Apr 1, 2011

The Story of His Life

I think it's fair to call this Q&A with Stephen Sondheim, the cover story of April's American Theatre, a career and personal highlight for me. The encounter/story grew out of my reporting for this piece about Weill's collaborations with Maxwell Anderson. In asking my learned sources for examples of how Weill's ambitious, hard-to-classify Broadway work of the 1940s may have influenced musical theater since, so many mentioned Sondheim that I thought: Well, if I'm going to cite them, why not just ask the man himself? It turns out that, as I'd suspected, Sondheim revealed himself (again) as essentially a non-fan of Weill's, and thus didn't have much to say on the scores in question (he was able to confirm that he saw the original Lost in the Stars on Broadway, and that his favorite tunes from it are "Big Mole" and "Train to Johannesburg"). I didn't end up exploring that angle in my Times piece anyway (though my digging around on this topic did inspire a blog post).

But Sondheim was so gracious and cordial in his response that I felt encouraged to continue the correspondence. Since I was still working my way through his epic and essential Finishing the Hat, and had lots of questions about it (and knew I wasn't alone, from the conversations I'd been having with colleagues), I decided to approach him about a cover story in AT. When he said yes, I prepared by devouring not only his book but Meryle Secrest's biography and Steve Swayne's dense but invaluable How Sondheim Found His Sound, and rereading several other piecees that had influenced my thinking (including Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music, this definitive analysis and, of course, this Q&A from our own AT archives).

To say that I relished the hour I spent at the famous Turtle Bay townhouse, sitting and talking by the Baldwin that was a gift from Bernstein, is a huge understatement. I don't think there's another living artist save Elvis Costello whose work I know and love more than Sondheim's. That he was as gracious and forthcoming as he was was just gravy. I only got the stink eye from him once, and it was at the very top of the interview: I started by thanking him for writing Finishing the Hat and its much-anticipated sequel, Look, I Made a Hat, adding that my only misgiving about these books is that they might affirm the unfortunate received wisdom that he's more valuable as a lyricist than a composer. That's not his favorite point of view, to say the least.

But as I've written before, and as I try to bring home in my interview, to focus on his brilliance either as a composer or a lyricist misses the boat: He's a dramatist in music, as surely as Puccini was, and he's been saying as much for years now, including in his own book (minus the Puccini comparison). To draw him out on this point was my favorite part of the interview, although this exchange was possibly the most revealing:
One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should. It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.
No masterpiece, it seems, is made without pain. I kind of can't wait to see a production of Sweeney Todd again.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Sweet said...

It's not easy to come up with something new to ask someone who has been interviewed and done Q&A's constantly for much of the last half-century, but I think this does indeed accomplish that. As a fellow interviewer, a tip of the hat for a job very well done.