An open complaint letter to Stephen Sondheim


Pit musicians for the current revival of "A Little Night Music" warm up*

[Please note the disclaimer at the end of this post. Thank you.]

The current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, currently in previews at the Walter Kerr theatre, has a band of seven players.

The original Broadway production, sumptuously scored by Tony-winner Jonathan Tunick, featured an orchestra at least three times that size.

The 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park With George had five pieces in the pit.

The original 1984 production had over twice that many.

And before all that, there were the lackluster revivals of Company (in 1995), Follies (in 2001) and Pacific Overtures (in 2004) — all produced by the Roundabout Theatre — that also represented Sondheim’s scores with pathetically pared down orchestrations.

The more recent Company and Sweeney Todd revivals/revisals, as directed by John Doyle, required actors to play their own instruments, reducing the orchestrations, at times, to a triangle and and a flute — depending on the number of musician/actors at a given time who were otherwise preoccupied with, well, acting.

Both original productions of these two seminal shows were scored for a 25-30 piece orchestra.

Noticing a trend?

Which leads to this question for Mr. Sondheim:

Why do you treat the original orchestrations to your shows with such apathy?

I’m aware that Broadway pit orchestras are being reduced in general — with the rare exception of current revivals featuring full orchestras including Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow and the recent revival of Gypsy. And yes, John Doyle’s uniquely conceptual productions required innovative restructuring of the scores.

But, don’t you think it’s high time that Broadway is deserving of a Sondheim musical revival that uses the original charts? Orchestrations by master artists such as Tunick and Michael Starobin should be preserved and presented, not brushed aside for penny-saving reductions and conceptual productions. Especially when representing a score by a master like you.

For me, the final straw was learning that the current revival of Night Music uses reduced orchestrations (including the omission of French Horns — an instrument I played for 13 years) as well.

I simply can’t imagine “A Weekend in the Country” without those iconic Horn runs culminated by that final thrilling call (Listen now — specifically from 6:40 to the end — to hear what I’m talking about.)

This is BROADWAY, right? One expects a certain caliber of a production, especially at these ticket prices. At the very least, one expects the music in the highly anticipated production of A Little Night Music to not be whittled down to a clarinet and a piano.

(In comparison, a production of Night Music was done in Evanston a few months ago that utilized the original orchestrations for a 30+ sized orchestra — and tickets were only around $30.)

I also want to note that I’m sure this current production of Night Music uses reduced orchestrations as it fits the “chamber piece” tone of the show (I haven’t seen this production; I’m just assuming from what I’ve read.) My point is: why does “small” seem to be the default for reviving your shows? Can’t we get a full-bodied glorious orchestra playing your scores in a legitimate Broadway production? Are producers that fearful in making such an investment? Are we heading towards a future of revivals featuring kazoos and triangles?

So, Mr. Sondheim. You obviously have some clout. You’re the most celebrated theatre composer of our time — perhaps of all time. I’m sure you can put your foot down, shake your fist in the air, raise on eyebrow, roll on the floor and scream — what have you — and demand your score is represented adequately. Especially this being the seventh recent Sondheim revival (that I can recall) presented without the original orchestrations. However, you not doing so time and time again indicates to me that you really don’t value** the original orchestrations for your shows.

Which is a damn shame.

My French Horn hates you a little bit.

(*A joke. But not too far off base, as far as I’m concerned.)
(**I edited the originally posted term here as discussions on other sites were more focused on my colorful language than the topic at hand. And please note that I’ve used the word “indicated.” I’ve no proof that Sondheim cares one way or the other — I’m only making an observation.)

[Disclaimer: The above posting is strictly my opinion, obviously. I’ve based my reasoning on years of being a rabid fan of Sondheim’s work, countless listenings to various cast recordings, reading up on productions through books, reviews, articles, etc., and on the rare occasion, I’ve seen the production mentioned above as a tour or some version thereof (i.e. video broadcast). Of course, since I live in Chicago on a limited budget and am 30 years old, I’ve never seen the original productions of Company, Follies or the current revival of A Little Night Music. My argument here is about preserving original orchestrations, which are well-documented in cast recordings.]

28 thoughts on “An open complaint letter to Stephen Sondheim

  1. Whenever I’ve had a few glasses of wine, I inevitably make the observation that any thought you may ever have that you think is philosophical or original, SS has already had, put to succinct yet poetic verse, and thence set it to the most beautiful complicated music imaginable.

    This said, I make bold to speculate about the philosophy of the great one in this regard. Maybe revivals are like Thanksgiving leftovers – the first time they’re served it’s on all the best dishes, with all the trimmings. When they’re re-served, it’s on plastic plates, mixed together, and some of the more ornamental trimmings are left out.

    But, sometimes, with a particular combination of leftovers, you may create a casserole that is simpler, yet just as beloved, as the original dinner it’s based upon.

    1. Oh, Maile. That’s a load of bull and you know it. :)

      Seriously, though. I’m not saying theatre has to be some museum piece that should be preserved and presented as it was originally done 20, 30, 80 years ago. However, the trend here is that revivals of Sondheim musicals are never presented with a full orchestra. In most cases, I honestly believe it’s a cost decision, and not one based on art or interpretation.

  2. Honey I love you to death, and I applaud your passion, but I too wonder if maybe he likes the orchestrations both ways? That is, a different interpretation may serve a different production better than the original would have? Isn’t it possible for both to be effective?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kari.

      Good points, and I’m sure it’s true in some cases (Doyle’s Sweeney and Company), but not all. Especially since every major Broadway revival of a Sondheim show in the past 10 years has featured drastically reduced orchestrations*. Wouldn’t there be a single case where full — or original — orchestrations would serve the production?

      Oh, but that would be more expensive.

      Art sure ain’t easy.

      *Someone: Please correct me if I’m wrong here.

      1. The ITW revival used the same number (15 I believe) of orchestra members as the original–of course Tunick always scored it with a (beautiful) chamber orchestra sound. And Assassins 13 member pit was significantly more from the Off Broadway’s three… But yeah, point granted.

        (many of the recent revivals have been thanks to Roundabout, a not for profit group. Their PO reduced the orchestration to 8 or so–but ALNm isn’t, and has a particularly high ticket price which i think make the economics behind this more questionable)

  3. They aren’t a pit band – they are on a platform, off stage right. I think Sondheim just doesn’t care – the show isn’t changed, the orchestrations. He wasn’t the original orchestrator. It should be Mr. Tunick doing the picketing. But he probably doesn’t care either. The Horns are missed. But the show is still what it is – wonderful.

    1. So: it’s a cost decision. According to that link. Guess it costs $$ to have fancy Hollywood stars slum it onstage.

      Thanks, Kevin!!

    1. And that’s the challenge. Commercial theatre basically devours itself in this crazy modern marketplace.

      I’m sure CJZ and Lansbury are ravishing in their roles (I’m not seeing this production, since I’m broke — so I’m only going on what I’ve read in various online reports), but you have to wonder if the reductions were a choice based on art or the pocketbook.

  4. I feel the same way about Doyle’s staging as I do about the Chicago trend for “promenade” staging. You’ve done it…if you want to impress us with your “concepts”, then come up with a new one!

    (Though I actually like his Company)…

  5. And see, while I found the concept Sweeney Todd interesting, I was bored spitless watching the DVD of Company. I made it about 20 minutes in before turning it off.

  6. With the scaled down John Doyle revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, I thought that the use of the instruments with those was interesting because some of the instruments worked as a bit of symbolism, or certain groups of people played the same instruments. (Anthony and Joanna for Sweeney Todd both played cello. April, Marta, Cathy in Company all play saxophone for “You Could Drive A Person Crazy.” And I actually like the orchestration for that number for the revival. But I digress…)

    I’m also guessing that these orchestrations are from the Meiner production, and that space is smaller than a Broadway house. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    1. Thanks for this insight.

      Yes, I’m sure the reduced orchestrations work for the tone of this particular production of ALNM (again: never seen this production — just assuming).

      My point I’m failing to make here is: smaller seems to be the default for Sondheim revivals on Broadway. When will they revive a Sondheim show with a grand, full orchestra?

      1. Probably the same reason why we’ll never see a Company with working elevators, the “vocal minority” in the pit (or even a dancer who can pull off Tick Tock–I don’t care if Sondheim thinks the updated Company works better–I don’t). The fact the recent Follies revival was so lackluster and bare bones (and this is for FOLLIES!) speaks volumes… Not every Sondheim piece works better as a chamber piece (although, I do think ALNM is one that *can *work really well as a chamber piece–orchestra and setting)

  7. Well I don’t really have a horn in this race. I mean, of course I love a big, full-sounding orchestra. But I’m not sure Sondheim is in a position to demand one. I mean, I guess he could say, do it with a full orchestra or don’t do it at all. But on the whole I think he’d rather have his works performed in New York and London than not. I think he’s been around long enough to know when it’s worth picking a battle and when it isn’t. He may simply have resigned himself to a reduced orchestra and feel that it works fine, especially given the alternative.

    1. Yes, I see your point. But I want to stop you at your second sentence, as THAT’S the heart of my case here. We WANT big, full orchestras playing Sondheim’s scores, but, for whatever reason, we’re not getting them.

  8. Eric: Thanks for your comments above. I’ve amended by post to include “Pacific Overtures” — I forgot all about that one! And, again, produced by Roundabout. Which supports the theory that smaller is the default for reviving Sondheim shows due to economic concerns. And then they can try to find a way to make it “chamber-sized.”

    1. Right, of course. I’d add to that list the York Theatre revival of Merrily (I think it was ’94?) which, while it can’t be blamed on Roundabout–and was a more thorough revisal of the work than just the half assed updating Company got (did I mention I hate when they think Company works better set “now” than in 1970?)–similarly has very thin, synth heavy, small orchestrations. In fact aren’t Roundabout considering reviving this version?

      I do remember at the time, after doing the new Merrily and Company orchestrations, Tunick telling the Sondheim Review he was lucky to have the chance to do them as they offered local and amateur productions a more easily viable pit to use now (I think youc an still rent both versions of the orchestrations). Which is a valid point, but doesn’t mean I like them…

      (and while we’re keeping score, the Roundabout’s awful revival of Follies had an orchestra of 14, lavish perhaps by their standards but not compared to the original’s pit AND on stage bands)

    1. I would like to think that the concept of an “open letter to SS” should tip one off that this is a bit tongue-and-cheek. Like I would presume to know what goes on in Sondheim’s head. Or that he cares what I, some guy with a blog, thinks. Of course not.

      I’m *trying* to make a point here about preserving and honoring original orchestrations in Broadway revivals of his works. Do you have anything to add to *that* discussion?

  9. Bob,

    I respect your opinion and applaud your passion.

    There is nothing quite like the lush orchestrations offered by the originals. When the full orchestra was revealed in SOUTH PACIFIC or was featured on stage in GYPSY, the orchestrations were most definitely among the star attractions.

    As much as I loved the opportunity to hear those full orchestrations, I also enjoyed the innovative ways I’ve seen some orchestrations pared down in recent Broadway revivals, particularly in SWEENEY TODD and COMPANY, even if John Doyle’s novelty wore off a bit in the latter.

    Long before Trevor Nunn’s revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC made its way to Broadway, it began in the tiniest of spaces in London’s Menier Chocolate Factory where I was swept away, even with fewer members of its orchestra. It truly became a chamber piece, and I’ve been told that it had Mr. Sondheim himself in tears by its sheer beauty.

    Do I think he cares? Yes. Yet from what I can tell, he seems to believe that in order for each of his works to continue living on and reach new audiences, it can be changed.

    Art isn’t easy, is it?

    Cheers,

    Steve

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments, SOB!

      And I want to reiterate: I’m not questioning the impact of this production of ALNM, since I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it’s lovely. My point is: this is yet another small-scale production of a Sondheim revival, maintaining a trend going back a decade or more. When do we get a big, full orchestra revival?

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