Sondheim. Photo by Bernard Gotfryd, 1972.

During my recent trip to London, I attended a conversation between Stephen Sondheim and director Dominic Cooke, the director of the revival of Sondheim’s Follies, from the stage of the Olivier Theatre at The National where Follies was playing.  Cooke, an Oliver Award winner and past Artistic Director of the Royal Court, is an Associate Director at The National.  We in the audience were  not told we could not record the conversation, so I recorded it for the readers of  Here is an excerpt of that conversation.

DOMINIC COOKE:  What are the differences between American and British audiences?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM:  The British theatre is so much about language.  And since language is, shall I say,  a passion of mine that is, I think, the central difference about British audiences.  The other important thing about British audiences is that they are becoming more like Americans.  There are standing ovations for every kind of show.  The audiences remind themselves of themselves, which is what that is about.  That used not to be true in British theatre.  But I just find the reception is more condign over here generally. That’s not to mean not that the notices are better.  I can feel it in the house.  I really can.  So that’s the essential difference.

DC: As I began work on Follies,  I became  really interested in the tension in your work – not only in this show, but across a lot of your work – between the context of the Broadway musical and your work as an innovator.  Because, for me, you are always pushing forward and exploring new forms.  Have you felt that tension – especially in the early days when trying to get the work on?

SS:  I never really felt the tension because I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, who was an experimental playwright. People think of him as sort of a cliché.  But quite the reverse.  He was an experimental playwright.  So I grew up with that as a …. ah … as a work ethic.  And then the first professional show I did was West Side Story which, in its own way, was experimental.  So I am used to that.  I never occurs to me to be experimental.  I have never been in the middle of writing a show when I felt, “Oooooo … wow … I don’t if they’ll … oooo …you know, get this .. ooo …wow …”  I am a firm believer in the process dictating and if a form requires curlycues, then that’s what it does.  If it requires straight-form, that’s what it does.  It never occurs to me.  Therefore, from my point of view, there is no tension at all.  It’s just going at it.

DC:  Is it primarily from Hammerstein that you learned that idea?

SS:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  He articulated a lot of things, but he didn’t articulate that.  I don’t think he thought of himself as an experiment playwright.  But Oklahoma! in its day was a shocker.  And yet I don’t think he thought that.  He just thought, “This is the way we’ll open the show. We won’t have a chorus.  We’ll just have a guy come on singing a cappella.”   And everyone was “Ooooooo!!!!!”  It was easy, in a way, for him.  Showboat was the first of his experimental shows.  Now it seems like someone that’s just been there all the time in an old chair.  But not when it was done.  It was really a starburst. 

DC:  Regarding material, what is it that draws you to something to make you think you can make a show out of it?

SS:  A librettist. Someone calls me and says, “How about?  How about?”  I rarely start a show by myself.  I think the only show I started entirely by myself was Sweeney Todd.  But almost every show I’ve ever done was either brought to me by a writer or, in a couple of cases, by Hal Prince as a producer and director.  I rarely start something by myself.  Sometimes if there is a writer I want to work with, I ask if there is something they might like to work on, have you got any ideas. That’s how Follies started.  I went to Jim Goldman, who was a friend.  He’d actually written a play which Joan Littlewood directed here, called They Might Be Giants which I always thought would make a wonderful musical.  It’s a fantasy set in contemporary times about Sherlock Holmes and psychiatrist who’s a lady named Dr. Watson – because he’s crazy.  I wanted to do that, but he said, no, because Joan was involved with it.  So I said, “Let’s find something.”  He then said, “Well, I saw this clipping in the newspaper the other day about this reunion of the Ziegfeld Girls.  Did you know they get together every year and it’s been 75 years?  And I’ve always wanted to do a piece about a reunion.  What would you think about that?”  So I said, “Let’s try,” because I wanted to work with him.  That was true of James Lapine as well when we did Sunday in the Park with George.  I had seen a play that he’d done and thought it was terrific and thought: I have to meet him.  And he was thinking the same thing about me.  So sometimes it just starts with the person. Other times, as with Sweeney Todd, you just suddenly see something or read something …

DC:  It’s just a kind of a moment

SS:  I can’t do a kind of college thesis on the themes of Stephen Sondheim shows. I’m sure there is some psychoanalyst would say, “Aahhh … yes … you see, all his shows are about …” . I have discovered recently that most of the shows I have written are about friendships.  There is a production of Merrily We Roll Along in New York now which emphasizes that and I thought, “You know, that’s true of a lot of stuff I’ve written.”  But I don’t know if that’s a theme or not.  Since I don’t read a lot, I don’t get a lot of ideas that way.  But I do turn to writers whose work I have seen and I say, “You’re somebody I’d like to work with.”

DC:  I had an interesting conversation recently with a playwright who’d done his first musical.  He’d had quite a a lot of plays on.   And he said he struggled for the first two years – it took a while for him to create the show – and he said the hardest thing was realizing  that the best moments had to go to the composer. 

SS:  That’s true and not true.  I tried to get Peter Shaffer to write with me quite often because I really liked his work and I really liked him, and he said that same thing to me.  He said, “You’ll get all the fun.”  To a degree that’s true.  But people who aren’t as musical as Peter was – but who are musical like Arthur Laurent who wrote West Side Story and Anyone Can Whistle and Gypsy – they enjoy writing into music.  It never occurred to Arthur that I got all “the fun” with “Rose’s Turn,” but some playwrights do feel that, that they’re writing to the big moment and then the composer comes in.  So I can understand that. Now this fellow who was having trouble writing – I assume it was a man 

DC:  It was a man, yes.

SS:  I assume he was working without a composer/lyricist. 

DC:  No.  He was with a composer/lyricist.  But I think it was just hard for him to let go of those moments of change because quite often those are the moments when a song or music is required.

SS:  Sure.  Sure.  It’s all about that moment of moving from point A to point B.  That’s one thing that Oscar laid out for me in a song, that the characters in the scene should be different at the end of the song than they were at the beginning.  Not a big difference.  Just that they are learning something about him-or-herself or the other characters.  Yes, it is about points of change.  And actually music can speed up those points of change.  One of the things that music does in a musical is it speeds things up.  What might take a whole scene can be done because of the power of music in four quatrains.  That’s because of the magic of music.  But I can understand why a librettist would say, “I’d like to have a long scene.” 

DC:  Once this playwright realized all that, I think he actually enjoyed surrendering to that and finding a real synergy there.

SS:  Yes.  Yes.  It’s quite remarkable because so many playwrights want to write musicals.  And I’m always astonished for just that reason.  Why do they want to surrender to that?  But if you love music, you love music.

DC:  It’s markedly different for each show, but does that division with those moments happen organically with each show?

SS:  It happens with endless amounts of talk. Every show I’ve ever done, you sit with a librettist over a period of two or three months, at least, with what I contribute to the plotting of the play and the way the librettist contributes to the writing of the lyrics.  That synergy, that is what collaboration is – when you are feeding each other and feeding off of each other at the same time.  That’s what makes a good collaboration – very much an analogy to a good marriage.  You supply something and you receive something that you wouldn’t ordinarily get if you were doing it alone.  And when you have a writer that you work with – which is why I very often work with the same writers – it’s a wonderful process, and the playwright enjoys it too.  I never sensed any resentment from Lapine or Jim Goldman about any moment being taken away from them. 

Cooke. Photograph by Eamonn McCabe, 2012.

DC:  It can be a similar thing with directors, right?

SS:  Absolutely.  And sometimes the directors – or particularly the librettists –  will say, “Well, I think that is better in the scene.”  And then it will be a scene instead.  But all that planning comes at the beginning.  That’s the hardest part of writing a musical, that collaboration.  It’s a terrible phrase that everybody uses but “you have to be on the same page.”  I once had an experience of spending a lot of time with friends and we were all having a great time of writing together.  It was actually A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  We’d  spent three years – Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart who wrote the libretto – putting it together.  So I said to my friend  James Hammerstein, Oscar’s son, when we were just about to go into rehearsal, “I feel nervous about this.  I don’t know what it is.  It may be just nerves because I’m going into rehearsal with my first musical where my own music is being done.”  I asked if he would read it and listen to it.  He read it and I played the score for him.  And he said, “The book is just brilliant.  I love the songs.”  I thought: thank God.  Then he said, “They don’t go together.”  And he was right.  It was my first time out with music so I was writing as cleverly as I could.  The music was sort of elegant and graceful.  Salon music. And the book was elegant low-comedy.  So they both had a certain kind of grace and elegance but of a different sort so that they didn’t fit.  The show suffered from that, too.  I did a lot of rewriting.  When we opened out-of-town, the show’s suffering from that was a disaster.  It was a major disaster.  When we opened it in New Haven, it was a disaster.  I feel as if I’ve told these anecdotes so may times.  But there was what they called a play doctor, probably one of the most successful directors of musicals and comedies – certainly during the first half of the 20th century.  His name was George Abbott.  He was the director of the show.  So the show opened in New Haven and the people just sat there as if they were look at – I don’t know – dead fish.  We were all standing in the back – Hal Prince, who was the producer, George Abbott, Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, and I.  We all looked at each other and said, “Do you think it’s funny?”  And George said, “I don’t know.  You better call in George Abbott to fix this show.”  So even he was baffled by it.  It turned out that the opening number had to be changed.  The original opening was mystifying to the audience.  But the point was that the show was a disaster and that opening number was a perfect example of why.  I had written this graceful, charming opening number called “Love Is in the Air.”  And then you had two and a half hours of elegant burlesque comedy.  It wasn’t low, dirty burlesque.  But it was based on vaudeville, the humor was. And the opening number was from a different show, so to speak.  I wrote another opening number, which Jerome Robbins came in to work on down in Washington. The opening number became  “Comedy Tonight,” which told the audience what to expect. There are still moments in that score that I wish I could have rewritten that are still a little precious, a little too self-conscious and clever.

DC:  I have been in productions when I think all the elements are just never going to work.  What is it like for you to come up with new material and keep your self-confidence?  How do you manage the stress of that, the pressure?

SS:  I have said a number of times that I really don’t want to write a note of music or one lyric until I’ve seen the entire show cast and performed.  Once you’ve seen a performer do something, you go, “Oh, I know how to fix that.”  You have to see it.  Well, you don’t.  Of course, you can’t.  But it certainly helps because you see when a show is in previews that what might have worked very well in the living room or in a studio is not working on the stage.  Sometimes it’s because of the actor’s approach. Sometimes it’s because the number is in the wrong place.  But you can’t tell that until you see the whole thing.  What might be a brilliant song here, is not so brilliant over there because it’s wrong in the procession of the piece.  That’s why – I’m talking about the theatre in the 20th century – the best songs were written out-of-town.  Guess why?  Because once you see it you go, “Ahhhh!  That’s what that song should be.”  Some great hit songs were written out-of-town.  And that takes some of that pressure off.  Also, at least for me, there’s nothing like a deadline. I haven’t had a lot of trouble out-of-town except for Forum.  Most of the other shows I’ve done have been in really good shape.  It’s not about luck, but about it taking a long time to get there.  Whenever I see movies about musicals being put on and they would fix the show overnight and they’d stay up all night in hotel rooms smoking cigars and eating sandwiches and they’d come out with the biggest hit of all time, it doesn’t work that way.

DC:  What I do love about that is there is a certain amount of tenacity and a certain amount of craft and pressure in making a great show.  It doesn’t just arrive

SS:  Actually, this was something that George Abbott taught me.  Well, he mentored Hal Prince and Hal repeated it to me.  We were  talking about musicals, not about straight plays, although I suspect it would work with them too.  You fix the first scene first.  And then you look at the show.  Then you fix the second scene.  Then you look at the show.  Because every time you fix something it will affect everything over here.  Quite often for the better.  Maybe it will show up what’s wrong in the second act.  The opening number in Forum was the perfect example.  Once that was fixed, the whole show suddenly worked. 

DC:  There was a contract with the audience.

SS:  Exactly. But sometimes that doesn’t happen until the fourth scene because the fourth scene is too funny, therefore I don’t believe the tragedy over there because that’s too funny.  But you have to do it in order.  You can’t do it out of order or backward.

DC:  As an example, “I’m Still Here” from Follies was created on-the-road.  Is that right?

SS:  We had a lady in it  – a sexy movie star named Yvonne De Carlo – who was playing this so-called minor part.  She had to have a number at one point in which she is remembering a song that she sang when she was in the Follies.  What we discovered with Yvonne De Carlo was that she had a great trick voice.  She could sing three octaves.  First of all, nobody knew she could really sing.  And she could really sing.  So I wrote a song called “Could That Boy Foxtrot,” which sort of had a dirty punchline, but also allowed her to play three different characters, girls with three different voices.  I thought it would be spectacular.  It was about a seven-minute number.  It bombed.  In other words, it was about the trick and not about the song.  It’s a lesson you never learn.  You just never learn.  So I decided to write something else.  We were trying to fix it in Boston, trying to figure out what to do with that moment.  I was talking to Jimmy Goldman about it.  And he just casually said, “Well, she still there.”  I went, “What?  Oh!  She still there?  I got it!  I got it!”  So it was very easy to write because I knew what was required. 

DC:  And you changed the song for the Phyllis character, played originally by Alexis Smith, in the Follies sequence at the end of the show as well while out-of-town?

SS:  That was for another reason.  I had written a song called “Uptown, Downtown” and Michael Bennett had choreographed it.  I finished that song just before we went out-of-town. It was the last song I wrote because I wrote the whole Follies sequence while we were in rehearsal. It was a major job.  The reason for that was that the idea that Jim and I had of the psychedelic Follies was fine, but I didn’t know how we were going to get out of it.  That was the problem.  So while we were in rehearsals I was writing the songs and worrying about how we were going to get out out and I had the notion of Ben beginning his lyrics and having  that Pirandellan effect.  Once that happened, everything was able to flow.  So the last song I wrote because of that delay of figuring out how to do it all was this song called “Uptown, Downtown.”  And Michael Bennett who choreographed it said, “I would really like if that had more dance energy to it and was less about the lyric.”  Because “Uptown, Downtown” was full of little clever rhymes.  It’s a good song.  And would have been fine.  Also, Alexis wanted to show off her legs.  She had great legs.  Because originally – I don’t know if you know this – “Losing My Mind” was for both women – Alexis as Phyllis and Dorothy Collins as Sally – who are both in love with Ben and the entire chorus was dressed as Bens, the women and the men.  So it was a nightmare of these two ladies singing this torch song.  Alexis came to my house during rehearsals and said, “You know, ‘Losing My Mind’ is really a beautiful song that Dorothy can sing.  I can get by singing it, but Dorothy is a real singer.  I wish I had a number instead where I could show off my legs.”  She had never done a musical and was known as a sort of sexy film star who usually played the other woman.  She was quite beautiful. 

DC:  I just love the fact that it came down to that.

SS:  It’s a musical.

DC:  It often comes down to these really practical things, I was directing a production of As You Like It and there is a really tiresome bit at the end of the play in which Touchstone talks for about three minutes.  It’s absolute rubbish.  I was thinking there was no way I could make it work and I was going to have to cut it, and then I suddenly realized that it was there for a reason: the actors who are dressing offstage need that bit to be able to change their costumes and you need something to cover it.   You are reminded that Shakespeare wasn’t just a writer. He was an actor/manager.  And quite practical. 

SS:  I learned that kind of thing from Arthur Laurents.  I told him once that a scene was going on a bit too long.  He turned to me and said, “She’s got to change her costume.” 

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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