Stephen Sondheim fans have hardly been starved for revivals of his work, either in the regions or in New York City. Since his death in November 2021, though, these seem to have acquired a new significance. While it may be fate-tempting praise to call an author’s work canonical while they’re still alive and tinkering with it (not to mention producing new work), their death means the work is locked and the jury of posterity is in session; now it really is either canon or it’s not. (Spoiler: In Sondheim’s case it most definitely is.)
First out of the gate after the master’s passing was director Lear deBessonet‘s Into the Woods, which bowed at City Center in May 2022, then ran festively on Broadway from last fall to this past spring with a rotating cast that started out with Sara Bareilles, Brian D’Arcy James, and Patina Miller but soon encompassed a murderer’s row of triple threats; the show is now on tour. Next, in December 2022, was a long-gestating revival of Merrily We Roll Along, the infamous 1981 flop that broke up Sondheim’s partnership with director Harold Prince but which has survived many attempts at resuscitation since; this latest one, from British director Maria Friedman, had an initial staging in London in 2013, then came to Boston’s Huntington in 2017, before landing at New York Theatre Workshop with a starry cast including Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez. It got raves and almost immediately booked a Broadway berth for fall 2023—the show’s first return to the Main Stem since its initial 68-night bow.
Last but hardly least, there is Sweeney Todd, in a lavish, full-orchestra staging by Hamilton‘s Tommy Kail, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, that opened this past March and seems to be a gratifying hit. (It just announced a tour for 2025.)
I spoke recently to these three directors—two of whose productions, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, are nominated for 2023 Tony Awards, though only deBessonet is nominated for her direction—about the unique challenges and rewards of Sondheim’s work, about the various ways his musicals connect with audiences, and about the hidden gems of subtext he embedded in his songs.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: These are three such different shows, it’s almost hard to believe they were written by the same composer. One thing I’d say they all they have in common is a certain density of incident and musical information—there’s a lot going on in both the books and in the scores. Does that kind of density make your work as a director harder or easier?
LEAR DEBESSONET: I think it’s magnificent and delicious, because there is so much there for you. And it actually is all there in the writing. We all know what it is to direct a piece where it isn’t all in the writing, and you’re doing a lot of work to fill in holes and compensate. It’s like Shakespeare, where digging deeper and deeper into the text reveals the piece more clearly. So the muchness is very welcome.
TOMMY KAIL: I was struck by the way that Sondheim, in conjunction with Hugh Wheeler, creates this puzzle. And of course, Sondheim’s obsession with puzzles and revelation—this idea of what’s seen and what’s unseen, what’s revealed, what you think you see then become something else. There certainly are ideas and ideology attached to the characters in Into the Woods, just as an audience member, but what I’ve been struck by with Sweeney is that it feels to me like 40 to 50 percent of our audience are seeing it for the first time.
LEAR: Similarly, I was surprised by how many people in the audience seemed to be seeing Into the Woods for the first time. Every night we had huge gasps at the death of the Baker’s Wife! That’s pretty thrilling.
TOMMY: So you really see that the twists and the turns are playing, not just on an audience who might know what they’re coming to see, but sitting right next to someone who is elbowing the person next to him in the ribs and can’t believe it. In the case of Sweeney, I think it’s because of the compression of the story; the nature of melodrama is such that if there’s a knock on the door, it’s going to be exactly who the story demands it is. That acceleration feels like it stays right ahead of the audience, which is a testament to the writing. I love Lear’s reference to Shakespearean text, because it’s something we talked about a lot in rehearsal. He will also put a moment of complete exultation right next to a moment of absolute desolation, and the other way around. You go from “Epiphany to “A Little Priest.” Who else in musical theatre would dare to do that?
MARIA FRIEDMAN: I don’t think of Merrily as dense. I think it’s really clear. If you overcomplicate it or try and add anything to the mix, you’re going to overcook the cake. Keep it simple; keep the narrative absolutely crystal clear. Steve, unlike any other composer, author, playwright that I know, leaves room for whoever you cast to fill that space with their own heartbeat and their own humanity. That’s why you continually will get it reinvented, reinterpreted, because he leaves space for casting. I think a lot of people try to be clever on top of his clever. But it’s done; it’s there for you. He gives you the stuff you play, and then you put your heart and soul into it, and then you get all the ingredients.
What I love about Merrily is that you can revisit it over and over again over the years, and it will change according to who you relate to, which story will suddenly resonate, how you’ve passed some moments and arrived at others. It depends on where you are in your life. I’m always amazed at how people will say to me at the end of seeing it: “Oh, well done, for making it all about Charlie,” or, “Well done for making it all about marriage.” There’s enough in it that you can just sail along with one of the characters if you want, and if you’re really in bad shape, you’ll be on all three of them—and maybe a bit of Beth and a bit of Gussie. Actually, many people I know who are going through really bad times find it almost too painful to watch. It’s almost like you have to be out the other end. I love the fact that, for me, it’s changed from when I was in my 20s. Now it’s an entirely different piece, because I see it with a great sense of forgiveness and actually hope.
Tommy, you mentioned Sondheim’s love for puzzles. Another way to ask my first question is to wonder, to what extent did these shows feel like puzzles for you and your companies to unlock, and what was the key that did it?
TOMMY: What I feel—and go with me here—there’s this thought that has followed Tom Stoppard around that his work exists from the neck up, and I always was confused by that, because I feel like he is a person of deep feeling who also has this very particular and singular voice that made it feel perhaps more head than heart. I think there’s also something about Sweeney where it has this elevated quality to it, as if it doesn’t necessarily travel down to the guts, to the heart. I always found that was a puzzle that Sondheim laid out for us, and we just needed to follow that, because I think it is in the text; I think there’s deep feeling, deep emotion in the work. It’s the idea of a ghost story that might actually be a love story, or a love story that might actually be a ghost story—that’s something we talked about a lot, and those two images played in our head. In some ways, it’s a very simple puzzle, like: What do you see here, the old woman or the vase? If you look at it one way, it’s just one thing, but if you look at it another way, it’s another thing. And both are true.
Part of the challenge-slash-puzzle was, could we unlock the humor in the piece as a way to get to the emotional depth? As someone who grew up obsessed with Billy Wilder—The Apartment might be one of my favorite movies of all time, and that’s one that opens us up with the laughter, and then you realize it’s a story about a broken heart and a woman who is absolutely bereft. But we get there through the humor. And there’s a more metaphoric puzzle for me too; we talked a lot about trying to create this subterranean space, and were really fascinated by the idea of what happened underground, and in some way that speaks to a lot of the the ideas about class that are in the text. But again, we just looked at the blueprint; it was all on the page for us. So credit to Wheeler and Sondheim, and Christopher Bond as well.
LEAR: With Into the Woods, there is an external structural aspect of puzzle that involves the very elegant interconnection, weaving together of all these different fairy tales. But for me, the truer puzzle the show centers around is the puzzle of being human. And what is revealed in the show is that these familiar fairy tale “stock” characters, what they might be feeling inside these very familiar sort of stick-drawing situations, is actually huge, conflicting, deep, horrible, wonderful emotion. And the puzzle of, how are we as humans to feel about a world in which such random violence, such existential despair is present? And yet also there is joy, and there is the birth of new babies, and this carrying on of life? How do those things coexist? How are we to step forward every day in some sort of hope with the very real knowledge that, yes, a giant could step on our house tomorrow?
Part of what you see in Into the Woods is, you have these knowing songs, these sort of “growing up” songs that happen after a character has experienced something. And in their processing of what has just happened to them, they’re trying to figure out how they feel about what just happened. And it is a puzzle; they don’t understand what just happened to them or how they feel about it. And so we as the audience in real time are with them, as they try to solve the puzzle of their humanity. And I think that’s where the overwhelming virtuosity of the lyrics being able to hold complexity like that comes in—I think any other writer in the world could have come up with the idea of Into the Woods, but could not have made something like Into the Woods. It is so much in the detail of those lyrics and of that book by James Lapine.
MARIA: My unlocking of Merrrily was in making it a memory piece of a man having a breakdown, and elements of his life—how he could look at them through the lens of memory at a point where there was no return. That was my key. The other thing was recognizing that under no circumstances would I believe it if we start the play with young people playing dress up, pretending that they’d had multiple marriages. All of them need to have been through some stuff. In the second act, of course, it’s glorious if you’re doing it with young people. But I did recognize in myself, that when I look in the mirror, I’m always shocked at how old I am. Because I still feel—I’m sort of three ages, I’m 5, I’m 28, and I’m 34. I never quite got to adulthood in my mind. I still have the feelings of a teenager sometimes. That was also a key for me: As older people, our bodies may fall apart, and things may have been difficult, but if we haven’t been broken by life, I think we all still feel like young people. I certainly do.
In whatever I do, on any subject, I’m always looking for laughter. I don’t care how deeply painful it is; please laugh. Wherever I can, I’m looking with the cast for ways to keep it light, keep it fast, keep engaged and listening. I think some people didn’t quite understand how clever George [Furth’s] script is. It’s very, very smart. Again, it needs humanity poured all over it, and not being afraid of being fallible and fractured—though you don’t judge all these things. It’s such a minefield, Merrily, of possible judgments and decisions being made about other characters. You’ve just got to keep them all bouncing in the air. The big thing I said to everyone: You must forgive and don’t judge. We’re all capable of fucking up our lives. Let’s watch these people fuck them up, and then work out why. And love them.
It’s true of all of Sondheim’s scores, but these three in particular, that he uses repeated motifs to identify characters and also, in the way the music develops over the course of these shows, to dramatize the way the characters change. You’ve talked about the lyrics and the book, but do you find those musical motifs also to be keys to your direction?
LEAR: On one level, the presence of those motifs only helps your work as a director, because so much of the work on an audience’s subconscious, the audience’s visceral connection to the piece, is established through those. Again, Sondheim has all of these superpowers. In Into the Woods, the example of that is the five-note magic beans tune, which appears over and over again in the score in all these different ways, and those five notes eventually become the beginning of, “Now you know what’s out there in the world.” That’s part of the genius of it—that the disparate stories and themes are held in this way that is somewhat transcendent.
MARIA: I don’t think about the score in terms of motifs. I just feel it. I think it’s about intuition and instinct. With Merrily, of course, you’re getting the reprises first, then the tunes, which is absolutely incredible—you hear these bits “Old Friends” all throughout the score. They’re such amazing, strong building blocks, and each part is as valuable as the next. It’s really robust. If you pay attention to the detail—you called it density, I think it’s detail. You have to be so precise, and don’t let a moment go, because they connect, bit by bit. The ideas connect. I can talk about this as a performer and as a director at the same time: You will lose so much richness if you aren’t exact about those details. Minute by minute, sentence by sentence, word by word, working out where the connections are, from the young Frank to the old Frank, to what they need from each other, what they say—it’s beautifully complex.
TOMMY: We definitely approached the songs as Sondheim did, which is that they were all plays with beginnings, middles, and ends that just happen to be two minutes and 42 seconds or three minutes long, and we would really break down the structure within them. Alex Lacamoire and I spent a lot of time talking about that—the way that certain chords make you feel. There’s a really wonderful documentary on YouTube about the London production of Sweeney where it’s basically just Steve sitting at the piano, and he talks about coming up with a finite amount of musical themes, and then using them differently: “But have you seen it in this shape? And what if I did this and extended it? What if I compressed it?” Of course, there’s the great line in Merrily, “There’s not a tune you can hum.” That’s about the repetition of sound, which is why we hum things.
One of the real joys of working on Sweeney is realizing that he put these things throughout. When you talk about the searching and the puzzles: We were looking at “Ladies and Their Sensitivities,” and peeling apart one of the harmony lines that Anthony sings. You know, there are four people singing, and you can’t really hear it. Alex stopped rehearsal and he said, “Hold on, I just want to look at this melody that Anthony is singing that nobody can hear.” It’s probably one of the most—if I wrote it, I would never stop talking about it, that’s how beautiful this thing is. And it’s just baked into this quartet.
Your shows are the first three Broadway revivals since Sondheim died. Can you talk a bit about how and why these shows came together now?
LEAR: I think it’s not an accident that after his passing, the gravitational pull toward his work and what he left us with, and the way it has changed us as artists, is so strong. I also I think it’s not an accident that they’re happening at the particular societal moment that we’re in. This is one of the things that Steve hated people talking about, and he would probably be upset I would even bring this up, but the rest of the world was interested in the fact that the original production of Into the Woods was set against the AIDS crisis, and the revival happened right after 9/11. And this production—and I think certainly my own desire to do the show at this time—was very related to a deep personal experience. It was in the earliest days of the pandemic, and I was putting my 3-year-old to sleep and trying to explain to him what was happening. It was so scary; it was certainly not clear that we would ever be able to make theatre again, that we’d be able to physically gather in spaces as artists. I just found that lyric that the Baker sings in “No More,” “How do you ignore all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses, all the wondering what even worse is still in store?” That someone had put to words that feeling was so remarkable to me. It was after that that I contacted James and Stephen and said, “We don’t know when we’ll be back in the theatre. It could be five years, could be three months, but whenever that happens, I’d like to direct Into the Woods.”
I think there’s a quote from Sondheim where he says, “As soon as I hear the word ‘relevance,’ I leave the room.” But we’re free to disagree. Tommy, I know your production started with Josh Groban’s desire to do a full-scale revival. Did you have any other personal connection to the material?
TOMMY: When Josh called me in 2019 to start talking about the idea of it, it’s something he had had on his mind for many years, and he realized that he was coming to a time in his life where he felt ready to try to take it on, and he asked if I would join him in that. That was really the first time I ever considered, am I ready for this? You know, as one looks at the theatrical landscape, there are a lot of mountains out there, and quite a few of them Sondheim put there. So I was thinking about what my way in might be. Then the pandemic stopped us. Then once we put it back together, the first day for us to do a full workshop was Nov. 28, 2021, a Monday; Steve passed on the 26th. So 36 hours after we’d all heard the news, we were in this little rehearsal room together, with piano and music stands, quite bare bones. There was a video I had been sent of Steve where someone asked him, “What do you want to happen?” and he said, “I just want it to be done and done and done and done.” And there we were in this sacred space, the rehearsal room, where I’ve spent some of the finest moments of my life, and I got to be inside the material. What emerged for me was the story of someone driven by passion to be reunited with family. That was so present, and I think it’s something that Josh still carries with him. I saw this story of desire and love. Those were the things that struck me more than, what’s the meat pie going to look like? There’s the line in the show, “The work waits,” and I think that was something all of us, who have spent most of our life trying to make things, felt after the pandemic; work is what we couldn’t do. And not only was the work waiting, but we were allowed to go back and do the thing that makes me feel useful in a particular way.
Maria, your time with Merrily goes back a bit further, and from a variety of angles, is that right?
MARIA: I had the joy of working with Stephen and George; they used me as Mary to rewrite the new version when I was younger, so I was in a room with them for three weeks while they were using us to rewrite. It was a joyful experience. The amount of laughter—I mean, it’s a funny piece. It’s not earnest; it must be playful, it must be puzzles and games. Yes, there’s the tragedy, but you must play against that. That’s my nature and my instinct as a performer and a director anyway—I don’t want things on the nose, I want things lighter and airier so that if you do decide to go deep and give someone a kick in the solar plexus, it hurts. I don’t want it to hurt for two and a half hours; I want it to hurt three times, max.
For this production, I actually understood what I wanted from these characters, so I could really dig in with these guys, and they let me go there all the way. They were completely open, I think because Steve had given it the thumbs up; he wanted this to be on Broadway. I was heartbroken when he died. He was one of my dearest friends; he’s my son’s godfather, and somebody that meant more to me than I can possibly say, not just as a composer and a lyricist but as a friend. So this was not something that I wanted to do at all; I didn’t want to come to New York. But I did it because I want to give Steve and George back their ownership of this piece; I wanted them to be able to stand up in their own town and go, “See? Told you.”
You talked about the dramatic substance of Sondheim’s songs, which are like small plays unto themselves. One aspect of that is subtext—the ways in which music and lyrics are often working at cross purposes, and with other layers under that. Can you think of some good examples from your shows that you and the actors really dug into?
LEAR: I can think of a bunch. At the top of Act Two, the main lyric is, “I’m so happy.” Everyone’s saying that over and over again. And obviously, the more somebody says that, the more you know it is not the full story.
Given how things turn out in Act Two of Into the Woods, do you feel like there are undercurrents in the first act, underneath all the fairy-tale wish fulfillment, of what’s to come?
LEAR: The complexity of emotion is happening throughout Act One. Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife have these moments of, like, “He’s a very nice Prince…” And it’s clear that Cinderella is actually quite ambivalent about it. In “On the Steps of the Palace,” she’s exploring how she feels, and she doesn’t feel the way she’s quote-unquote supposed to feel. That is part the deliciousness of the invitation. All of the humor in Into the Woods—I think this is true of all humor at all times—is connected to people being entirely serious about something. It is connected to stakes. And the princes have genuine confusion about, Why did she run from me? How is it possible that a woman was not attracted to me? I can’t process this information. She has to be mad. That’s a genuine thought that he has.
Tommy, which would you nominate from Sweeney?
TOMMY: I mean, “The Worst Pies in London” comes to mind. Somebody walks in that she thought didn’t exist. What’s really happening during that song also is, Could it be him? Is it him? We were exploring how she touches him—to see he’s not a ghost, he’s real, and if he’s here, what does that mean for her life? So she can’t stop. She is so lonely. Everything she’s doing might feel as if she’s giving him a reason to leave, or be repelled, but what she’s really saying is: Don’t go.
MARIA: I’ve played Mrs. Lovett and yes, that song is absolutely sexual, and yes, she notices way before she lets on that it’s him. The whole thing is like a peacock dance. But Sondheim is not on the nose. And everything is about love, by the way—about the searching for it, the missing of it, the yearning for having it, the losing of it.
Maria, can you think of a good example of subtext from Merrily?
MARIA: “Not a Day Goes By,” there’s a perfect one. We do it twice. First, it’s about the ferocious agony of loving something that’s gone, and you can’t get rid of the pain—that kind of unbearable sort of illness, I call it “strobe” thinking, where you can’t get it out of your head, it doesn’t matter where you go. The next time, the very same sentence is delivered to the person with everything in front of them.
But also, each character is very specific. You couldn’t swap Frank for Charlie, or Charlie for Mary, or for Gussie. Their motivations, their desires are universal, but individual. There was a beautiful moment in the rehearsal room on “Old Friends,” when we were really dissecting the arguments they were having, and Jonathan said to Daniel, “I love it, because you’ve just apologized.” And Daniel said, “No, I didn’t. You just apologized.” I said, “Clock this moment, this is the point of the whole thing. You never listen—you never understand each other. You’re always looking from your own perspective. That’s why it all falls apart.”
Finally, I want to ask about the relationship of your revivals to previous productions. Did you feel those famous earlier renditions as assets or burdens in imagining your own way into these shows?
LEAR: I’ll just bring back the Shakespeare reference. For me, it didn’t feel different than when you’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There have been countless truly great artists who have done that work and played those characters. For me that’s just part of great writing, to know that you are inherently in dialogue with this whole history of other great artists entering the work, and that you will be encountering an audience that is a mixture of people who are meeting it for the absolute first time and others who know it well. At least for me, I think I direct to that audience of people who have never seen it before, in terms of the clarity and the invitation that I’m going for. I certainly don’t think that history is oppressive at all. I mean, I was very familiar; as a kid, I got the cast album from James’s production, and listening to that over and over again. I didn’t have a way of actually seeing that production from Louisiana, but I felt like I could imagine it so well from from hearing it.
TOMMY: I think what we can say is that a work that is part of the canon is built to last. The concept has been proven. And the question is, how do you interpret the text? When you’re working on Sweeney Todd, you’re not trying to fix something that didn’t work. What you’re trying to do is not embarrass yourself. I feel like the thing I’m most conscious of, is that no matter what’s created in the physical world of the play, how the show is lit, how the show is designed, the thing that makes every production singular is that it’s never been this group of people onstage together. I feel like that’s the thing, no matter whether the stage is big, little, a turntable, no turntable—all of that is in service of who’s onstage telling it. So if you know the text is true, if you know it has the goods, how do we meet that? I really love working on material where we have to reach, where we have to try to get on our tiptoes to get there.
MARIA: With Merrily, everyone kept telling me that it’s a problem show. I’ve never seen it as a problem show. It feels to me like a piece of genius, a perfect piece. I think it’s a little tiny jewel. I changed very little, apart from the casting of the age. I changed some of the voicings and some of the tempos and maybe half a dozen lines, but absolutely nothing structurally or narratively. I did what they wrote. That’s the key: Do what they wrote, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting it right. Cast it well, make sure it flows, and don’t add anything on top of it. Don’t try to put great big icing all over it. Leave it alone. It does the work.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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