Saturday, December 4, 2010

What I Learned from Stephen Sondheim

I posted this on my facebook page after I attended “An Evening with Stephen Sondheim” at The State Theater in Minneapolis on March 5, 2010.  It seems appropriate to share it here.


I had the great privilege of listening to Stephen Sondheim talk about his career and musical theater for about an hour and a half. He’s truly a genius of musical theater, and I came to the conclusion that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his shows! I’m writing this mostly for myself, so that I don’t forget what I learned from him that evening.

The difference between musical theater and opera is in the audience’s expectations. Opera audiences go to the opera to hear the human voice. Musical theater audiences go to musical theater for the story and the songs. Operas are meant to be played to an opera audience in an opera house. Stephen doesn’t feel that any of his pieces fit that bill. A few of them could be considered “light opera,” but mostly they fall into the musical theater category based on the above criteria.

Stage and film are two entirely different art forms, and difficult to move from one to the other. The main difference is, again, the audience. Stage musicals are interactive and depend on feedback from the audience, and are never performed exactly the same. Movies are entirely independent of the audience and are the same every time you watch them. Stephen doesn’t think there’s been a successful movie adaptation of a stage musical until Sweeney Todd (even West Side Story and Chicago, which he said were good, but didn’t quite translate). He didn’t really go into detail why, other than that Tim Burton really got it.

The reason that Sweeney Todd has so much music is that he was inspired by horror films. He wanted to scare the audience, and he asked the question, how do horror movies scare the audience? The answer: they have scary music playing through most of the movie. So he wanted that undercurrent of scary music for Sweeney, and since it’s a musical, it made sense to have the characters singing. He originally wanted to do a small, claustrophobic production, but the director, Hal Prince, only does things big. So Stephen agreed to let Hal do it his way, knowing that he’d have his small, claustrophobic production later (like the recent Broadway revival, which I saw).

Stephen was asked about writing for specific performers (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury), and he said it was more about writing for the character than the voice. He talked about writing Sunday in the Park with George. Originally the male lead was a low voice, and the female voice was a soprano voice. But when Mandy Patinken auditioned (despite being told he didn’t have the right voice for it), they realized he would be brilliant in the role. Then Bernadette Peters was cast as the female role, and since she has a lower voice, he just switched the parts so that the male voice was higher and the female lower. He said if he was writing an opera he wouldn’t have had that freedom; they would have had to cast someone who fit the part as written.

He was asked about the “evolution” of musical theater, and he started talking about how Broadway has become commercial. Because musicals are so expensive to produce, “in this economy” producers are afraid to take risks and only want to put on something that they know will make money. Which explains the preponderance of “jukebox musicals” (musicals based around known songs, like Rock of Ages or Mama Mia) and “Disneyized musicals.” They have a built in audience so the producers know they’ll make some money, even if they’re not good. He said the true evolving of theater is being done Off-Broadway, and then if they’re successful, sometimes a producer (“or 27 producers”) will bring them to Broadway. He listed Spring Awakening and Next to Normal as examples (both of which I’ve seen and love).

He talked about working on West Side Story (he wrote the lyrics, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed). Jerome Robbins wanted a song to explain the second act ballet, and Bernstein (whom he called Lenny) had this song that he’d written years ago and tried to get in every show. So Stephen used that and wrote “Somewhere.” But there were such long notes in the music that he couldn’t put in any two-syllable words. A friend of his teases him and calls it “the A song,” because the least important world, a, gets the most emphasis and the highest note. (Sing it now: there’s… A… place… for… us…) He also talked about the recent Broadway revival (which I saw last year), which incorporated some Spanish into the songs and dialogue. He said it didn’t work as well as they thought it would because, incomprehensibly, there were people in the audience who had never seen the movie and didn’t understand what was going on! So they took some of it out.

Stephen’s favorite place to write is lying down on the couch. He also writes at the piano too, but feels doesn’t want to limit himself to just things he’s able to play. He said his right hand is better than his left.

The story and character dictates everything in the piece.

His favorite musical (other than his own) is Porgy and Bess.

He said the heart of music is the harmony. It’s the harmony that makes a song memorable. You can give the same melody line to two people to harmonize differently, and one will be memorable and other forgettable.

He talked about working with Warren Beatty on music for the film Reds. He played something for Warren on his piano and Warren asked him to record it. He only had a cheap little tape recorder, so he made a tape that he didn’t think was very good. He made Warren promise not to play it for anyone. When he went to a screening of the movie, that tape recording was in the movie! Warren liked the way it sounded and could never replicate it.


Since I wrote this in March I've seen one more Sondheim show - A Little Night Music on Broadway starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  There are a couple more coming up locally that I plan to see - Into the Woods at the Bloomington Civic Theatre and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Jungle Theater - so I'm on my way to seeing more of his shows!

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