Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”
But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.
Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.
Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.
That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”
Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.
Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?
Sheldon Harnick isn’t going to be 90 until next April, but the celebration of that milestone kicks off October 27. That’s when Brooklyn’s Encompass New Opera Theater honors one of Broadway’s greatest lyricists at its annual gala.
The group works with young composers of musical theater and opera. Harnick has been associated with the company for 40 years. So even though he didn’t want to rush the big nine-oh, he agreed to go ahead. A who’s-who of Broadway is involved, including Harold Prince and the Stephens, Schwartz and Sondheim.
Harnick is right at home in that pantheon of the American Songbook. He and his long-time partner Jerry Bock were the musical team behind “Fiorello!” (which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (nine Tonys), among other plays.
And age hasn’t slowed him down. He’s shopping a new musical based on a Molière play, “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” There’ll be mini-productions of five of his lesser-known plays at the York Theater in Manhattan later this season. And he and his wife, Margery, have collaborated on a coffee table book, “The Outdoor Museum,” which combines her photographs of New York with his poems.
The lyricist spoke to The Arty Semite from his home in East Hampton about what’s going on in his life, early negative reaction to “Fiddler” and how Sondheim almost derailed his career.
Curt Schleier: With this big birthday coming up, do you think back and say, “Holy Moly. This was a great life”?
Stephen Sondheim turns 83 today — a birthday always worth noting, though this time it will pass without an entire year of galas and concerts, as was the case on the composer’s 80th. Even considering the Jewish contributors to modern American musical theater — Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein (and many, many more) — it is Sondheim who has done the most to explore what is possible within the boundaries of the musical form. He is constantly pushing and reinventing, making musicals about ideas, themes, and plots that few other composers would have taken on. As such, I have selected what I consider to be his three finest musicals, though dissent in the comments section is welcome.
“A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”
In fact, there isn’t really a plot at all to Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which is what makes show such an important break in the history of the American musical. “Company” derives its content from a series of one-act plays written by George Furth, all about a couple in a relationship and an outsider. In the finished piece, the outsiders were composited into a single character, Bobby, with each song a one-act play in itself, a window into the life of Bobby and his relationships with these married couples.
Last night, as a performance of “An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” drew to a close, one of those unscripted, magical moments on Broadway unfolded before an appreciative crowd at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
As the audience cheered wildly and applauded the veteran stars for their musical theater revue of songs from such hits as “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “Follies” and “Gypsy,” Patinkin told the crowd that he had been nervous the whole night.
He said that just before the show began, LuPone had told him that Stephen Sondheim was in the audience. Moments later, the pair opened with the quick clip of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” They went on to sing another dozen of his songs, along with classics by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
There is exactly one perceptive sentence of dialogue in “Chasing Heaven,” now playing through August 26 at CSV Flamboyan as part of the 15th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. It comes rather late in the proceedings, when the two main characters, in grudging collaboration on a rewrite of a very familiar-sounding piece of iconic theater, come to an impasse over whether or not to cut a villain dubbed Trout Bait from the revised version. One argues that Trout Bait is a racist and offensive portrayal of Blackness: a lying, gambling boozer. The other points out that, while Trout Bait may be all of those things, the show can’t afford to lose him because “he moves the work along and he gets to sing a lot of great stuff.”
This line gets at the most basic tenet of live theater, and what should separate even the most cerebral, “issues”-minded work from a debate in a freshman “Race and Diversity” lecture: A play is, above all else, a story. It helps immensely if that play also has characters interesting enough to make an audience care about whatever story that is. This, unfortunately, is a concept that “Chasing Heaven” fails to grasp, making the bit about Trout Bait memorable only for making me desperately wish it were heeded.
The play chronicles the creative struggle of Kinshasa “Tree” Morton (Christine Campbell), a Pulitzer Prize-winning black novelist commissioned to rewrite “Chasing Heaven,” a broadly drawn, dialect-heavy black folk opera from the 1930s, and make it more palatable to modern audiences. Along the way, she is haunted by the ghost of show’s creator, famed Tin Pan Alley composer/lyricist Joshua Gerwitz (Greg Horton), who is ticked off by the way Morton is tampering with his most famous work. The timeline of the plot shifts between Gerwitz writing what he originally titled “Chasing Hebben” in 1935 and an artistically blocked Morton pacing around a skeletally furnished room of the Gerwitz estate in 2008. These chronological jumps couldn’t be more straightforward; nevertheless, an enthusiastic “curator” (Daniel Carlton) is on hand to announce each one, in case anyone gets confused.
A notoriously anti-Semitic poet claimed that April is the cruelest month; all the more reason for Manhattanites to sweeten it with delightful classical concerts redolent with Yiddishkeit. On March 29, the Israeli-American violinist Yuval Waldman will perform “Music Forgotten and Remembered” at Merkin Concert Hall, including such rarities as Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1952 “Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes,” and works by two Czech Jewish composers: Gideon Klein, who was murdered at Auschwitz, and “Colloque Sentimentale” (A Chat about Feelings) by Jaromir Weinberger.
On April 4 at Weill Recital Hall, “A Fine Romance: Songs by Jerome Kern is presented by The New York Festival of Song, featuring Joseph Kaiser and Kelli O’Hara in Kern’s suave melodies. For more fiery temperament, on April 5 at Merkin Hall violinist Elena Urioste will perform “Carmen: fantasie brillante” by the Hungarian Jewish composer Jenö Hubay with pianist Michael Brown. And, on the same day, a series of concert performances (continuing through April 9) of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company begin at Avery Fisher Hall starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Yet a self-annotated volume of his lyrics due out October 29 from Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, “Finishing the Hat,” still seethes with resentment. The book’s subtitle, “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” should have the words “grudges” and “whines” printed in boldface capitals.
Reviews from decades ago still gall Sondheim, who attacks such now-venerable critics as Robert Brustein (dismissed as “condescending”) and Arlene Croce, with the latter accused of displaying “willful bitchery or natural stupidity” in a review of “Follies” (1971). Even more surprising is Sondheim’s contempt for past great lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, “too often convoluted and [Lorenz] Hart too often sloppy.” Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, according to Sondheim, “lack energy and flavor and passion.”
Crossposted from Haaretz
This year marks the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, the American lyricist and composer who with his own two hands changed the face of the stage musical in the second half of the 20th century. During his more than 50 years of activity he has created a huge variety of works, in terms of both genre and supply of roles. The fact that he is still around (he is Jewish, though this is not especially evident in his work) gives producers additional incentive to put on his work.
A theater visit to London this month has turned into a Sondheim celebration for me. Concert versions of his works are underway in the city (including “Company,” featuring Adrian Lester — who already played Bobby, the bachelor who studies the lives of his married friends, in an excellent London production). And the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden — which for 17 years has consistently been putting on excellent productions that go on to conquer the West End, Broadway, Los Angeles, Australia and Brazil — is now staging a production of the musical “Passion,” which Sondheim adapted in 1984 from the film “Passione d’amore” by Italian director Ettore Scola. In honor of the production, Sondheim came to London and discussed his works before an audience in that same hall.
The not-for-profit Off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons, ever alert to finding new fundraising attractions, has decided that this year’s Online Auction — which ends April 29 — will include dinner with songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who turned 80 on March 22.
The only hitch is that the leading bid so far is already $5,200.00.
For bidders eager to at least get some possible market tips in exchange for their contribution, Playwrights Horizons also declares that Robert E. Rubin, Former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Citigroup executive, will “treat you and up to three of your colleagues to lunch at The Grill Room at The Four Seasons.”
The leading bid for that lunch is also $5000. But can Rubin sing “Send In The Clowns”?