BWW Reviews: AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN SONDHEIM at Susquehanna University


A nearly-capacity house met composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim at Susquehanna University's (Selinsgrove, PA) Weber Chapel Auditorium with a standing ovation on entrance for AN EVENING WITH Stephen Sondheim on February 6, 2013. The legendary musical theatre giant was invited through the Dr. Bruce Nary Theatre Guest Artist Fund. Although the program was aimed at Susquehanna University theatre students, the evening's conversation was of interest to musical theatre lovers across the Susquehanna Valley, and a large number of Central Pennsylvania actors, theatre administrators, and other theatre professionals were in attendance. The evening was hosted by W. Douglas Powers, associate professor of theatre and member of Actors Equity.

Sondheim has been collaborator or creator on many of America's greatest post-Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, including WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, THE KING AND I, FLOWER DRUM SONG, INTO THE WOODS, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SWEENEY TODD, ASSASSINS, COMPANY, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and others.

Sondheim spoke extensively on American musical theatre history, notably his long-term and not only professional friendship with Oscar Hammerstein II. He first met Hammerstein when Sondheim was a student at The George School near Philadelphia and his friend Jimmy's father - Hammerstein - lived nearby. Sondheim presenTed Hammerstein with a copy of the school musical play that he had written and requested serious feedback, to have it proounced "the worst thing I ever read" by America's greatest lyricist. Hammerstein did Sondheim, then 15, the favor of going over the first act carefully with him on a Saturday afternoon. "He went over it with me for hours... I learned more about writing songs in that afternoon than I did in all my subsequent years."

He feels that Hammerstein developed for musical theatre the idea that the songs in a show could tell the story, not merely provide entertainment breaks. "Opera always knew that. He took SHOW BOAT, the Edna Ferber novel, and tried to tell the story through song. Nobody paid attention to that, but twenty years later he wrote OKLAHOMA, and they did." Hammerstein let Sondheim read, in advance of the music being added, the songs for FLOWER DRUM SONG and THE KING AND I. "He understood how songs work in an arc, not as individual slices of cake" within a show.

The songwriter also confided that Hammerstein had encouraged him to be the lyricist for WEST SIDE STORY. He added, "In the course of auditioning my songs around New York, I'd come to the attention of Arthur Laurents.... I'd met Arthur Laurents through the auditions, saw him at a party, and asked what he was oing. He told me that Comden and Green [whom Laurents had wanted for another show, not West Side Story] were stuck in a Hollywood contract... then he asked me to play for Leonard Bernstein." When it came time to work on West Side Story, Sondheim was considered.

What did he learn from Bernstein? "Mostly what I learned was not to be afraid to make a fool of yourself. If you're going to fall off a ladder, don't fall off the lowest rung.... He also taught me to be less square. I was raised on Hollywood music and 19th Century music."

"Lenny's idea of poetic writing and mine are polar opposites. His idea was purple prose. Mine is understatement - the music sells it.... [his favorite songs in West Side Story are] 'Something's Coming' and 'the Jets Song' and a couple of jokes in 'Krupke". Street kids don't sing 'today the world was just an address...'"

Asked his opinions of other Broadway celebrities, Sondheim complied happily. "Jule Styne? He referred to himself as a songsmith - if I would have one tenth of the energy he had at 65, I'd be happy." He noted that Styne would dash off first drafts, that he hated to work on again, while Hammerstein would work over one song for days at a time. Richard Rodgers? When Sondheim tried working with him after Hammerstein's death, "Dick was convinced that the well was dry, that he didn't still have the creative juice. It was the exact opposite of Jule Styne."

Of Angela Lansbury, Sondheim noted, "Angela's one of those people - Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone - they're versatile, they can do anything, whatever you've written gets its best chance... She's one of the great Mama Roses. Rose, not Gypsy - I wouldn't want to see her strip." Moving to her great Mama Rose competitor, he added of Ethel Merman, "Everyone thinks of her trumpet voice but what she was known for was low comedy. She was brilliant in the first act of GYPSY, where she hides the six children from the manager... she never understood the end, 'Rose's Turn'. Angela Lansbury understood that." And of Elaine Stritch - "You don't work with Elaine - you work AT her. No - I love Elaine. She's eccentric. She's gotten more eccentric." His conclusions on Stritch brought some of the greatest laughs of the evening.

The musical he wishes he'd written? "CARNIVAL. I was hoping David Merrick, the producer, would ask me, but he didn't." Of his own work, "ASSASSINS is the musical that's closest to what we meant - and that's hard to do in the theatre... it's hard to misrepresent ASSASSINS. That's how good the show is."

Currently, Sondheim is working with playwright David Ives, having become intrigued by a moment in one of a group of Ives' one-act plays performed at Playwrights Horizon.. "I approached [several other playwrights] about it, who didn't see it as I did - so finally I approached David Ives, who did. It's called ALL TOGETHER NOW, and I won't try to describe it."

Regarding the teaching of drama in colleges, he stated, "Theatre is a practical experience. You can read about technical skills, but you learn from doing.... You can only learn from your final collaborator, the audience. You can study playwriting, but you need an audience.... For certain arts, you can study certain things [like mixing paint colors]. But theatre requires live work."

And of what he hoped to be teaching others himself? "I've never intended to teach anything. Art teaches by just being art."

Photo Credit: Gordon Wenzel

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