‘An Evening with Stephen Sondheim’ @ Harris Theatre



Stephen Sondheim speaks to a rapt Harris Theatre audience, while Gary Griffin listens. Photo credit: Chicago Tribune

As the single greatest artist in the history of modern musical theatre, Sondheim could be the gruffest, most pompous person alive, and I would still pay to hear him speak. His body of work has simply been too influential in my life to ignore such an opportunity.

Fortunately for all of us, Sondheim comes across as a charming, funny, self-depreciative guy who can spin a compelling anecdote with the best of them. He loves telling a good story. Give him a topic, and he’ll discuss it at length — veering off into tangents and sidebars that you could never imagine. I mean the guy has so much history and knowledge in his head — it’s just staggering.

In a way, Sondheim’s approach to an anecdote reminds me of comedian Kathy Griffin’s stand-up routines. (Yes, I’m making this comparison.) Depending on the audience’s reaction to a joke, Griffin could spend an hour enthusiastically ripping apart Oprah and the Olson twins, where the next night, she might focus on Kate Gosselin and Barbara Walters. It’s all very free form, and you never know what you’re gonna get — especially since both Sondheim and Griffin have so much to say about their respective topic areas. Last night, for example, we laughed at an Ethel Merman story, so we got two more Ethel stories…which are always fun to hear, but somehow I feel when you have Stephen Sondheim sitting in a chair in front of you, there’s better use of this infinite wisdom.

So, to adequately cover the vast span of Sondheim’s training and resume, you really need a good moderator to politely cue him and move things along — especially when you only have 1.5 hours with the man.

Unfortunately, highly respected stage director Gary Griffin (not any way related to Kathy), who served as last night’s interviewer, ain’t it. Griffin would let Sondheim go off on his tangents, and then passively mutter a quick question about a topic I feel had been covered enough. I mean: how much do we REALLY need to know about that Rogers and Hammerstein flop, Allegro?

I got the impression that, after a while, Sondheim was trying to help Griffin move onto the next topic, but Griffin was stuck in his pre-Forum years. To be blunt: Griffin seemed under-prepared.

And before we knew it, the evening was done, and Sondheim had barely touched on Sondheim: the composer. The only major works that were discussed in any length were Forum, Follies and Sweeney Todd. Griffin tried to triage by throwing in some last minute questions about “what’s up next,” (the answer: not much — Sondheim’s working on a book about lyric writing) and what Sondheim thought of the Sweeney movie (he thinks it’s the only movie that’s been adequately adapted for the screen.)

Too little; too late. But, still, always a privilege and an honor to listen to the musings of a genius, regardless of the breadth of topics covered.

Some random interesting tidbits from last night’s talk (I didn’t take notes — all from the top of my head):

  • Bernstein inserted some unused melodies originally written for Candide into West Side Story (not sure which ones).
  • The only music written for WSS when Sondheim came on board as lyricist was part of “Cool” and the intro to “Maria.”
  • The tune that compliments the lyric “There’s a place for us,” from WSS had been languishing around for years in Bernstein’s skull. It originally was to go in “On the Town” with a silly lyric penned by Comden and Green (“There goes what’s his name”). So when Bernstein wanted to put it in WSS, the 25-year old Sondheim agreed. Incidentally, Sondheim noted that he can’t stand that lyric (“There’s a place for us”), as the word “a” rests on the longest, highest note of the phrase, which bugs him to no end.
  • He thinks Jerome Robbins is the only genius he’s ever met in his life.
  • The scene that’s now “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy was originally planned as a “dream ballet” by Jerome Robbins, with all of the characters in the show swirling in and out of Rose’s mind in dance (more of a “nightmare ballet,” I guess). But, two weeks before rehearsals, Robbins told Sondheim he wouldn’t have time to stage it. So, Sondheim and Robbins went up to a rehearsal room at the top of the New Amsterdam theatre (Sondheim on piano, Robbins acting as Rose) and, two hours later, came up with a strong outline for “Rose’s Turn.”
  • George Furth, his collaborator in Company and Merrily We Roll Along, didn’t really enjoy music — in general.
  • Near the end of the evening, we had time for a few audience questions (written on note cards), and someone asked what score received the most surprising reaction — good or bad. Sondheim groaned, rubbed his temples and grumbled “Passion.” Audiences laughed at the show — mainly at Fosca — during previews, and Sondheim and director James Lapine spent countless hours flagging where the laughs occurred, and what needed to be tweaked to fix it.
  • He revealed that a movie version of Into the Woods was in development many years ago, combining puppets by Jim Henson with live actors.
  • A phone rang in the audience, and without missing a beat, Sondheim cupped his hand to his ear and said, “That’s an E-flat.”

12 thoughts on “‘An Evening with Stephen Sondheim’ @ Harris Theatre

  1. I completely agree with you about Gary Griffin! He didn’t do a lot to guide the conversation in a meaningful way… I really enjoyed it though…

    1. Yeah. Griffin knows his Sondheim. That’s a given. However I think he should have somehow plotted out the discussion. Still, as you said, it was enjoyable.

  2. You hit it exactly right; “there’s better use of this infinite wisdom…” than “let me tell you about meeitng Bernstein…” Last night was fine but poorly paced. And Griffin was the wrong guy to lead the questioning. It was at the hour mark when the topics finally left ’50s & early ’60s stories and abruptly wrapped-up at the 90-minute mark, without touching most of his last 25-year work, beside a recitation of titles. And what was with the piano at the back of the stage? A ‘tease”? Of course, at prime prices, the audience HAD to give Sondheim a Standing O – just for showing up!

    1. Hi, Bob. Thanks for commenting.

      I forgot to mention that unused grand piano — it was a tease, alright.

  3. Loved last night. Love Sondheim. I do wish he spoke more about “newer” works. Was Gary Griffin told to focus on 1960’s and earlier?? And, the question from the audience you highlighted, it was mine! What a great treat!

    1. Hi, Kathy! Thanks for commenting. How exciting to have Sondheim address your question! Did you swoon?

  4. I can’t believe I missed it! My mom got an advertisement about it in the mail and I immediately said “Ooh! I have to remember that!” Later when I asked my mom what she did with it, she told me she threw it out. I googled, but had trouble finding it. Also, out of sight, out of mind. I’m truly angry with myself.

    1. Happens all the time with me, too, Rebecca. Got to get it on the calendar as soon as I can, or I just forget!

  5. So jealous and sad I couldn’t be there — thanks for the detailed post!

    One point of clarification though: Hugh Wheeler was Sondheim’s collaborator on ‘Sweeney Todd’ (among others), not George Furth. Besides ‘Company’, Furth collaborated with Sondheim on ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and a non-musical, ‘Getting Away With Murder.’

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