Posted on October 23rd, 2010

Stephen Sondheim
In Conversation with Edward Seckerson

On Sunday 21st May 2006, Stephen Sondheim spoke to Edward Seckerson in front of an audience at The Queen’s Theatre in London. Hosted by the Sondheim Society, the event gave us a unique insight into this extraordinary creative genius. Many of the questions came from the audience and over the course of about 2 hours Sondheim gave what is arguably one of his most in-depth and fascinating interviews. Below is a slightly edited transcript of the conversation

Thanks to Lynne Chapman of the Stephen Sondheim Society for allowing me to share this wonderful interview.

Sondheim in conversation

Edward Seckerson: Over the last few years a number of your shows have played in London in compact, reduced versions that have been extremely effective, and to your credit you’ve been immensely flexible in giving encouragement to these productions. Sweeney Todd – I don’t know if you saw it at the Watermill itself?

Stephen Sondheim: No, I didn’t. I saw a videotape of the Watermill.

ES: Because it was extraordinary. You really felt like you were kind of locked into this asylum.

SS: Well you know that with the production at the Bridewell, where you were locked in! I did not see it unfortunately, I missed it by one day, but from the description it’s exactly my kind of thing. Where the doors closed at 8 o’clock and the only light came through some small windows at the top and you were literally trapped in the room.

ES: It’s a tribute to the material though, Steve, that you can get up close and personal with it and really scrutinise it and it stands the test in these productions. Does that thrill you though; the fact that it actually withstands this kind of scrutiny?

SS: Most of these shows, not true of Follies, not true of Pacific Overtures where I thought of them as chamber pieces than as say as intimate pieces. I certainly thought of Sweeney Todd as an intimate piece, it was Hal Prince who wanted to make it what he called an epic, because he likes epic theatre, as you know from his work. And I’d always conceived it as a small thing that would scare you to death because you would be enclosed in the little world. And Sunday in the Park with George, everybody says you have such a small orchestra, but we only had 11 pieces in New York City, so it’s not that much reduced.

ES: Sweeney though, I mean you must miss, to some extent, the power of the orchestration.

SS: The power of the full orchestration, yes, to a certain extent, indeed. But not that much. There are moments in Sunday where I miss a certain amount of sweep of the orchestra, even though it was only an 11 piece sweep, but it’s more than made up for by what’s going on.

ES: I was interested because I hadn’t read, until recently, that Bernard Hermann, the composer, was a kind of influence in the Sweeney sound.

SS: Oh yeah, Sweeney is a response to a film score he wrote for a film called Hangover Square which I was bowled over by when I saw it at the age of 15. I saw it in a small town where I lived in Pennsylvania at that time, called Doylestown; they only had two showings of a movie each night, one at 7.00 and one at 9.00, and I saw this I felt, wonderful film. It’s a little creaky now but it’s still quite marvellous, called Hangover Square, which was about an insane composer in Edwardian times, who’s way ahead of his time and every time he hears a particular high-pitched sound he goes out and murders the nearest beautiful girl.{laughter}. He’s played by a man named Laird Cregar, and he’s a completely innocent man because he blacks out during these episodes. And therefore he’s very sympathetic and your heart sort of breaks for him because you know that’s he’s going to somehow meet his evil self at some point in the film, which he does, during the piano concerto he wrote, which Bernard Hermann wrote. And there was one shot when he came back from one of the murders where he does not know what he’s done but he sits at his piano, he comes out of the foggy London streets and sits at the piano and proceeds to play the first 16 bars of the concerto and there’s a shot that lasts maybe two seconds of the score on the piano. And I stayed for the second showing so that I could memorise that page. {laughter} And I can still play it! {Laughter and applause}
But anyway, the only person who recognised what I was doing with Sweeney was my friend Anthony Perkins, Tony Perkins, who is as much of a fan of that kind of melodramatic movie as I am, or was at any rate, and he was in New York (he lived in California) and he came and I said ‘do you want to hear some songs from the show I’m writing?’ and I started to play Sweeney Todd and he said ‘It’s Bernard Hermann’. I said ‘You’re the only person who got it’. Because there’s a specific chord that Bernard Hermann uses in all his films, and Sweeney is, I won’t say it’s built around that, it’s not, but the chord recurs. It’s a C sharp minor chord with a major seventh underneath, so it’s B#, C#, E, G#. You play it, it’s immediately Bernard Hermann.

ES: Now I gather we have Sarah Travis in the audience this afternoon.

SS: Sarah, welcome. I hope she’s here. As long as she’s here that’s all that matters.

ES: Sarah did the arrangements for Sweeney; extraordinary arrangements. There is a question here, from Hugh Craig actually, who was asking for your response to the Watermill approach of actors playing instruments. Are there any disadvantages as you see it Steve, because Doyle, it’s very clever what he does but what do you see as the disadvantages? Is there a sense at times that one’s focus is pulled away?

SS: No because one of the things that Doyle does is that he makes the instruments extensions of the characters, so that somehow – even though in London Mrs Lovett played a trumpet and in New York she plays a tuba – it’s somehow an extension of the character. He changed the instrumentation, as those of you who saw it in both places may know, although the two the lovers still played cellos, the others are distributed differently. Tobias, over here, played wind instruments; in New York he plays a violin. But Doyle has a way of making these instruments so infused into the characters that far from being a disadvantage, it enriches it in a certain way.
Sondheim in conversation
ES: I was particularly riveted watching the show, both here at the Watermill and in New York, by the way Sarah had actually, where someone needed to do something physical, somehow she’d replaced that instrument with another instrument and you never felt that there was any drop-out.

SS: There’s a way of viewing that production as a ballet because, between Sarah and John, they have managed to make the putting-down and the taking-up of instruments part of the action. It’s quite remarkable, once you see the show a number of times to see exactly how and where the various players put their instruments. I mean, you know, carrying a cello around is one thing, putting it down and picking it up is another; how do you lay a cello down? You have to lay it on its side or you have to lean it against….at one point somebody just holds the cello by the top of the finger there while the actor playing the cello moves into the scene. Watching that is an entertainment in itself, it’s quite wonderful. There’s one point where one piano player is replaced by the other in the middle of a vamp…

ES: That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

SS: Exactly. And one of them stands by the piano while the other one sneaks away to enter the scene and the first one takes over the rhythm – it’s the ‘Pretty Women’ rhythm – and slips onto the bench while the other one enters the scene. It’s wonderful when you know that it’s there, it’s fun to look at.

ES: And it has its own kind of tension, in a way; that whole process. There’s a question here from Wendy Callan which ties in with this whole business. ‘You’re admirably open to and supportive of companies making sometimes quite radical alterations to your shows’, she says. ‘Are there or have there ever been any changes to which you would not give your permission?’

SS: Radical alterations – except for this production where John wanted to take, had to take a number of cuts, because we didn’t have the resources, the forces to, with things in ‘God That’s Good’ when you don’t have a full chorus and you don’t have an actual chair coming in, that sort of thing. But radical alterations in the other shows…..I don’t remember any. This is the only show, and I restored some of the cuts that John made and even suggested some (cuts) to make. So the answer is no, I have no objections because there hasn’t been very many radical alterations. There have been tiny alterations, but not radical ones.

ES: How’s John’s production of Company working in Cincinnati?

SS: It’s wonderful! It’s entirely different in tone, even though it uses the same technique of having the performers play the instruments. It is very elegant, it’s also rather jazzy and there are also 14 of them instead of 10 and those extra four instruments make a huge difference; but in this one the double bass is carried around the stage, whereas in Sweeny Todd it’s barely moved at all. It’s also very elegantly clothed and elegant to look at – it’s a whole different tone although it’s the same technique, and it’s turned the piece inside out in a way that I would never have anticipated. Ever since Company’s been done it’s always, even by people who like it, been characterised as a group of interesting people kind of circling a cipher, that Bobby is a sort of cipher, a tabula rasa on whom everybody reacts, they react on him, and in this version an odd thing has happened. It is absolutely a show about Bobby, and everybody else is a satellite. The whole thing has been reversed and as a result, George’s book, George Firth’s book which has always been underrated, even at its best it’s been considered a smart-ass wise-crack book, but it isn’t, it’s got a lot more substance than that and it comes out in this production, partly through the performance of Raul Esparza who plays the lead, but partly because of John’s approach. It has much more substance and weight; that does not mean it’s solemn – it’s still very funny and it’s still sharp and brittle, but brittle in the best sense. So it’s brought out a quality in it… you know Sweeney Todd also has made people appreciate Hugh’s book, Hugh Wheeler’s book, much more than they ever did before, and in the same way his production of Company has made people, and I think even many of you will appreciate the book more than you may have done so before.

ES: You mentioned Raul Esparza there, who I thought was extraordinary in Tick Tick Boom, the Jonathan Larson piece that we saw put together. Just as a little addition here, what did you make of that really very amusing, I think very amusing take on Sunday?

SS: Those of you who saw Tick Tick Boom know it’s very funny and I was sort of a mentor to Jonathan so I’m proud to say that and I knew he liked my stuff a lot.

ES: Extraordinary stuff. My assistant here, Lynne, is handing me things as we speak. From Mark Smithers: ‘how do you feel that the current London production of Sunday In The Park With George compares to the previous US and UK productions?’ Well, you’ve sort of answered that already but is there anything that you might want to add?

SS: Well the major thing is that good, bad or indifferent, the National Theatre production was sort of a gloss on James’s production in New York, it was more elaborate and it had some changes in it but mostly it took from James’s production. What’s lovely, and James would agree with me a hundred percent, because we felt the same way about Richard Jones’s production of Into The Woods, it’s so much better when a new director takes an entirely different tack. It’s full of surprises and full of that director’s take on it as opposed to that director’s take on James’s take. And the nice thing about this production of Sunday, the major thing, is that it’s entirely different. I take that back; there are moments that are alike, but most of it is very different, because of the whole technologically, digitalised versions of the set and of the painting; it gives it a whole other flavour, just the way Richard Jones’s take on Into The Woods was completely different. That’s the good part.

Sondheim in conversation

ES: Well, Garry Brough here mentions the technology and was bowled over by it. He wondered whether you felt technology had finally caught up with your vision of the show?

SS: As far as I’m concerned, James’s vision in the first place was his vision, why not? It was perfect, but this is just a whole other way of doing it. And incidentally, technologically, you know, there have been a lot of off-off-Broadway pieces that have been done that have used the technological advances of the last ten years well. There’s a group called the Worcester Group that does very experimental and very avant-garde stuff, but they use absolutely up-to-the-minute technology involving all kinds of visual effects, sound effects, television, etc. It’s just that Broadway hasn’t, meaning commercial theatre hasn’t; that’s what’s so startling here is that this is, you know, commercial, but that kind of stuff has been going on for quite a while.

ES: Well from my point of view, watching, one forgot the technology completely and I thought act two of his worked just wonderfully. It’s so moving and so sort of intimate.

SS: As you all we’ve often been criticised for having written two separate acts; the same thing happened with Into The Woods, which is always why don’t they quit after the first act? If we’d just done the first act of Sunday In The Park it’s a stunt, it’s nice but it’s just a stunt; ‘look how this painting got painted’. We always thought of it as a two-act structure; as having a lot more to say about art and the artist than just ‘look how we made this painting cleverly’.

ES: Well I’ve always felt that your pieces, anyway, develop in the second act.

SS: Well, yes that’s the way I feel, but I think for the first time, because of what’s going on visually in the piece, I’ve noticed that now people think the second act is attached to the first, I mean they get the total arc of the piece now, in a way they may not have gotten before and it’s partly because of the technological…. the audience ties in the two acts because of things that are going on visually in the background in the first act, and they see echoes of it in the second act just the way the script has many echoes of the first act; the way the parallel between Putting It Together and The Day Off which are parallel musically, are now pointed up more because there’s a parallel visually. It’s as one of the characters says ‘theme and variations’, which is always what it was intended to be.

ES: I hadn’t thought of that, but I can see it now.

SS: Musically it’s theme and variations.

ES: There is a question here from Kim Philpotts, ‘what do you feel about Tim Burton directing Sweeney Todd’. I was worried, concerned about it, when I first heard because I have certain problems with musicals on film. There are a couple that I think have worked supremely well, interestingly enough the two Kander and Ebb shows Cabaret and Chicago I thought worked very well because of the stylisations, but is there going to be an angle in Sweeney, without revealing anything, which I’m sure you can’t?

(NOTE: This interview took place in May 2006, way before the film of Sweeney Todd started production)

SS: No, it’s not an angle. The script is by a man named John Logan, who is a very well-known screenwriter out there. He wrote The Aviator and he wrote Gladiator, he wrote Last Samurai and his script is quite wonderful. Unlike you, Ed, I don’t think any film has worked, any musical has worked on film, including those two; they don’t work for me! {laughter} It’s because the stage is so different than film, I mean Chicago was very entertaining but as far as I’m concerned it was better on the stage. I have great hopes for this but the translation from one medium to another is difficult. There’s no gimmick on it, he’s got a visual metaphor, which I will not tell you about, and a way of tightening and speeding up the story because obviously the difficulty, as you all know, is that a single shot of a person’s face on the screen can convey what three minutes of singing can convey. So there is a tendency as people start to sing on screen to say ‘come on, come on, let’s get on with the story, let’s get on with the story’, whereas when you’re in a theatre it’s part of the compact you make when you come in the door to see a musical, that people are going to sit on the stage, break the fourth wall, meaning already, it’s unreal, and sing at you, and that you will enjoy the singing. It goes to extreme in opera where they sing at you, but people who go into an opera house that’s not only the compact they make; that’s what they want. That’s what’s enjoyable. In the same way (in) musicals, it’s fun to hear somebody take one subject and sing about it for four minutes or three minutes, if it’s sung well, if the song is entertaining or clever or surprising or whatever, but on screen, which is a reportorial medium, it is not such fun, at least not for me, and I get impatient right away. I think John has found a way, although those of you who like the piece a lot will probably be dismayed at the number of cuts in the score, but I think so far, what we’ve done is cut it quite well I think, but you have to tell the story swiftly. Luckily, Sweeney has a very, very good plot; things happen and you don’t have to linger on moments, you can keep the plot going while people are singing. There are numerous songs in Sweeney Todd where you can keep an action going as people are singing, where you don’t just have to settle and have somebody sing one idea for three minutes and keep the camera on them and you get impatient. So I think there’s a chance that it might work very well.

ES: Can I pick up there, Steve, on the issue of when and where people sing in musical theatre, because the old idea (is) that they sing because the emotional stakes are so high that they don’t want to speak? But I know you like to subvert and surprise, so how are you led into deciding where to put the songs?

SS: You’re led into that – I am anyway – by working with my collaborator; whoever’s writing the libretto. We decide where can music do something either better, wittier, swifter, more interestingly, more surprisingly in a scene than perhaps the dialogue can do? But I usually try… it was Rodgers & Hammerstein who essentially – they didn’t pioneer but they developed the idea of a scene reaching a certain emotional peak – Carousel is a great example of this, where the emotions, the dialogue and the characters in the dialogue rise to such a peak that the music has to take over. So that became the cliché; that’s where songs occur when dialogue rises to that point. When I was writing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Burt Shevelove, who wrote the book with Larry Gelbart said, ‘you know there are other ways to write musicals too,’ ‘Oh?’ I said, because I’d been bought up by Oscar. He said ‘Sometimes you savour the moment.’ Forum is a score in which none of the action rises to, or emotions rise to a peak, even the comic emotions, where singing is necessary, it’s just given a moment, let’s say, like Free where a slave is entertaining the idea of being free if he does a favour for his young master and you just play with the idea of free or freedom from the slave’s point of view and the delight, supposedly, for the audience, is to take this idea and watch the ball bouncing; it’s the delight you get in a Cole Porter song; Let’s Do It – the idea is over in two lines, but the rest of the song is let’s see what he does with it and it’s just such fun. And because of Rodgers & Hammerstein, as I’ve said in the past; they ruined it for the rest of us, they said ‘No, you’ve got to tell the story’, so that’s what led to the cliché of you reach a certain point in the story, the emotions take over and then you gotta sing. And now, for myself, every time I hear that underscoring I think, ‘Oh my God here comes the love song,’ and the idea is to try to, to use your word, subvert that, at least for me, to surprise the audience, to, not necessarily, come in unexpectedly, but either a tonal twist or a timing twist, something so you can keep them alert, because audiences now are smarter than they were in 1943, which is when Oklahoma was done, and so to keep their interest going, I think, and to keep my interest going, you got to do something that makes me wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s hard, but it’s fun.


ES: Are your problems with opera to do with the fact that ideas are endlessly developed…

SS: Part. {laughter} There’s just not a lot of story going on and it’s filled with longueurs, it’s filled with pauses and it’s filled with savouring the moment and because I don’t enjoy that kind of savouring the moment. . . First of all, I like the contrast, as I’ve said many times, I like the contrast between singing and speech, for me that is a kind of music in and of itself. I am not a fan of sung-through musicals, people ask me why don’t you write a through-composed music, as we all know, nobody’s written a through-composed musical, they’ve only written through-sung musicals; there’s never been a compositional principle, but whatever it is, it’s constant singing. I don’t find that as much fun as having music drop out, or underscore and having people talk and particularly if the talk is good and I work with collaborators who write really, really good dialogue and actors who know how to play that dialogue and for me that’s the fun. My big feeling about opera is I get weary of the singing and that is exactly the pleasure that opera-goers like; the glories of the human voice. I can take a little glory. {laughter}

Question from the audience: What about Porgy and Bess?

SS: Porgy and Bess does have dialogue in it, very little, just the way Carmen has dialogue. Very little, and I got to tell you some of the recitative in Porgy and Bess drives me a little crazy. When I saw Trevor Nunn’s production here, I thought, ‘Gee, this is longer than I remember it!’ {laughter} And as most of you know I worship Porgy and Bess; for me there’s Porgy and Bess, then there’s everything else but nevertheless I thought, gee this is long, and I wanted to take a little out.

ES: Interestingly enough, when you were talking about the amount of singing in opera, I was thinking about how someone like Benjamin Britten turned that on its head with Peter Grimes and made the most important line in the opera spoken.

SS: Yes. Well, the first act of Peter Grimes is one of the few operas that I would go anywhere to hear or to see; the first act of that is remarkable. Well, so did Marc Blitzstein, the climatic line of Regina, you know, when Regina says ‘I hope you die’; he saved that, and it was spoken. And ‘bring me my goat’ is the great line in Porgy and Bess and it’s spoken.

ES: We’ve got a couple more questions here on Sweeney and then we’ll go into some of the general questions, ’cause there’s some fun things there. This is kind of a cute one…

SS: Why did my stomach just go… {laughter}

ES: I tell you this audience is strange. Is there any conscious connection between your organ writing in Sweeney Todd and Bernstein’s in the opening of the third movement of the chamber version of his Chichester Psalms? Well there’s a thought…

SS: The opening of the third movement? Well first of all, there isn’t because that’s the one piece of writing in Sweeney I really… I tried twice to improve it; it still sounds so academic, it’s just… look who’s been studying counterpoint. {laughter} And you know, writing for organ is writing for organ; it’s as idiomatic as writing for piano and I made the mistake of thinking they were the same; they’re not. I can write for piano. But writing for organ is its own animal and, you know, I like it when it’s not there. Or I would like to rewrite it – I did rewrite it once and it isn’t any better than it was in its original. That’s not modesty, it just isn’t. It sits there, it just doesn’t have the effect that I… Bernard Hermann would know how to do it, he really would. The whole idea was just to make an audience slightly tense before the thing began but then Hal capped it with the factory whistle anyway, which so alarms the audience and so irritates the audience that it didn’t need the organ prelude.

ES: Apropos writing for voices, Steve, are you ever conscious when you’re actually writing the numbers of the vocal difficulties that you sometimes present people with? {laughter}

SS: Well, no, partly because I can’t sing very well; it’s all easy for me. You know. I’m leaping a ninth so I think ‘oh that’s no problem’, ’cause it’s what I hear in my head. But it’s odd; some things that sound very difficult are not if the singer relaxes into it, and some – I remember Larry Kert who played the lead in Company, you know, I was just talking to him, maybe I was talking about a specific number he was having trouble with and I said ‘are there any passages that are difficult for you?’ he said ‘yes’, and the one he picked was the song Someone Is Waiting. Now Someone Is Waiting is almost all stepwise motion, and I would think, you know, that is what’s easy for a singer, I would think what’s hard for a singer is leaps, a leap of a seventh, or a leap of a ninth, but not at all. Sometimes it’s the way the tune is built and the answer is; I don’t know until a singer says to me ‘I’m having difficulty negotiating this’. But sometimes what I think is difficult, turns out not to be. I probably should have studied singing more. I regret two things in my education: one not to have studied orchestration, but I never had the chance because I went to a small college, there was no such thing. The other is, I’m sorry I didn’t sing in the glee club and the reason I didn’t, was I just didn’t like the activity, but I would have learned something about how voices blend and what is easy to sing and what is hard to sing. And I didn’t.

ES: I think in some of Anne Egerman’s stuff in A Little Night Music is very, very difficult.

SS: I asked Vicky about that, the lady who played the original, and she said ‘no,’ she said ‘it’s just rangy’. The thing is I wrote Anne Egerman for a total of octave and six but the tessitura is all over the place; she’s got to sing up there and she’s got to sing down here, and she’s got to be beautiful and she has to be young and she has to act selfishly without being a bitch and the result is, nobody has ever been able to play the part except Victoria Mallory! {laughter}
That’s unfair to the Annes; I’ve seen many Annes – I loved Joanna Riding here because she could do it, she’s a good singer, so she could do it; there have been others, but the point is it’s been very difficult to cast that part, always, because of all the requirements, not the least of which is a tessitura of an octave and six.

ES: But also, to give you credit for the way the music and text relate, if you play the sense and the emotion that will help also with the vocal line.

SS: I’ve always had that experience with anybody who sings Getting Married Today, the end of the first act of Company. They say ‘Oh it’s impossible…’, I say ‘If you just sing it and play it you’ll find that the inflection of the lyric will tell you where the notes are’, and sure enough it does. The other thing is, if you sing it very fast, you’ll have no trouble. They all say ‘oh, it’s impossible’ – sing it fast, where you don’t run out of breath. And I worked very carefully to make the lyric so it trips off the tongue, which unfortunately it doesn’t in the last chorus, {laughter} but the first parts of the song, I make no excuses for. And sure enough, whenever they sing it fast they hit the notes and they have no trouble with breath control at all.

ES: I always thought it was extraordinary what Julie Andrews did with that number, I mean just putting the emphases and the points, so that it wasn’t just a patter, it actually had real shape.

SS: Absolutely, because she’s a good actress.

ES: This is interesting; this is David Oldcorn: ‘We understand that from the moment you saw Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd we’re told you wanted to turn it into a musical. Are there any other plays or books that you immediately felt that way about?’

SS: Well I felt that way when I saw the movie of Passione D’Amore and wanted immediately to do a musical which ten years later I did. Off-hand, no, I don’t think so. I don’t want to keep everybody sitting here while I rake through my rapidly failing memory. {Laughter}

ES: Carnival?

SS: I wanted to do Carnival after I saw the show. I saw the show Carnival, which was based on Lili – I did not like the movie Lili, I found it wet and sentimental and embarrassing; when I saw the musical I thought, ‘Oh my God, I wish I’d written that,’ and I wished that David Merrick who produced it had asked me to write it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen which I thought ‘Oh I wish I’d written that.’ But no, when I saw the movie Lili, it was the farthest thing from my head; I thought it was creepy.

Sondheim in conversation
Audience member: I think that in Sunday, Putting It Together is a great synergy of the technology and the song.

SS: Putting It Together was always about the difficulty of raising money for whatever you’re doing. It’s really, essentially all it’s about, is how in order to get a show on, in order to get a chromolume financed or put together a movie, you have to go out and you have to raise money and you have to put it together in terms of not only that, but in terms of support, support groups, your fellow artists etc etc etc. There’s a great deal that goes into a work of art, even if it’s a work of commercial art or popular art which is what I deal with. That’s all it’s about. The whole technological thing; because we decided that we wanted George, in 1984, to be on the cutting edge, in fact what James Lapine wanted to do was, he wanted to have George developing holograms, and so we did some research into holograms and unfortunately realised that in order to make a hologram work in the theatre you’d have to have one row of seats, 400 deep, {laughter} because a hologram has to be viewed exactly like this; as soon as you’re over here you don’t see the hologram anymore! But we wanted him to be experimenting with something really on the cutting edge so George is supposed to be technologically exactly where the people who put together Sunday In The Park With George are. And that’s why we had a light machine and in fact, Bran Ferren who designed the chromolume, in the original production was on the cutting edge, he then went out to Disney and he has his own kingdom now, like George Lucas and his light show organisation, Bran has this extraordinary, experimental… he’s always on the cutting edge of technological stuff. So essentially Putting It Together was supposed to be how you finance, how you support, how you help grow something that is technologically expensive and immediate and cutting edge. And also the critical response to same.

Question from audience on underscoring during the chromolume scene in Sunday In The Park

SS: That comes from the fact that; given that you’re going to do a chromolume in 2006, what are you going to do? What would you have? Because installations now, that artists are doing –contemporary artists – are in no way theatrical for the stage, they may be theatrical when you go into a Tracy Emin installation, but you can’t do that on the stage, so what do you do on the stage? Well, the solution that they came up with, which is the same solution that we came up with in Washington in 2002 when we did the production down there – in which incidentally Raul Esparza played George – was to have the chromolume out there where the audience is and see the reaction of the people onstage to the chromolume, rather than having them show it. If we put a light machine on now, you’d say ‘Oh, come on, where has this guy been for the last 25 years?’ {laughter} That’s the problem; what do you do that is cutting edge now, and the only way you can do it, I think, is you have to suggest it. Once you’ve done that then of course you have to change the underscoring because it now lasts half as long as it did when there was an actual lightshow; those of you who didn’t see the original production – there was a lightshow; there were laser beams, coloured laser beams from all over the theatre, criss-crossing over the stage; it was very spectacular, and though to any really sophisticated contemporary artist it was old hat, to the audience in a theatre it was extremely sort of cutting edge and unusual, and it was in itself a number, so it lasted maybe two-and-a-half minutes, maybe two minutes. Now it’s shorter because there’s less to do because once the audience registers what’s going on on the stage; that a group of people are watching some extraordinary exhibition, ‘up there’, then as soon as the audience registers that it’s over so you want to get out of there and get on with the scene.

ES: I think it’s much better. I really do.

SS: Better or not, it’s the only solution that we could think of.

ES: A couple of questions on Assassins. When we were talking a while ago Steve about when people sing, one of the most powerful gestures in that show was that in the last scene of the show nobody does (sing), until the very end and there’s that immense scene with Lee Harvey. Do you remember how that came about, that bold decision to just let the book take over at that point?

SS: You know the songs in Assassins are like the songs in Company for the most part, not true of the Booth scene, but for the most part they’re comments or they are entirely musicalised scenes, they don’t come out of dialogue, for the most part. And that scene – what could you possibly write for Lee Harvey Oswald to sing before he shoots Kennedy that wouldn’t dilute the power of the scene? It never occurred to John and me to have a song in there. Didn’t occur. We didn’t design it that way, we just did it. Part of it is that originally our intention for Assassins was that we were going to open in the Texas Book Depository and it would start with Oswald preparing to shoot Kennedy and because it was about books we thought ‘isn’t that interesting?’, because what can happen is that the assassins would pop up behind the stacks of books and in fact occasionally look at a book; Booth would look at it and say ‘that isn’t what happened!’, you know, but the whole idea of history coming to life through books. So the whole piece was going to take place in that, so it always was meant to lead to a spoken scene where there would be confrontation between Booth and Oswald, and Booth giving Oswald the courage, along with the other assassins to go and kill Kennedy. And then, actually it was James Lapine suggested to us that we should not give away Lee Harvey Oswald ’til the very end of the show and he was right because even though you know that somehow Oswald’s going to appear, one of the wonderful things about Assassins is you forget it and so when he does appear you think ‘Oh my God!’. And if we’d given it away at the beginning… But it was always meant to be spoken; Oswald was never a singing character.

ES: It’s the best example I know in musical theatre of not through-singing.

SS: Through talking.

ES: There are a couple of little questions here from Laura Horsfall, who’s eleven, and, not surprisingly, one of the questions is about Into The Woods. How long did it take you to write it?

SS: I went to James Lapine after Sunday In The Park With George because we had such a great time writing it together and said ‘I’d love to do a quest musical,’ meaning like The Wizard of Oz, and James started a plot and then he couldn’t he said ‘it’s too arbitrary to plot something like that.’ And, without going into great detail, he finally came up with the notion of taking these fairy stories and blending them together and having all the characters collide. I would say between the time I said to him ‘let’s do a quest musical’ and that moment, was probably two to three months. Then I’d say that we talked about the show, as I remember it, over a summer at great length and then wrote it. I’d say the total time was maybe a year to a year-and-a-half. Then we tried it out at the Old Globe Theatre in California, San Diego, over the Christmas holiday period and from that decided what we wanted to do to develop it a little further; to improve it if you will, and we figured that would take four to six months, also in terms of recasting it and then we would go to rehearsal and that is in fact what happened, and we went into rehearsal that fall. So I guess if you put all the time together, including the tryout, it was about two years, but about a year of actual writing, maybe three to six months of planning, and three to six months of fixing.

ES: Laura’s sister, Emily, asks a question which he’s not going to answer, I’m afraid: of all the shows you’ve written, which is your favourite Steve?

SS: I’ll answer: I like each one for a different reason and so I can’t say they’re all my favourite because there’s no one that I like better than another. I like them all. There’s one I don’t particularly like which is Do I Hear A Waltz? simply because – it’s not a bad show, it’s just it was written under a kind of duress and we did it more as a job, Arthur Laurents and I, rather than out of sheer love and there were numerous motives going on and none of them were the only motive that counts when you write a show, which is you do it because you want to write it so badly that you just do. But we had our eyes on other reasons and it was a mistake.

Question from the audience: ‘I had to learn a couple of songs, to my shame I haven’t seen Into The Woods, but I had to learn a couple of (the) songs for various performance-related reasons. Everyone obviously interprets lyrics in their own way, but I just wanted to get your take on it. The lyrics of the title track to Into The Woods, would the subtext relate in anyway to emotional breakdown or depression?’

SS: No, The Woods, obviously as has been pointed out by many analysts . . we took a Jungian approach, you know this whole thing about how we based it on Bruno Bettelheim is nonsense – it’s nothing to do with Bettelheim, in fact I don’t know if James read the book, I didn’t. But we did go into the Jungian interpretation of fairy tales and the notion of the woods as the unconscious mind is exactly what goes on, so it was never meant to relate… there’s no subtext of depression or anything like that, it’s merely that the woods are a metaphor for that part of the mind that is dangerous, in which many unexpected things happen and that’s the unconscious mind, or subconscious: I’m not quite clear on the difference; I know there is a difference. But that’s all, there is no subtext of any specificity at all.

ES: Just to come back, very briefly, to Do I Hear A Waltz? this the show you wrote with Richard Rodgers. We did a programme on Stage and Screen with Carol Lawrence and we were playing Next Week, Americans…

SS: This Week, Americans {laughter}

ES: This Week, Americans, forgive me, which I though was fine – came up fresh…

SS: Oh there’s a lot of good stuff in Do I Hear A Waltz?, it’s just it’s a plane that never takes off, it’s very well-made, it’s very well-written, it’s just something that doesn’t rise and I think it’s because there’s no urgency underneath it. When you write something out of love there’s an urgency underneath it, it can be dreadful, but you feel that there’s a need to have written it. You look at Do I Hear A Waltz? And it’s like a well-made dead object, in someway; that’s not to denigrate it, because it’s really well-made, which is not a small compliment to it and I say it with no modesty but it just doesn’t have the pulse of life in it. If you look at the original play, which I’m afraid today seems somewhat arch and old-fashioned, nevertheless you can feel that the author – it’s a play called The Time of the Cuckoo – you can feel that the author wrote it because he had to write it, not because he was out to make money or out to do a favour for somebody or anything – all those various reasons that we did the musical. That’s all.

ES: Is it true that Rodgers wanted you to reprise one of the big numbers in act two…?

SS: Richard Rodgers believed that you had to reprise things all the time and I said ‘but there’s no point in reprising unless the emotion arises again’. That cut no ice with him. {laughter} And he was the producer. {laughter}

ES: Here’s a question relating to Rodgers & Hammerstein from John Farrar: ‘You once said you would have written Oklahoma from Judd Fry’s situation. Is that true?’

SS: Did I? {laughter}

ES: OK, assuming you did and clearly you didn’t; how would you have structured this? Would it have been a flashback from the lonely room scene?

SS: I can’t imagine I would ever have said that unless I said it facetiously because I mean he’s not… he’s a major character, but he’s not really a major character. The point of view is the author’s point of view and even in the original play Green Grow the Lilacs he’s the villain, but the play is written from Curly’s point of view and so is the musical. Gosh no, I wouldn’t know what to do, and you can’t because he’s not witness to anything except his passion for Laurey, I suppose, well, now that I’m talking about it {laughter}, I suppose you could. You could, I suppose. Unfortunately I can’t answer the question because I’ve given it no thought; I’ll be happy to give it some thought, but… {laughter}

ES: A question here about classical music from Tony & Sue Shepping. ‘What would be the one classical orchestral piece that you would take to your desert island?’

SS: Well, for me the greatest orchestral piece is the Brahms 2nd piano concerto. If you want my favourite orchestral piece I suppose that’s it but I have a lot of very close seconds. I only use that because I have been on the Desert Island Discs show a couple of times and had to think in terms of number one, two, three, four… But certainly, that piece of music is monumental for me. On the other hand for sheer enjoyment I would rather drown in Ravel.

ES: Is Ravel still your…

SS: Oh sure, and the left hand piano concerto is, also. But no Ravel is… but there’s so many, come on! What would you say?

ES: I change every week.

SS: That’s it, of course.

ES: A Percy Grainger kick you were on last time – The Warriors.

SS: The Warriors – what a piece.

ES: You need to hear it live though, Steve.

Mark Love: ‘Can you discuss the relationship between your book writers and you when lyrics are sung to music in your shows? Are the words we hear being sung to your music always all yours or are there any examples within songs you can think of where you’ve set the book writer’s words to music in either a collaborative effort or an exclusive one.’

SS: There are many examples. There are many examples where I’ve stolen lines, phrases and notions from the book writer – and I say steal, which is not really the right word, because also, the book writer takes from me . . the whole idea of a collaboration is that you feed each other, but yes, I can give you innumerable examples of times when I’ve done it. For example; we started out talking about Sunday In The Park With George – Dot’s first song; James wrote a monologue, which begins with the phrase ‘a dribble of sweat’; she’s standing in the sun and she feels herself sweating, and so I just took it. And the monologue went on; she started to think about her life and her life with George, and though I don’t know that I used any actual phrases, the whole notion and then I took the development and went into the dream sequence where she’s talking about ‘but he had said, concentrate, concentrate’; all that sort of stuff. I’ve been off and on over a period of years preparing a book of collected lyrics and I wanted to have some little essays on some of the songs and one of the things I want to do is show some of these monologues – James did one, Jim Goldman did one for Evening Primrose that became the song I Remember – and show what happens. And in Sweeney Todd – Mrs Lovett’s The Worst Pies in London, you look at the speech that Chris Bond wrote and then look at what I wrote and you can see the relationship very clearly. It’s not so much any actual phrases, although sometimes actual phrases come into it, but whole notions and whole ways of developing thought and whole ways of the character expressing him or herself; it goes on all the time. In fact, I doubt if I’ve written a show where I didn’t take something from a book writer and turn it, expand it into a song; transmute it in some way. I’m not in any way ashamed of it – it’s exactly what makes a collaboration a collaboration. That’s what makes a piece seem to be a piece. One of the things I like about the shows I’ve written is they seem to be a piece; you may like the show, or not like the show but it doesn’t feel like the book writer and the song writer were in different rooms; that’s not true of a lot of musicals. A lot of musicals you feel like they were in different countries, even. So the answer is, there are many, many examples.

ES: Yes, it’s that whole thing of picking up on the style and feel and rhythm of the book writer.

SS: As a song writer you have to imitate your book writer. Again, as many of you know, so at the risk of reiteration, I always wait until the book writer has written a couple of scenes before I start actually writing the songs. I collect musical ideas and maybe even lyric ideas, but until I know the exact diction of each character and even discussed that with the book writer until I am in, until I am the actor playing the part – because that’s what it’s about; it’s about acting, and I act these people that the book writer has created. Granted we have in a way created them together but the actual drawing of the character; the actual filling in of the character, that’s the librettist’s job and I wait and then I’m a really good mimic, and I can get inside the character so that when I start to write the lyric, whether I’m taking a phrase or an idea from the book writer, or making my own up all entirely, it’s not entirely off the cuff because I know the character and I can figure out what the character would say if she got hit by a car, even though she may not get hit by a car in the script, and I can imitate very well and that helps the shows be of a piece which is something I like, because what I was taught by Oscar Hammerstein is try to make the show a piece. That’s why he wrote both the libretto and the lyrics so they were a piece.

ES: I know you’ve said before that the writing doesn’t get any easier, in fact it gets harder because there are more expectations, on yourself as well, not just from people outside. Do you still though have that kind of zeal for it, that kind of appetite?

SS: That’s a hard one to answer. It is when I get down to work. It’s fun to work once you get down to it, but getting down to it is a whole other thing. And then, when I see something like this production of Sunday In The Park With George it does rouse me, I think, ‘Gee, it really is fun to put on musicals’, and so that’s an encouragement. But you look at the state of the theatre, and look at the state of audiences and look at the state of America and you know, it’s hard to get the enthusiasm up again. It just is.

Audience member: On that note, what are your thoughts on the state of musical theatre today and where do you think it should go to keep fresh and alive and to keep attracting audiences, while retaining integrity?

SS: Well the thing is, it is attracting audiences it’s just that what attracts audiences is stuff they’re used to, that’s why there is this profusion of jukebox musicals, you know, of compendiums of songs that they’re familiar with or what they hope is spectacles, huge amounts of money – fifteen, twenty, twenty-five million dollars which is what they cost now, those big Disney musicals, and they think that will attract audiences. Well, in some cases it does and in some it doesn’t, but it’s dead-end in so far as any kind of creative excitement goes, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s all pablum, you know it’s feeding an audience what they want, as opposed to something that might excite them. Where all theatres should go, first of all, all theatres should – please, a little more straight play and a little less musical wouldn’t hurt – but within musical theatre, to allow young talent, who have lots of creative ideas, to have a hearing. You’ve all heard me say this many times, you’ve heard other people say it; there’s no life unless there’s new writing talent being given a hearing, and writing talent that has something to say, not writing talent that merely imitates what other people have done, because that goes on all the time and that the stuff that gets on Broadway, but there’s a good deal of interesting and even exciting stuff going on off-Broadway or in regional theatres or even off-off-Broadway, or perhaps here in the fringe, it’s just it rarely gets onto the commercial stage where it can attract large audiences. Instead of 150 people a night, 1000 people a night, and that is very rare, because it costs so much to put on a show that you have to be a very gutsy producer to take a chance on unknown writers, there are very few stars left so you can’t guarantee a show by, you know, there are no Ethel Mermans and Mary Martins, and Barbra Streisand is not going to come back to the stage, so how so you attract an audience? Well, the way you attract them is by using songs that they’re familiar with, or styles that they’re familiar with or telling stories, quote, ‘they want to hear’. Sunday In The Park With George would not be on Broadway now. I don’t think we could possibly get it on, and certainly not Sweeney Todd. And it was hard enough to get on, believe me, in 1979 – I’d do thirteen auditions to raise the money and didn’t raise a cent; thirteen auditions, and finally because I knew some people who desperately wanted to put a lot of money in a show I got half the backing by calling them and saying ‘do you want to do that? Fine.’ and the producers through some of their standard backers got the rest of the money but otherwise Sweeney Todd would never have gotten on and that’s back in ’79. So it’s very discouraging for a young writer and young writers have families, so where are they going to go? They’re going to go to Hollywood, they’re going to write for Disney of course, or they’re going to write pop or they’re going to go to television. It’s very discouraging; I would really hate to be a young writer today, with good ideas. On the other hand, every now and then, one comes through. You know, The Light In The Piazza, the show by Adam Guettel gets on, it gets on in a non-profit theatre, but it gets so well-received that it has a chance to run and now it’s run for over a year, it’s attracted audiences and those audiences, their appetites will be whetted for something equally fresh, if they get it. Otherwise they’re going to have to go back to the jukebox musicals.
Audience member: Billy Elliot?

SS: Oh, Billy Elliot; the first 45 minutes – the staging – is one of the most exciting things I ever saw in my life, I think the staging of Billy Elliot, particularly the first half of the first act is wonderful. But for me it’s a triumph of staging, but at least it has something to say. It tries to deal with character; it isn’t a jukebox musical.

ES: The issue of platforms for young writers is, I think, more acute in this country than it is in the States. It really is a serious problem here, particularly since regional theatre, in this country; I mean rep used to be the most fertile ground for new writers – not any more; they take visiting productions. But then you occasionally get a young writer; I know you were kind of struck by what you heard of his work – Connor Mitchell – who has been specifically writing in Northern Ireland for the theatre in Belfast. Perhaps the theatre here, in your name, the 500 seater, would you like to see it be a new forum for new writers?

SS: Oh, absolutely. I can think of nothing I’d rather have then have that as the fertile ground for new writers and that will be up to Cameron Mackintosh, and he wants to encourage young people – he gave young people a chance, you know, with Witches of Eastwick and also additional songs for Mary Poppins. He’s one of the few producers who a) can afford to, and b) has the imagination, taste and courage to encourage young writers.

ES: There’s a question here from Chris Storer, you’ve already mentioned Adam Guettel: are there any other writers that you think we should keep an eye on.

SS: I hesitate to answer that because if I mention any then the ones I don’t mention; their feelings will be hurt, seriously. And I only mentioned Adam because I have gone on record so often saying that Floyd Collins is the most brilliantly original musical, for my taste, in recent memory. So I am a champion of Adam’s, but if I bring up other people I worry that…

ES: There’s a question here: which musical written by others do you wish you’d written? Are there many of those, or are there any of those?

SS: Porgy is it. It’s not that, I would have loved to have written the music for Carousel, there are many shows I admire. But I couldn’t have, so there’s no point in worrying about it! {laughter}

ES: Thomas O’Connor: ‘You mentioned previously that Oscar Hammerstein advised you to write about what is important to you, but how do you decide when something is just too important, or too personal or too much a part of you to write about.’

SS: He didn’t say write what’s important to me, he said write from my own point of view, which may seem like a subtle difference, but it isn’t. In other words, say what I feel – given a story; how would I feel about the story not how he would read the story, to use the humorous example that Ed bought up: if I would write it from Jud Fry’s point of view, that would be my take on the story and his would be writing it from the point of view of the territories, of America expanding itself into the plains etc. I don’t find anything ‘too personal’, I tell stories, with the librettist, we tell stories and all stories that interest you, clearly, there’s something in you that responds to the stories, there’s something personal in them, but they’re never autobiographical. I haven’t led that interesting a life that I would want to write anything autobiographical. {laughter} Seriously. But the whole point is, anything that attracts you as a story becomes then a part of you, or you become a part of it, so no, nothing would be too personal and nothing would be too bizarre.
ES: David Oldcorn asks if you could tell us which show, if any, you had the greatest difficulty in writing the songs for and what were the kind of problems you faced?

SS: Oh, the two shows that I had real difficulty in were A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Merrily We Roll Along. The first because it represented everything that I had not been trained to do as I said earlier, it was Burt Shevelove saying this is a score in which the songs do not carry the story forward, they do not exploit or explore the characters, because that’s not what the show’s about; it’s a farce, and it’s about plot and the songs are respites, he said, as they were in farces in the past and as they were, in fact, in Roman plays, they were just respites, they were little points of punctuation. And that was really hard for me to do because I’d been trained to explore character and I thought ‘what do I write about, what do I write about?’ And Burt was a great help in helping me find things to write about in that show. Merrily was another matter; I was trying to write about young song writers in a period when I was a young song writer and, very easy, I thought, ‘I’ll just be personal about it’, then I realised to write in a style that is 25 years old without making a comment on it, is very hard to do. As you all know, I write a lot of pastiche and I know how to write pastiche, and it’s always written not as a take-off but with love, but I am imitating Jerome Kern or I am imitating Cole Porter or someone like that. How do you imitate yourself without making a comment on yourself. Particularly when your style, by that time, my own personal musical style had progressed. I think it’s progression, some people would think it’s regression {laughter}, but it had changed. I didn’t write that kind of vamp anymore, I didn’t write those 32 bar songs anymore and here I was writing about two song writers who wrote 32 bar songs and believed they were going to change the world. So you can’t just write take-offs, and at the same time it wasn’t my style anymore, so it was immensely difficult to write that score.

ES: We’ve got a couple of questions about that score actually. One from Jo Webber which says ‘Why did you make the chorus lyrics in Merrily We Roll Along so difficult to learn’. {laughter} From the heart.

SS: I have no answer to that! {laughter}

ES: A question here really about the versions of shows relating to Merrily, I assume…

SS: Before you go onto that, actually there’s a sort of an answer to that. One of the things I have to be very careful about and I’m not often careful enough, is that I like to write when… I hate, what I call ‘peasants on the green’ singing where everybody sings ‘isn’t it a lovely day’ and I keep thinking well somebody there might not think it’s a lovely day so why are twenty people singing ‘isn’t it a lovely day’? And so, what I try to do is characterise. Well the result is, he’s singing his line, she’s singing her line, I’m singing mine… and it gets difficult because it becomes contrapuntal and the words bump into each other and you hear somebody else doing… and that’s why those choruses sometimes are very clumsy and it’s very hard to make them work and be honest and not do the peasants on the green. And that I think may be why it strikes you that those lyrics are difficult. Individual lyrics should not be difficult to sing; that would be my fault if the words don’t sit on the music properly, if the inflection is wrong, if it’s difficult for the tongue and the teeth, that’s one thing. But when you are singing, as in the choruses off of Now You Know and things like that, I can understand why you would complain about it, but it was my attempt to be honest to have Jerome the lawyer sing one thing and, I can’t even remember the names of the characters now, sing different things at the same time. So I think that’s why.

ES: Steve, what is your favourite kind of day. This is a question from me really, because I’m just curious to know what kind of day you have planned, or don’t you plan your days?

SS: No, that’s a baffling question. Could you answer it? Could you answer such a question?

ES: I mean I know the kind of days that I like when I get to do certain things.

SS: Well give me an example and I’ll answer it.

ES: When I have no deadlines, when I can read a book, when I can go to a movie in the afternoon, you know that sort of thing.

SS: Oh! I’m lazy so I guess every day is pleasant. {laughter}

Question from the audience: ‘How did you spend your birthday this year?’

SS: In as much isolation as possible.{laughter} I just went ‘Shhh!’. No, what I did was, as I often do on my birthday, I had eight to a dozen close friends and we celebrated together, like everybody else.

ES: We’re kind of winding down nwo folks but there’s a question here from Rona Topaz which is kind of personal but it’s about a song which I’m particularly fond of too; the title song in Anyone Can Whistle. It says ‘the song Anyone Can Whistle is about an emotionally repressed person who would like to learn to become less inhibited. Have you ever felt this to be an issue applicable to your own circumstances and if so, do you feel as if you’ve changed as you’ve matured, into a more relaxed person and if you feel that you have changed as you’ve matured do you feel as if this is change for the better?’

SS: I’m afraid that was the beginning of this thing of, ‘oh, you see, he writes about himself’. Anyone Can Whistle was a song written about a very specific character; a girl who could only feel free when she put a wig on, and who couldn’t whistle which was Arthur Laurents’ metaphor for being repressed. Arthur wrote a lot of plays about repression, Do I Hear A Waltz, I’d say; Time Of The Cuckoo is about a repressed lady, and so I wrote strictly for the character and people said ‘Ah you see he’s singing about himself’. It may be true of me; it may not. I think of myself sometimes, as I think all of us do, as repressed and sometimes as not repressed, but Anyone Can Whistle is no more a personal song. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it to all of you again, the only personal songs I’ve ever written are in Merrily We Roll Along and it’s Opening Doors and the cocktail party, Good Thing Going, not the lyric but the idea of performing at a party where everybody talks while you’re singing. Those two years that are covered by Opening Doors where you are young and eager and you think you’re going to conquer the world and you knock on doors and you get accepted then you get rejected, all that sort of stuff and where you are close with people who are doing what you’re doing – that’s very personal. And Opening Doors is, in its own way, my life at that point in my life and the cocktail party thing. But otherwise, everything is for the character, and if the character has characteristics that match me, then maybe it makes it easier for me to write, I don’t know. Maybe my understanding of Fay in Anyone Can Whistle was quicker and greater because there’s a part of me that is like Fay, but it certainly was not autobiographical in any way and in no conscious way. I wrote that song as far as I know, as far as my conscious mind goes, entirely for the character and that’s not a cop out, it’s just true.

ES: Here’s another question: ‘Are the sub-plots of Sweeney Todd in some way related to The Barber of Seville?

SS: No, they’re entirely Christopher Bond and then Hugh Wheeler doing a slight gloss on it. Hugh changed the love story a little bit in terms of how it is apportioned throughout the show. In Chris Bond’s script, the love story starts later and so we start it earlier, but essentially it’s Chris Bond’s invention. If he was influenced by Barber of Seville, which I don’t think he was, then there would be. But no, if there’s any operatic overtones for you, it’s coincidental, it’s merely they sing moderately elaborate duets and that sort of stuff. I think when people say Sweeney Todd is operatic, they’re not so much talking about story, or even attitude as they are about the use of trios and quartets and duets that, you know, are marginally more complicated than a lot of shows, well more complicated than a lot of shows and marginally more than some. But you know, they’ve been done before it’s just that there are a lot of them in Sweeney and it’s also because Sweeney works very well as a story and I think therefore the totality is greater than the sum of its parts.

Audience Member: ‘How do you feel about your work being translated into foreign languages?’

SS: Well the trouble is I have to rely on the expertise of the people in those countries to tell me whether they think the lyrics have been well translated or not because I know very few foreign languages. I have a smattering of French, and a smattering of Italian – the romance languages – but you know when I see a Swedish translation all I see are those little lines and dots. You know, Sweeney Tödd, I can recognise that, but that’s as far as it goes, and when it came to the Japanese, luckily I knew an American, John Weidman and I both knew an American so when they did Pacific Overtures over there he was able to tell us, in fact he worked on the translation and saw to it that it sort of was close as possible to what we wanted. But you know translating, particularly as I’m a very verbal writer as you know and often in the shows there are tongue-twisters and elaborate puns and plays on words, translating into a foreign language is very, very, very, very difficult for the translator. So all I really care about and I try to find out, is the sense of the song and the sense of the story and the sense of the script being translated because as far as nuance goes, a) I wouldn’t know, b) I wouldn’t know how to improve it even if I thought it was wrong. So all you can go for is, is the thrust of the show coming across to the foreign audience? And generally, the answer is yes, because usually the translators who take it under their belts to do a very thankless and hard job must love the material, and if they love the material then they’re going to try to be as faithful to it as possible in terms of what it’s saying as opposed to the individual moments, so generally I think it probably comes out very well.

Audience member: ‘I just wanted to ask – a lot of your songs portray dysfunction in relationships brilliantly and whether you’d say you ultimately have a pessimistic or optimistic view on human relationships.’

SS: I’m neither because I’m pessimistic about that relationship, I’m optimistic about that one… you know. As all of us. But people forget, they say ‘Oh you see he’s the master of disillusion’. Well hello, let’s look at plays from the Greeks on – they’re all about dysfunction! What is drama about, it’s about dysfunction! Is Macbeth happily married? {laughter} Where is the drama unless there’s dysfunction? It’s the coin of the realm, it’s the lingua franca, it’s the currency, so yes I’m optimistic about some, and pessimistic about others. Not only in my own life and friends but I’m optimistic about one couple in Follies and not about the other couple. But that’s just my opinion.

Question from the audience: ‘If you could be a fruit, what would it be?’ {laughter}

SS: I would like to have a lot of thought on that subject so I could give a clever answer like a strawberry because the seeds are on the outside, but I have to really think. I don’t know, that game of if you could be a blank what would you be, I don’t know, a fruit. Goodness. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I wish I had a good answer for you, but I’d have to sit here and think and we’d all grow old.

Edward Seckerson wishes to thank Lynn Chapman, Thomas O’Connor and the Stephen Sondheim Society for their generous support, and of course the man himself, Stephen Sondheim.

Posted in Asides


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