and think and we’d all grow old.

Stage and Screen Online wishes to thank Lynn Chapman, Thomas O'Connor and the Stephen Sondheim Society for their generous support. And of course we would like to thank the man himself, Stephen Sondheim.

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