For Stephen Sondheim, it has been quite a year. Not only has his Sunday in the Park With George been acclaimed by many as a breakthrough musical, but the ostensibly rarified show about pointillist painter George Seurat has proved a popular success. Pacific Overtures, a Broadway flop in 1976, got a second chance in a highly praised, scaled-down production Off-Broadway, while the 1979 Sweeney Todd got treated to a new production with all the trimmings at New York City Opera. In June, Sondheim takes another Broadway disappointment, his 1981 Merrily We Roll Along, in an unusual direction—he and his Sunday collaborator, director James Lapine, will open a revised version of the musical at the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California.
At 54, the master of the grown-up, literate musical has written 13 shows, won four Tony Awards, spawned an unofficial school of little Sondheims, and pushed the old stop-action-and-sing traditions of the American musical toward the unified “concept” and toward progressive opera.
Yet Sondheim remains a controversial figure, one whose heady work tends to polarize opinions about the current state and the future possibilities of musical art in America. Since few of his shows have become what he terms “a smash” on Broadway—A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues to be his biggest bread-winner—they have seldom toured, and productions outside New York have been surprisingly rare.
The man is as unpredictable as the work. Always a whiz-kid, he read The New York Times in the first grade. He was 10 when his parents were divorced and he moved from New York to a Pennsylvania farm with his mother. There, under the tutelage of neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II, he became a musical prodigy.
Yet Sondheim nearly majored in mathematics at Williams College. After graduation he studied cornposition with avant-garde composer Milton Bab-bitt, then turned for his first job to scriptwriting in Hollywood for the 1953 Topper TV series. There he worked under George Oppenheimer and claims, “I learned how to tell a story in 23 minutes—and earned enough money to rent an apartment in New York.”
Now he lives in a handsome townhouse in the East ’40s, where this rare interview took place. Even Sondheim, the master of ambivalence, the man who wrote “The God-Why-Don’t You-Love-Me (oh-you-do, I’ll-see-you-later) Blues,” knows this is no season for ironic discontent. He spoke comfortably in his elaborate mystery-game room. Antique puzzles covered the walls and coffee table. Dogs and cats (two of each) meandered about the room that inspired the setting for Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, the play whose original title was Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?
Is there a relationship between George Seurat’s obsession with dots and your fascination with puzzles?
I’m not particularly good at puzzles, except for word puzzles. I did a year of puzzles for New York magazine at the behest of Gloria Steinem, but I’ve done them rarely since 1970. The whole game fascination started when I had my first apartment in New York. I didn’t have any money to put prints and paintings on the walls. So a girl I know, as a bad taste joke, gave me a wonderful 1911 game called The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew. It taught kids to be anti-Semitic. It was a dice game in which the Jew was represented by the number seven. Kids didn’t know that the seven turns up more often than the others, so, by the end of the game, they lost all of their money to this smiling Shylock figure in the middle. So I framed it and put it on the wall. Next thing I knew, other people were giving me games to put up. As you can see, I don’t need any more. I’m crowded out here.
Are puzzles like doing lyrics?
No, but lyrics are like doing puzzles. You try to make the language dance, not only to your own tune, which is a metaphor, but to the actual tune that’s there. You try to make the words sit on music, to rhyme them, to make jokes land, to use literary techniques. It’s technical, like poetry or any creative art is technical. But, because lyric writing makes you deal with so few words and the language is not so elastic when sung—unlike Italian—it becomes very crossword puzzle-like. You find that there is only one word that could possibly fit with the right stress and the right pauses in. So you’re stuck with that word. Then you find that it doesn’t rhyme with anything. The analogy that’s more accurate is a jigsaw puzzle. The fitting in of a certain number of pleasing shapes, which is what art is about as we describe it in Sunday in the Park With George. But with lyrics there are fewer pieces. Therefore, in a sense, it’s harder.
Did you like puzzles as a kid?
I didn’t like mechanical things—I didn’t take clocks or car engines apart. I did have a talent for mathematics, but no knack for solid geometry and spatial relations. I’ve less sensitivity for visual things. I’m terrific at plane geometry, but visualization of things in space is difficult.
Does this show up in the way you look at a stage?
I’m told by my visual collaborators that my visual sense is better than I think it is. But one of the many reasons I would never direct is that I wouldn’t have a “visual” vision. I would have to have a designer bring me a vision. Hal [Prince] always calls a set designer with some feeling about what he wants to see on the stage. He wouldn’t call Boris Aronson and say, “Bring me a set for Pacific Overtures.” He’d call and say, “I see it this way and this way.” And it would evolve. I couldn’t do that. I’d have to say, “Bring me an idea.” And that makes me distrust myself because I’m not sure I wouldn’t get fooled.
The Times recently described your work as centering on three D’s: disenchantment, depression, death. What do you think about that?
Remember, those aren’t my words. They can cover a multitude of things. You can also say they’re in Oklahoma! Laurie is disenchanted, Jud’s killed. And there’s depression going on. Come on. Those are constant subjects. They’re not preoccupations of mine any more than they were with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Now that I think of it, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific…
People always mention the influence of Oscar Hammerstein on your career, but wasn’t Milton Babbitt also a formative influence?
Milton has always been avant of the avant-garde. What I love about him is that he’s totally the reverse of his musical image. He’s avuncular—everybody’s Jewish Uncle Milton, yet turning out this austere, highly complex, highly organized, compact music. There’s nothing he likes better than to gossip about the music and theatre worlds. He wanted to write musicals, you know. He had written a musical for Mary Martin when I studied with him. It was based on a version of Helen of Troy and had 32-bar songs.
How did you decide to study with him?
It was a recommendation. I went to Williams College, and the head of the two-man music department, Robert Barrow, changed my life. He was one of those inspired teachers everyone loathed except me and one other person. Barrow was very unromantic. His whole attitude towards music was that you make it like you make a table. It was all about craft. I always thought that music was composed by sitting at the piano and the muse visits you. Barrow taught us the principle that is prevalent in Sunday in the Park—that art is hard work. That had never occurred to me. I was blown away by that and ended up majoring in music as a result.
When I won this prize to study music, Barrow and Joaquin Nin-Culmell— son of probably the most well-known classical Cuban composer—knocked their heads together and came up with Milton as a teacher for me.
I was so thoroughly grounded in Romantic music, 19th- and 20th-century music. I had never heard of Milton Babbitt. Most people hadn’t in the early ’50s. He was just beginning to experiment at Columbia. The synthesizer was under armed guard, a brand new invention. He described, to my almost astonished disbelief, how one day, not far off, you’d hear a bassoon playing high C, a violin playing low D, and that instruments would be recreated sonically by machines. It sounded like science fiction. Now everybody has one in their own homes. I was beginning to get into atonal music (although I wasn’t attracted to it), and asked him if I could study it. He said, “No, I don’t teach atonal music except to people who have exhausted tonal resources for themselves. That’s the way I arrived at it. When you come to me and say you are tired of writing tonal music, I’ll teach you atonal music.” Now I understand exactly what he meant. I only wanted to write tonal music, and to do otherwise would have been masturbation, just self-indulgent. If you’re going to study a musical form, you should have a feeling, a love for it.
Does it surprise you that some people find your work cold?
Yeah. People mistake sentimentality for feeling. I believe in sentiment but not sentimentality. Of course, what’s sentimental is often in the ear of the beholder. I also think people don’t understand the difference between passion and sentimentality. Maybe it has to do with certain subject matters we’ve chosen. I don’t understand it.
Quite often, the stuff I write is not…simple. And that makes people nervous because they aren’t willing to listen a couple of times and realize that it’s much simpler than they think. Then they look around for adjectives to describe why they don’t like it and one that sometimes comes out is “complex.” One of the TV critics called the score for Merrily We Roll Along “complex.”
But that was such an accessible score.
Exactly. He was just so put off that he didn’t know what to say, so he called it complex. Nonsense. It’s an easy buzzword.
Is Sunday in the Park With George a success in part because its concerns—the artistic process versus a personal life—are closer to your own experience?
You can’t tell why a show is successful or not. I think one of the reasons is that it creates an enchanted world. Just as you don’t want to leave Oz, you don’t want to leave this one. You just want to live in that park forever and ever, which is part of the point of the play. You can trip out on that painting very easily, stand in front, notice the size, then notice all the little dots, then spend a few days getting aware of the stillness, the serenity. Then you can start to become aware of the strangeness, how the shadows don’t go in the same direction, the smoke doesn’t blow in the same direction, some people are way out of proportion from other people. Then you start to go into the picture. It becomes mesmeric. It’s one of those magic paintings. That doesn’t make it better than Mona Lisa, but Mona Lisa is not about a world that you enter. So the audience success has to do with a willingness to know that it’s all going to be a little strange, and then realizing they’ve fallen into an enchanted world. Sunday is a world on a stage.
But it’s also about an artist being torn. Is that autobiographical?
Not at all. Certainly, I care a lot about art and the artist. The major thing I wanted to do in that show was to enable anyone who is not an artist to understand what hard work art is. Most people think, as I did before I met Robert Barrow, that there are some people who are lucky. They sit in a studio; in comes a small, beautiful girl in a filmy nightgown—Terpsichore, or whomever; she sits down on their shoulder and hums, and that’s the way the music of the spheres comes out. Nobody understands that it’s a matter of working things out, that lots of music is written in an armchair, not at a piano.
Even before we started to find out the little-known stuff about Seurat—the loner-ness, the lack of acceptance, how Impressionists disliked him—there was already so much to relate to. He put hundreds of thousands of dots on that canvas. And every one was a separate decision. Some people say there were five million individual decisions. And that’s what art is. You spend four days working out the flower on the hat, then you spend 10 days working out the hat. Then you have 20 other hats to do. Then all the hats are part of a pattern. Then you start working on the face. It is just…hard…work.
Sunday is considered a pretty radical departure for a musical. But isn’t it also a statement for a conservative ethic about art—the need for order and harmony, etc.?
That’s something I believe. All good art has that, whether it’s contemporary or not. I think Sunday in the Park, though it might strike you or others as radical, is very meticulously formed—as formed as the picture. Yet its surface is a little…heady. Obviously that’s the kind of work I do anyway. But I’m sure that there are many first-rate artists around who could sit in this room and give us an argument about how attention to form in art is death. In philosophy of art, generally, I’m a conservative. My beliefs are conservative, but my work is not. That’s the kind of art I like.
After years of working with Hal Prince, is it very different to work with James Lapine [director/librettist on Sunday] and Fran Soeder [director of the recent Off-Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures]?
The difference is mainly generational. So not only are the methodologies different, but the temperaments. Hal is my age; it’s more than a 25-year collaboration, it’s something of a marriage. Hal is ebullient, outgoing. Jim and Fran are quiet and, in a phrase I don’t like, laid-back. They’re soft spoken, take time. Both come from regional theatre and Off-Broadway backgrounds, where there’s a different way of working. Unions don’t plague you quite as much, there’s more freedom in the way you spend your time. There is more of a community feeling among everyone—crew, performers, author, everybody feels much more of a family. It’s closer to the experience you have in a school play.
Broadway unions have, in a sense, divided the theatre. The hours are different, and there’s much more of a separated set of groups.The stagehands, the musicians, the actors and management are much more together Off-Broadway. Hal and I were brought up in an environment that has an exact hour to rehearse, and if you want somebody to move a chair, you have to make a union call, blah, blah. It sets your mind a different way. The essential difference is that Off-Broadway is more relaxed, casual, communal. On the other hand, there are advantages to the size, expertise, professionalism on Broadway.
From the little you and Prince have used dance in your shows, one might think that you dislike dancing. Is that true?
Oh God, no. I love dance. It’s terrific. But you’ve got to feel a need for it. You want to use dance to tell certain stories. Dance is generally for telling abstract things, sequences or time passing. I can’t stand it when a dance interrupts the flow of a show, any more than I can stand it when a song interrupts the flow of a show. But if the dance is carrying things forward, as it did in West Side Story, then it means something. I’m talking about dance that isn’t show-biz dance, the let’s-rehearse-the-number or now-we-have-the-night-club-act which is source dancing.
But a show about New York street gangs. Does that require dance or not? Well, West Side Story was better with dancing because of the way we were telling that story. Essentially, it illustrates or echoes the physical violence—when you hear three bodies landing on the stage, it sounds hollow and very violent. They used the same thing in the movie and it absolutely destroyed any believability about this being a tough street gang. It was just silly because on the screen, which is not a poetic but a reportorial medium, you can really have knives out and blood flowing.
Are there some shows that you think have been especially misunderstood, or that you’d like to redo?
I disagree with some reactions to some of the shows, but I don’t think anything has been misunderstood. I guess the only production that bothered me was Merrily We Roll Along. Merrily‘s terrific. We made a couple of severe mistakes in the production that hurt extremely badly. We started with this casting idea—the notion of a piece for teenagers as cautionary to us so-called grownups. But we never made it clear exactly what it was about. On Broadway we had experienced, professional singer-actors combined with semi-pros, many of whom hadn’t been on the stage before. They had freshness and energy and, in many cases, skill, but not for Broadway. We should have opened with a draw string curtain, the way it would have been in a high school production. Hal and I went to see a show at the Dalton School gym. It was enchanting, touching—but at Dalton, not the Alvin for $28 a ticket.
I’d like to see Sweeney Todd done intimately. I think it would really scare an audience. Somebody who knows the Christopher Bond adaptation reported to me that it was twice as funny, twice as scary, as my show in New York. It was so close up that the razor could have gotten you. No matter how scary Len Cariou was, you had that pit between you and him. You were always a little safe. I can remember one time, in rehearsal, when he got to the edge of the stage. I was watching in the third row and I moved back. I’m not kidding. I thought he was going berserk. He had this razor in his hand and he wasglaring at me about nine feet away and I was really frightened. That’s what I would have liked to have happen with this piece.
Actually, Sweeney Todd was written to be intimate. Christopher Bond’s production was done in five cities in England with just 10 people. I had intended it to be small—I just wanted fog and a few street lamps. Then if suddenly beside you popped an old beggar woman crying, “Alms, alms,” you’d be scared out of your wits. But Hal’s idea was to use the stage environment from his Broadway Candide, a set which involved the audience in the action. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the theatre dismantled for a year while we wrote the thing, so it didn’t work out. What happened is that it got bigger instead of smaller, that’s all.
Are you drawn to writing opera?
No, no. And very much because of the lack of tryout time. I literally think it’s impossible for people to write new operas that are any good at all. Critics as well as opera buffs are constantly deploring the fact that so few new American operas are any good, and so on. I bet there would be a lot of good ones if you could work the bugs out. But you can’t work the bugs out if you’ve got five performances in a season and they’re spread apart. The important thing about musical theatre is that it needs to play constantly, with the same cast, in front of audiences, day after day, before you can even begin to judge the material. You have to have at least four performances before you can tell whether the fault in the scene rests with you, the actor, the music, the lighting, or whether it’s just too long. Otherwise, you’re constantly throwing the baby out with the bath and saying, “Well, that scene’s no good; you’ve got to cut it.” That’s no way to work.
According to Prince’s memoir, when you were very young, the two of you planned your takeover of Broadway. Is that just legend?
That’s Hal’s memory. I do remember us walking down the street and him saying something like that after The Pajama Game opened. He always looked at the positive side; I always look on the negative side. He’s saying, “It’s going to be terrific, we’re going to be able to do anything we want to do!” And I’m thinking, “Oh, God, he’s crazy, what a fool. We’re going to be dead or starving in the gutter in two years. What is he talking about?” But he turned out to be right.
Are you still as pessimistic?
Yeah, just as. I never can believe the next show will get on. I’m always surprised when it does—and some have almost not. It took six years to get Follies on. Forum took four years. Sweeney Todd? I auditioned again for backers—and I hadn’t had to do that in a long time. It’s always hard to get shows on, always been expensive, not just now. Everybody talks about the shocking 5 million-dollar price tag for today’s shows, but 20 years ago, $500,000 was shocking, too.
Are you worried about the American musical?
My goodness, what’s wrong with theatre is that shows are so expensive to put on that young writers don’t get a chance to try their stuff out in public. That’s the only way you can learn. By getting it on and writing another one and getting it on and writing another one and getting it on—that’s how everybody in the world of art through 4,000 years has gotten good. By getting it on, writing it down, painting it, hanging it up.
Are you hopeful about the musical’s future?
Sure, because the activity will go to the smaller and regional theatres. Then, whether Broadway will last or not is a moot point. The day of the 1,000-seat house is gone. People don’t go to plays that way any more. They’ll go to plays in a 500-seat house and to musicals in a 1,500-2,000-seat house, but I think the in-between will disappear. The rest of the activity—because I do not, for two seconds, think the theatre will die—will be going on Off-Broadway and in the regional theatres. It already is. If any of those plays turn out to warrant a larger house and audience, they will move to a larger Broadway house, because New York remains the center of the commercial theatre.
There’s a lot of talent. I’m surprised each year at the number of young writers whose work really interests me. It’s more than I would have expected. Writers who have been listening, who are experimenting, not just writing in a groove.
George Seurat is always returning to a blank canvas. What’s next for you?
Jim [Lapine] and I are talking about something that’s just embryonic at the moment. I’m quite lazy—not when I work, but about starting things. I have to force myself to do it. To me, the image is squeezing toothpaste out of the empty tube. Just one more drop. Oh, it’s hard. Automatic pilot isn’t much danger in my work. You can’t get long-winded—the way you can with a piece of prose or with some kinds of music—because you’ve just got so few notes to work with.
Do you ever have second thoughts? That because of your commitment to your work, you might have missed something?
No. I like doing this a lot. It’s fun. It’s often agonizing, but we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t like it. There are easier ways to make a living. Nobody’s holding a gun to my head.
Linda Winer covers theatre as critic-at-large for U.S.A. Today.
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