Sunday, January 29, 2012

The loquacious, elusive Stephen Sondheim

I recently went to hear playwright Tony Kushner interview Stephen Sondheim and it's a measure of the stature of these two theater men that the 870-seat Skirball Center at New York University in Greenwich Village was sold out. Not only sold out, but at a top ticket price of $100, basically to see/hear two guys sittin' around talkin'.

The proceedings got under way at 8 pm in a bit of a lumbering fashion, with the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, greeting us since the event was part of the Public's Forum series of conversations. He provided a memorable quote from someone who didn't think much of his livelihood: "Why would you want to tell lies to strangers in the dark for money?" I might respond, "well, I certainly wouldn't want to do it for free," but then that would ignore the realities of much work in the theater.

Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and former producer of shows by Kushner and Sondheim, introduced things. Resembling the actor James Cameron a little, Landesman was lively and full of good theater anecdotes, but did tend to go on. It was edging toward 8:30 and we hadn't yet heard a word from Stephen Sondheim or Tony Kushner.

Kushner was an engaging but long-winded interviewer and I found I was torn between being glad he was there to wishing for a professional interviewer/arts journalist. The frame of the conversation was Sondheim's new book Look I Made A Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. (Funny, his first book in the series was called Finishing the Hat; you'd think it would be the other way around.)

Tony Kushner interviews Stephen Sondheim
Kushner called Look I Made A Hat a "manual of instruction" and an "adventure story," most apt descriptions as the format of Sondheim's memoir is unique: the printed lyrics and some of the most detailed, brilliant, careful and hard-working analysis of show-tune writing to be found anywhere.

When Sondheim finally did get a chance to speak, he prove to be a chatty, unpretentious interviewee with insights about his own work and musical theater in general. He's certainly not a recluse, having participated in many public interviews. 

Among the gems heard from the conversation with Kushner: Sondheim's not interested in writing opera because "you don't get a chance to fix it" unlike a musical with its workshops, tryouts and previews. He felt that "in opera, you see a lot of first drafts." One of his maxims is "less is more," but "opera is about more is more." Delightful.

Oddly, for me, he also said he can't "accept" recitative. Obviously, he'd disagree, but some of his songs almost seem to me to be recitative.

Kushner has written for a specific actor; Sondheim, never.

Sondheim doesn't necessarily need hushed silence to work. If he gets the melody stuck in his head, he "can write in a steakhouse."

They talked of how Sondheim's work is sometimes criticized for being "cold" and people mistake "smart" for "cold," to which Kushner added, "stupid people." To which I would add, "not so fast, Tony." Simply because an artist's work is not to one's taste doesn't necessarily equate to "stupid," but perhaps this slipped out as part of the generally worshipful attitude that attends such conversations.

There was a telling exchange when the talk turned toward Sondheim's collaboration with James Lapine, which resulted in Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion. (Love the first two, do not care at all for the third.)

Kushner mentioned a new openness, a longing and yearning quality to the work with Lapine and Sondheim said he was "responding to [his] collaborator." Kushner pushed a little, asking if there was something personal, but Sondheim, who only began a live-in relationship with a partner at age 61, replied that no, it was due to Lapine: "I take the coloration of the person I'm working with."

What impressed me was Sondheim's passionate commitment to the brutal process of making art. He compared it to the effortless quality of nature with this aphorism: "Art is beautiful; nature is pretty."