Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sondheim song revue, 'Merrily' revival in works, the Master says

By Hap Erstein

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy is said to have addressed a gathering of 49 Nobel Prize winners at the White House, calling them “probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house, except for the times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

That is essentially how I felt about Wednesday evening’s A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim at the Kravis Center, a one-man crash course in the musical theater filled with fascinating stray comments by the preeminent mind working in the genre over the past 50 years. His responses to questions from his music administrator Sean Flahaven elicited a few nuggets of genuine news and lots of tidbits of Sondheimiana to satisfy his groupies -- myself included -- who were in attendance.

For instance:

* James Lapine (book writer and director of Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods) is working on a new revue of Sondheim’s song trunk to be called iSondheim (like iPod, not Claudius). It will feature recorded projections of Sondheim, or at least his face, interacting with the live performers, interjecting comments about the creative impulses behind the songs or -- one example Sondheim tellingly offered -- correcting the singers.

It debuts at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in April.

* Sondheim gave thumbs up to a recent Roundabout Theatre one-night concert of A Little Night Music, his 1973 musical based on Ingmar Bergman’s only comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night. The concert starred Natasha Richardson, her mother Vanessa Redgrave and Victor Garber. According to Sondheim, a new development has made it “a good likelihood” that the cast would be reassembled for a full production.

* He gave fewer details but was more definite that there would be a new revival next season of Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim and the late George Furth’s 1981 musical (based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart).

Other intriguing trivia included:

* Sondheim was never pleased with the title Evening Primrose for the one-hour made-for-television musical he wrote with James Goldman (later his Follies collaborator), based on a short story of the same name by John Collier. The show concerns fugitives from the outside world who hide out in a department store, roaming about at night after the store closed.

Sondheim worried that the botanical allusion would be lost on most viewers. He suggested instead A Little Night Music, which the ABC network rejected, so he used that title again later elsewhere.

* 1970’s Company has Sondheim’s most contemporary score and continues to sound current despite the archaic line in Another Hundred People, “Look, I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain,” a lyric more suited to 1956’s Bells Are Ringing. Who, after all, still uses a telephone answering service in this day of answering machines and voice mail? It turns out Sondheim does, because he can’t stand the beeps and flashing lights of answering machines.

* Sondheim describes Company as the theatrical equivalent of a cubist painting, the same subject as viewed from many different angles at the same time. Making it sound also like a cousin to the sitcom Seinfeld, he calls it an attempt to tell a story, but without a plot. “Nothing happens.”

* Similarly, he succinctly summed up 1971’s Follies as “people go to a party, get drunk and go home.”

* Sondheim said he regularly gets letters from people who say they do not understand the song Send in the Clowns, probably his best-known, most-recorded song. He said that Frank Sinatra put it this way, “You meet a chick, you fall in love, she leaves you -- send in the clowns.” Any other questions?

* A movie version of Into the Woods, the 1987 musical that interweaves several fairy tales, both Grimm and grim, died with the passing of Jim Henson, who wanted to use puppets for the various animal characters in it.

Before it was shelved, there was a reading of the script with the following cast: Cher (The Witch), Goldie Hawn (The Baker’s Wife), Robin Williams (The Baker), Steve Martin (The Wolf), Roseanne Barr (Jack’s Mother) and Danny De Vito (The Giant). Talk about sending in the clowns.

* John Weidman (book writer of Assassins, as well as Pacific Overtures and Road Show) has written a screenplay for Assassins that takes place in the Texas Book Depository with an added character, an elevator operator who stops on each floor to observe various would-be killers of U.S. presidents.

* The love theme from the Warren Beatty movie Reds, written by Sondheim, is the Russian anthem The Internationale, “reharmonized and played slowly.” The first time it is heard in the movie, it is played by Sondheim on a demo tape with his fingers “between the keys.”

* Sondheim has two new dogs, named Addy and Wilson after the Mizner Brothers of his latest, much-revised musical, Road Show. So even though the show closed on schedule without transferring from The Public Theatre to Broadway, Sondheim says that Addy and Wilson will be with him for a long time to come.

* Asked which musicals he did not write are his favorites, Sondheim did not duck the question to be diplomatic. Instead he said that My Fair Lady is probably “the most entertaining” musical, but that Porgy and Bess is “the best musical ever written.” But which musical has he seen most often? The Wiz, six times. A truly mind-boggling thought.

At various point throughout the evening, singer Kate Baldwin illustrated the conversation with selections from the songs discussed -- everything from I Remember (Evening Primrose) to Another Hundred People (Company) to Not a Day Goes By (Merrily We Roll Along) to Isn’t He Something? (Road Show).

If there is any justice in the world -- a rarity in a Sondheim musical -- Baldwin will become a Broadway star.


Eliza said...

It's iSondheim, not I, Sondheim. His whole explanation was how it WASN'T like I, Claudius, but rather like i...Pod.

(Of course, if you were sitting anywhere near me, you too might have been distracted by the couple who had to repeat everything he said multiple times. Seriously, by the time they were done repeating, "The Wiz," "The Wiz," "The Wiz," I thought Munchkins were actually going to jump out from the aisles).

Greg Stepanich said...


We've changed the text and added the link you provided to the Alliance.

Many thanks for the correction, and thanks for reading.

Eliza said...

Cool, thanks!

(For the record, I am in no way affiliated with the Alliance or with the production; I had just remembered reading about it awhile back--and thought it was a really dumb name!--and then was surprised when Sondheim mentioned it on Wednesday, because I figured that it, like The Musical Currently Known as Road Show, would change names three or seven times before it actually came to fruition. So, when I read your article, I was confused and started thinking maybe I had imagined it all and did a quick search).