11.11.10

A Broadway Great Reveals His Secrets

Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat covers the composer’s biggest successes. He talks to Shannon Donnelly about Off-Broadway talent and why Follies never made it to film.

When Stephen Sondheim was getting ready to turn 70 in 1999, Broadway celebrated with a revue of the venerable composer's work, Putting it Together. For his 80th birthday came another revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, headlined by Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams. In between were countless tribute concerts and television specials, along with Broadway revivals of most of his major works, from Company to Sweeney Todd to A Little Night Music. After a while, it's easy to imagine those retrospectives felt a little morbid.

Gallery: Watch the Best of Stephen Sondheim

"Nails in the coffin, are you kidding?" Sondheim says, laughing. "Here's your gold watch, and thanks a million. That's the trouble when you get old enough to be venerated; you really feel the mortality coming. It's both thrilling and depressing."

The latest retrospective, however, is entirely of Sondheim's own creation. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, a beautifully-packaged hardcover combining the prolific writer's lyrics with archival photographs and short essays, is as instructive as it is delightfully dishy. Sondheim complains that mis-stressed lyrics are "a cardinal sin," explains why Lorenz Hart, the lyricist behind "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp," and "My Romance" is "the laziest of the preeminent lyricists," and recounts the frantic and inspired night he and composer Jerome Robbins spent crafting "Rose's Turn," the brassy, tour-de-force musical number that caps off the musical Gypsy.

In one particularly juicy bit, Sondheim recounts a bizarre backstage flap during the original run of Gypsy. Ethel Merman, the tremendously talented and notoriously volatile Broadway diva who inspired the Helen Lawson character in Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, summoned co-star Jerry Orbach to her dressing room, where she chewed him out for reacting to her speech during the show. "'Look,' she snapped, 'you don't react to my lines, I don't react to yours, okay?'"

So why did Sondheim decide to pen his quasi-memoir now? "I was asked to do this sixteen years ago by Knopf," he said during a phone conversation. "They wanted just a book of collected lyrics, and I thought, 'Gee, that's a lot of work to go over all this stuff,' so I said to them—foolishly—that I would only do it if I could write some essays on lyric-writing. And to my horror, they said fine!"

The publishers didn't mind the delay. "Only once or twice over the years did they nudge me. Finally, my Jewish guilt took over and I sat down and started to write. I've never written any extensive prose before, so I was…I won't say frightened…hesitant. I admire good prose style so much and I thought, at least I'm literate. I don't have a style, but I have a voice." With encouragement from writer friends including Frank Rich, Sondheim says he "started to feel [his] oats, and started having a good time."

These collected musings couldn't have come at a better time—now, more than ever, Broadway needs a reminder that the earlier generation can still bring innovation to an old art form. As the Broadway landscape becomes overrun by revivals and movie adaptations, even the most ardent theatre fans wonder if there will ever be another Stephen Sondheim.

"New authors are not getting a chance to be heard, for the most part," Sondheim says. "Shows are so expensive to produce that producers only want to do what you call 'jukebox musicals,' musicals with familiar scores where the audience is humming the tune as they come into the theatre, or musicals that have the built-in name value like Spider-Man. Any kind of original stuff unfortunately has to come from Off-Broadway or regional theatre. And it's happened a few times—there's been Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. These are pieces that, whether you like them or not, are by young writers—and by young I'm not talking about age, I'm talking about new writers who are experimenting and trying different things, and shaping musical theatre the way me and my generation did."

The general dumbing down of pop culture isn't helping matters either, Sondheim says. He has never shied away from labyrinthine lyrics, recalling in the book an incident when an indignant critic took him to task for a misheard Follies lyric—"Beauty celestial/ The best, you'll agree" can, apparently, sound like "bestial." "[W]hether it can be attributed to willful bitchery or natural stupidity on her part, her tirade cautioned me to be careful about aural ambiguities," Sondheim writes.

Audiences don't need to be spoon-fed, but "if people keep writing down to them, they're not going to get smarter, they're going to get dumber," Sondheim says. "That's not just true of musicals, that's true of movies, that's true of everything. Compare most movies today with what was most popular in the '30s and '40s—it's a different game. Although the movies were never known for appealing to the top one percent of the intelligensia—they developed a cynical theory that you can't lose money if you underestimate your audience."

Though recordings of his live performances abound, Sondheim's own movie endeavors have been uneven. Earlier adaptations of his works, including West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) are beloved classics, and 2007's Sweeney Todd adaptation was a modest box office success, netting Johnny Depp an Oscar nod for his turn as the murderous barber.

But then there's Follies. The dark 1971 pastiche musical, set at a reunion of Ziegfeld-esque showgirls, is venerated to the point of fetishization by theatre die-hards and has produced a bevy of breakaway hits like "I'm Still Here" and "Losing My Mind." It has yet to get a big-screen outing, though—not for lack of effort on the part of Sondheim and Hal Prince, the director of the original Broadway production.

Sondheim says shortly after the first Broadway production shuttered, Prince approached MGM with an adaptation idea that would trade the stage version's decaying theatre setting for a Hollywood backlot during a farewell party before the studio was sold off. The Follies film would feature real, aging Hollywood legends like Mickey Rooney, who would wander through the backlot and come across their old sets, and instead of the musical's flashback dream sequences, real vintage movie clips would start to play.

Alas, it wasn't to be. "The guy he brought it to at MGM, who shall remain nameless for the moment, said 'Oh, I don't think that's very interesting.' And the next year, MGM put out That's Entertainment, and they used exactly that technique. Follies could have made a good movie, and there still is some interest in doing it."

Abigail Pogrebin: My Role in a Sondheim FlopWhile Sondheim might not be coming soon to a theatre near you, if you live in New York there's been no shortage of opportunities to see his musicals. Most of his major works—including Company, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and, yes, Follies—have been revived in the past decade. Even now, you can see West Side Story and A Little Night Music through January 2 and 9, respectively.

Missing from the list is Merrily We Roll Along, the Citizen Kane-esque musical that shows how an idealistic young man turns into a Hollywood sell-out. Merrily ran for 16 performances in 1981 but found a cult following thanks to regional performances, and Sondheim hopes it will grace the Great White Way again soon. " Merrily is something George Furth and I worked on sporadically over a period of about 10 years to improve, and we finally got it the way we wanted to get it. So now I think it's ready to be seen again," Sondheim says.

In the meantime, he'll be hard at work writing volume two of his annotated lyrics, lest he keep his publishers—and fans—waiting another sixteen years.

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Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.