Sondheim spoken here

May 1, 2009
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Missed the Stephen Sondheim/Scott Simon chat that occurred on the stage at IU Auditorium last night? Sorry to hear that. It's not the same thing as being there, but I'll empty the notebook for those who weren't part of the sizable crowd that gathered to hear the legendary composer/lyricist talk about his career and work.

 --"Dear Office Krupke," according to Sondheim, doesn't belong in "West Side Story" (for which he wrote the lyrics). As it stands in the show, the song happens after the two deaths--not the place for a comic number. He made a case during the show's original development that it should be switched with the first act's "Cool." Choreographer Jerome Robbins wouldn't, because he needed the whole stage for "Cool" while he could do "Krupke" up front while a scene changed. Robbins promised Sondheim that he'd switch them if there was ever a film version. He did just that. The button on the story, though, was Sondheim's comment "And it doesn't work."

--Sondheim's definition of failure: A show that doesn't make its money back. "And that's meaningless. There are plenty of artistic flops that make money."

--He quoted George Bernard Shaw's adage that there are three elements in creation: imagination, observation and experience. You can do without one but you can't do without two. Sondheim said he himself has imagination and observation skills and makes up for lack of experience by using the other two. He noted the example of writing "Company," a show about marriage, when he has never been married. To effectively write it, he sat down with Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, and asked her to tell him everything she knew about marriage.

--"Most of my harmonies," said Sondheim, "come from Ravel."

-- Do naps help the creative mind? "It's about cowardice, not creativity."

--The Sondheim song he'd want us to go home and listen to: "Multitudes of Amy," which was cut from "Company."

--People now think that the phrase "Everything's coming up roses" is an old show-biz adage. Wrong. Sondheim made it up for the lyrics in "Gypsy." And on first hearing the song, his collaborator's  reaction was "Everything's coming up Rose's what?"

--He seemed to have mixed feelings about the semi-bilingual production of "West Side Story" now on Broadway. It's initially more menacing, he said, "and then they start to dance and somehow you're not frightened of them." And, he noted, with Sharks speaking both English and Spanish, "the Jets seem kind of dumb."

--He repeated his oft-stated embarrassment about the lyrics to "I Feel Pretty," saying that the line "It's alarming/how charming/I feel" isn't in character for Maria and "would not be unwelcome in Noel Coward's living room."

--In spite of repeated requests not to take photos, a few audience members kept at it. Truly rude and baffling.  

--Best story of the night concerned Sondheim's performing of songs from "Gypsy" to cheer up an ailing Cole Porter. One of the proudest moments in his live, Sondheim said, was surprising Porter with the word "Amigos" in the song "Together Whereever We Go" "He didn't see it coming," recalled Sondheim.

--One of the shows Sondheim initial tried to write was an adaptation of "Mary Poppins" (before the movie, of course). He said he couldn't solve the problem of how to turn the episodic stories into a solid narrative adding, with bite, that Disney couldn't either.

--Quote from Oscar Hammerstein to the young Sondheim, after looking over his musical and being asked for an honest opinion. "I'm not saying you aren't talented. I'm saying it's terrible."

--Note to budding theatrical composers: When writing a song for a musical, "always have a staging idea. Give the director a springboard. It doesn't matter if he uses it or not."

--Next up for Sondheim: An annotated book of his lyrics, which he's been slow to write because "Prose is not a natural language for me. I get impatient with prose....I have a voice but no style."

FYI: IU Theater will be staging Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" next season. Liz Callaway, who was in the original company of Sondheim's "Merrily We Role Along," will be performing at the Cabaret at the Connoisseur Room in June. If anyone else knows of any upcoming Sondheim-related activity, by all means post it here.

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  • Of course it is not the same as being there, but Lou, I really appreciate your taking the time to write this up for those of us who could not be there.

    I love the George Bernard Shaw adage. I had not heard that before.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall of any conversation in which one person is answering another person's request to tell me everything you know about marriage. Hah! And I would now like to see/read/or hear Company.

    In general I agree with the naps = lack of courage thing, but sometimes naps truly are about exhaustion and empty wells. Sometimes they truly do help.

    I love, love, love, I'm not saying you aren't talented. I'm saying it's terrible. Very funny and not at all helpful...but somehow encouraging nonetheless, right?

    Oh, I am glad to have had the chance to read ALL of this. Thanks, Lou!

    Hope Baugh
    Indy Theatre Habit
  • ... and if you thought the Sondheim interview was good, you should have heard Lou and Cindy Harry debriefing on it (and a wide range of other topics, from Tom Waits to public art) in the car on the ride home. My privilege. My delight. Sorry, though: No notes. I was driving. At some point in the evening, I chose my one-word description of Mr. and Mrs. Harry: Devoted. Fun to be around them, a blast to see them together.
  • I really enjoyed going to this. Thank you so much for letting me know about this through your blog. I had heard a few things before, mostly the Alarming how charming I feel bit, but the rest was all new. Company is my favorite musical so I was thrilled to hear most of his stories were about that, especially how he kept Katharine Hepburn awake when he was writing The Ladies Who Lunch.

    My only complaint is that I wish it was longer so he could go into more detail on some of his shows like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

    Also I'm still in shock by people still taking pictures through the show.
  • 1) i thoroughly enjoyed stephen sondheim's stories. 2) i love the fact that my husband actually has a recording of multitudes of amy. 3)and, i love john thomas.
  • I love being around Lou and Cindy, too. :-)

    Hope Baugh
    Indy Theatre Habit
  • Sondheim-related activity...
    Me singing the entire score of Sweeney in my office.
    Courtesy of a new midi site I found...
    http://www.hamienet.com/Broadway_Musical
    Some of it sounds like a calliope but who cares.
    Fun is fun and it sounds like you had some in Bloomington.
  • Living in London at the moment, and love keeping track of what's going on in Indianapolis through your site. Even added a link on my blog...
  • Thank you so much for posting this! As someone who lives far away and couldn't attend, it's much appreciated!
  • Thank you for sharing the experience. Really wish I could have gone, Footlite's done several Sondheim shows, and it would have been wonderful to see him in person. Your thoughts make me feel almost as if I had been there.

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