A company man

Stephen Sondheim won't do interviews. Or present radio programmes. So what's this? Speaking on Radio 2 on Tuesday and talking to Edward Seckerson from his New York home? It'll never happen

An empty office somewhere in Broadcasting House. A desk, a chair, a telephone. It's 4.29 pm. The telephone should ring now. Soon. Later? When is later? Wait. It's quiet, it's positively Kafkaesque. It's ringing. I half-expect someone to say "It's for you". I want someone to say "it's for you", dammit. But I know it's for me. I've known for the best part of a week now. "Hi, Edward. If the BBC's paying, call me back." It's 4.30, it must be Stephen Sondheim. And he'd probably make a better job of this opening scene than I have.

So what's he doing at the end of a telephone on the very day he moves back into his fire-damaged New York home? What am I doing? I don't do telephone interviews. He doesn't do interviews. Period. And nor does he present radio programmes. The plot thickens. This Tuesday on BBC Radio 2 a six-part series entitled In Company with Sondheim takes to the airwaves. Sondheim's presenting debut. There has to be a good reason for that - a very good reason. There is. Producer Rachel Freck's new series is about young writers, work in progress, the Musical Theatre of tomorrow. The things Sondheim cares about. Enough to be interviewed about. Just.

He has, of course, been reshaping, redefining, reimagining the whole concept of "musicals" for longer than most of us have been enjoying them. He's Broadway's oldest, wisest, and most rebellious baby, still pushing at the boundaries of the form, still challenging our perceptions of that form, integrating text, music, and lyrics in ever more intriguing ways. His influence is incalculable. He's opened more doors than the faint-hearted could ever have slammed shut on him. And he's left them open for others to pass through. Actually, there's a Sondheim number called "Opening Doors". (There usually is - a number, a line, a rhyme for all occasions.) This one's from Merrily We Roll Along - my personal favourite among all his shows - and it reads and plays like the story of his life in just under seven minutes. Merrily runs backwards in time. We know the outcome before we know why. Typical of Sondheim to turn cause-and-effect on its head. But he would, wouldn't he? He's already shown us the future of musical theatre: we just need to work out how to get there.

Telephone interviews are problematic at the best of times. No eye contact, no body language (Sondheim's body language - wired, like his material - speaks volumes). Just words. And intonation. Sondheim listens to - no scrutinises - every word, and if he doesn't hear every word, you'll know: "could you repeat the last half of that sentence, please." It's unnerving. Let's just say that Sondheim is "interview wary", even among friends. The casual generalisations, the careless asides are smartly rebuffed, clarification instantly required. "I didn't say that, you said that." But then, he chooses his words very carefully - is it so much to ask that others do, too?

So here we are discussing the concept of seminar and workshop that gave rise to the BBC's "In Company" series, and I'm wondering how difficult it is to assess work that he has absolutely no affinity with. Whoops, I've chosen the wrong word. "I don't assess. I never assess work. I believe in the Socratic method. I ask questions, encourage, guide. I would doubt that I even used the words defining qualities like `good', `bad', or whatever, whereas I would say `Is this what you intended?' or `I don't understand this' or `Is this clear to everyone in the class?'. When Cameron Mackintosh and I set up our seminars in Oxford in 1990, we deliberately picked writers who represented all worlds. And I made it quite clear from the first day that there should be no sense of competition or rivalry, that this was a community effort, that everybody must speak their mind, question each other's work, question their own work..."

It was in this spirit that the Mercury Workshop was founded in 1992. This is the only writer-based organisation in Britain dedicated to the development and presentation of new Musical Theatre, and Sondheim is its patron. It is hoped that the next generation of British musicals will spawn here among the 50 or so lyricists and composers who make up the membership. So where better for the BBC to go shopping? "In Company" focuses on the latest work of six writing teams. We cast off with composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe (authors of the promising Just So) on their new musical version of JM Barrie's Peter Pan; then comes the composer and lyricist Richard Taylor with his remarkable Whistle Down the Wind (not to be confused with Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest confection), a show this writer has tirelessly (tiresomely?) championed. Sondheim had nothing to do with the choices, but sampled the scores (by way of specially recorded excerpts), made the introductions and asked the awkward questions. Some, relating to context, song placement and the like, that came up again and again. "For sure there are certain principles that I apply to everything in the way of songwriting for dramatic purposes. Ultimately I am much less concerned with whether I like something than whether I understand it. I believe it is our obligation as writers to make our work clear to an audience. Clarity is all-important. Clarity of diction in lyric writing. Clarity of intention. What is the play about? What is the song about? What are you trying to convey in terms of emotional colour? For me clarity and intelligibility are everything - everything is subordinate to that."

But clarity and intelligibility apart, what is it that audiences come to see, will pay dearly to see, have been conditioned to expect to see? The money. The glitz, the glamour, the technology, up there on stage. Sondheim knows better than most that we urgently need to capture a new and adventurous theatre audience from the grip of TV and film. Despite current New York hits such as Rent and Bring in 'Da Noise, commercial shows of some experimentation and quality that are encouraging because they appear to be bucking the trend, he is hardly optimistic (well, maybe hopefully pessimistic) about the future.

"Which is not to say that we should stop trying. I think the answer may be in smaller theatres for smaller shows with smaller casts. I've been spending the past 15 years of my life writing just such shows..."

And still is. Wise Guys - his latest collaboration with John Weidman (Pacific Overtures and Assassins) - is a project he's hung on to since he was 22. It's about the Mizner brothers - Addison, the architect who "invented Palm Beach", and Wilson, a con man and playwright, "our greatest wit after Dorothy Parker". Their lives happened to coincide with the birth and death of Vaudeville. He and Weidman hope to workshop the piece in the spring for a late summer opening in Washington. They have two producers but no director as yet. The writing began two years ago. But there have been interruptions. Which is why, says Sondheim, he is currently finding it so tough getting up to speed again. "I find I can only work on one thing at a time, and I have to virtually eat, live, and breathe it. Meaning 24 hours a day, because I am a firm believer in the unconscious doing your work for you, and I think it is important going to sleep at night with nothing else on your mind but the show, because a lot of problems get solved in dreams."

Sondheim prefers to collaborate. Not on the songs, whose music and lyrics he likes to shape simultaneously - though his early collaborations with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne proved seamless (have you ever wondered how West Side Story or Gypsy would have sounded with music by Stephen Sondheim?) - but on the book, the libretto. "It's such a difficult, specialised task. I wouldn't presume to produce my own libretto. But also I like having someone to argue with, someone to question the songs. It's stimulating to me."

He means it. And he's ready to defer to his collaborators. When Cameron Mackintosh mounted Follies in London, he expressed concerns that the show was too bleak, too downbeat. And he found something of an ally in Sondheim's librettist, James Goldman, who thought it centred too much on the role of Ben Stone. So out went one of the best songs - "The Road You Didn't Take" - and in came new ones. Now perhaps the most remarkable feature of Sondheim's art is his ability to find an individual musical voice for each show. You know it's Sondheim, but each score has its own distinct "tinta". Company is the musical embodiment of Seventies chic, Pacific Overtures seeks and finds purity in a kind of pentatonic haiku, only to succumb to the corrupting influence of Uncle Sam, Souza, and all; Into the Woods taps into the fairytale spirit of Disney; Assassins plunders the all-American songbook. As for Follies, a score so steeped in the Broadway sound of the Thirties and Forties that it manages at once to be both familiar and ever surprising, I boldly put it to Sondheim that a number like "Country House", one of the more conspicuous additions to the London version, somehow didn't belong there. "You're absolutely right. It belongs more in a score like Company. I managed to get back into Follies by doing the pastiche stuff, but I had trouble getting back into the book songs because it had been so many years since..." Radio 2 get back into the original version for their all-star production next month. Just as it was, just as it should be.

One parting shot before I finally hang up the phone. And this is a touchy one. When people say Sondheim doesn't write tunes (nonsense, of course), what do they actually mean? I have a theory and it has to do with what can only be described as his "musical impatience". It goes with his restless, inquisitive personality. How could anyone capable of fashioning something as beautiful as the middle section of "Every Day a Little Death" from A Little Night Music let it go so precipitously? Because it has a purpose (originally as the bridge section to a much larger form) and once that purpose is fulfilled...

"Look, you like opera and I don't. In opera one lingers on moments, one savours the moment, indulges the moment" (it's true, can you imagine Sondheim's Liebestod?). "Well, I write musical theatre and I'm just as interested in the theatre part as in the music part. So I don't like to linger any longer than I think is necessary to make the point, to make the moment work..." And Sondheim moments are invariably short and sweet, sweet and sour, and unrepeatable. You grasp them or not, while you can. "Look, why do you think people came out of Act 1 of Night Music humming `A Weekend in the Country'. Because they'd just had eight choruses of it! But that was the nature of the number. For years and years reprises were de rigueur in musicals. I remember Dick Rodgers asking for a reprise of one of the ballads we wrote for the first act of Do I Hear a Waltz? And I said that the same thought didn't occur in Act 2, so there was no good reason to reprise it... Obviously a song does, by its own nature, repeat certain things, but there is a limit to the amount of repetition I want to hear of either idea or tone. Most songs stay on one idea and are static. I like to move the ideas along and get not just from point A to point B, but to points C, D, E, F and G as well."

Is it any wonder that he's taken to introducing "Send in the Clowns" as "a medley of my hits"? Of course, he'd like a hit, a smash hit. But, in the words of another song, "It's never gonna happen, is it?" Not so long as audiences insist upon checking their brains in at the cloakroom.

`In Company with Sondheim' begins this Tuesday at 10pm on Radio 2. R2's new production of `Follies' will be broadcast on Sat 15 Feb at 7.30pm

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