Stephen Sondheim: An audience with a theatre legend

With his marvellous musicals still packing out theatres around the world and a West End opening this month, Matt Wolf finds the peerless Stephen Sondheim still determinedly on song

Stephen Sondheim is two weeks away from his 83rd birthday on the windy, rain-tossed March day when I visit Broadway's reigning king of music and lyrics at his Manhattan home. He hasn't stepped out yet, cautious about slipping and thereby slowing the recovery of a broken wrist sustained in a fall during a visit late last summer to London.

But anyone expecting the long-established pioneer of his chosen art form to be in any way indrawn may be surprised to find the man himself as engaging as ever – and why not? After all, the hit of the New York theatre season to this point has been an Off-Broadway revival of the composer's 1994 Tony-winning musical, Passion, revived in a Donmar-style production by John Doyle, the Scottish director who has done so much to re-focus Sondheim's work on both sides of the Atlantic. (It was Doyle who was the brainchild behind the hugely acclaimed productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the cast members doubled as their own orchestra).

And the last year in London musicals would have been pretty dismal without two Sondheim revivals that soared above pretty much everything else in town. The first, since closed, was the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, which has been nominated for six Olivier Awards. Not long after came the Menier Chocolate Factory reappraisal of Merrily We Roll Along, an erstwhile Broadway flop that continues to meet a tellingly contrasting fate in London: Michael Grandage's Donmar staging of the piece in 2000 unexpectedly won the Olivier for Best Musical, while actress-turned-director Maria Friedman's latest airing of the show is transferring this month to the West End. Its limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre will mark the first commercial engagement for Merrily since it was pulled on Broadway after 16 performances in 1981.

Small wonder, then, that Sondheim is in rangy good spirits, notwithstanding a winter cold and ongoing physiological demands that find him spending much of our conversation with his right arm outstretched so he can exercise his wrist. ("I'm 83, or will be any day now," he remarks deadpan, "and I'm falling apart." As if.) A longtime Anglophile, it's not hard to feel as if Sondheim has found a notably London-like way of living amidst the skyscraper-filled urban landscape of New York. Bought, he says, on the back of his success as lyricist of the legendary 1959 musical Gypsy, his East Side brownstone backs on to one of the very few communal gardens to be found in the city. Two sizable black poodles pad amiably about a living room that is at once cosy and commanding. And from the French doors toward the rear, one looks directly at the adjacent home that once belonged to another celebrated talent, Katharine Hepburn.

Was the screen legend a good neighbour? Sondheim roars with laughter, meeting the question with an anecdote about the time he went to respond to a sudden, and furious, banging out back, to find the multiple Oscar-winner standing there, "in bare feet – this angry, red-faced lady." What was the problem? "'You have been keeping me awake all night!'" Sondheim recalls Hepburn raging, the composer catching perfectly her signature tremolo. Apparently, his composing at the piano was keeping Hepburn from focusing on preparations next door for what was her only stage musical, Coco. "I remember asking Hepburn why she didn't just call me, but she claimed not to have my phone number. My guess is that she wanted to stand there in her bare feet, suffering for her art." A wry smile indicates that Sondheim on some level appreciates the impulse. After all, as the chequered history of Merrily itself bears out, art isn't easy, with or without shoes.

"I love the show, so I'm thrilled every time it's done," Sondheim says of the musical, inspired by a little-known George S Kaufman/Moss Hart play from 1934 that was famous both for its enormous cast and for telling its story of fraying friendships and dreams deferred backwards. Marinated in cynicism and despair, yet all the while laced with some of its composer's alternately soaring and wounding melodies ("Old Friends" and "Good Thing Going", to name but two), Merrily rewinds to a buoyant finish, which in chronological terms is also its beginning, on a Manhattan rooftop during the Sputnik era in 1957. Not that a young Sondheim was himself clambering about his home city's roofs at the time. "Don't forget that 1957 was the year of West Side Story" – the breakout hit for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music – "so I wasn't very interested in Sputnik."

Sondheim's status has long been sufficiently assured that he can poke fun at it, as he did in the 2010 Broadway musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, with a second-act opener called "God", which at the time was his first new song in six years. Sample lyrics:

"God!

I mean the man's a God.

Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd!

With a nod,

To De Sade.

Well, he's odd.

Well, he's

God!"

But back in 1981, the critical response to Merrily suggested something else. "Did I feel betrayed? I'm not sure I would put it like that. What did surprise me was the feeling around the Broadway community – if you can call it that, though I guess I will for lack of a better word – that they wanted Hal and me to fail." Indeed, the show brought to a close a collaboration between Sondheim and the director Hal Prince that had seen the two through an extraordinary creative foment that included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. (Since Merrily they have worked together only once: in Chicago in 2003 on the musical Bounce, which went on to become Road Show under the direction of, yes, John Doyle.) "It became very clear to me that if you were doing ordinary work in the theatre, then somehow that was okay. What wasn't, clearly, was to be any kind of maverick, which was in turn to invite jealousy and competition; I absolutely wasn't prepared for the wish for failure."

What does he make of theatre chatrooms in the online world of today? "Very simple: I don't read them, although I have no doubt that the sneering condescension and nastiness is still there. Along with enthusiasm, I am sure, as well."

Sondheim brightens as he recalls Prince's wife, Judy, first suggesting with regard to Merrily that "we do a show utilising young people, and Hal then thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do something about innocence corrupted?'" And he addresses the irony inherent in having experienced the dissolution of a real-life creative partnership when the very narrative of Merrily occupied not dissimilar terrain. "I was sad, of course I was, though it was Hal who said at the time, 'Think of it as a separation.' I was discouraged, and I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't discovered Twelve Dreams at the Public Theatre." Twelve Dreams was the Off-Broadway play that led Sondheim to the writer/director James Lapine, his collaborator on Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion – the trifecta that marked out a newly fertile phase in his career.

And with longevity comes the fact that people enter your life in different ways. It was more than 20 years ago that Maria Friedman played Mary Flynn – Jenna Russell's current role – in a Leicester Haymarket production of Merrily that was crucial in putting this troubled piece on the British map. Sondheim speaks with obvious delight of Friedman returning to the show, this time as director: a career shift whose advantages he knows well. "I've worked before with directors who were actors – Michael Grandage, for one, and John Doyle. So in a way I feel that what Maria has done with Merrily is what you might expect. After all, these are people who have got to know their craft by acting, so it's only natural that they should have an overall view of the piece. What will be very interesting is to see what she does next."

Sondheim has reached a point where one imagines he could fill his calendar simply travelling the globe, checking out one production after another. He laughs at the suggestion. "Nah, that's not really me. The ones I go to tend to be in cities where I've never been." He flew to Melbourne to see Geoffrey Rush play Pseudolus in an Australian revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the 1962 musical that its creator describes as his first "big success". (The earlier West Side Story and Gypsy were, in his assessment, "moderate successes", though they have of course gone on to loom overwhelmingly large in the canon, as London will discover as and when a much-anticipated Jonathan Kent/Imelda Staunton revival of Gypsy finally materialises).

"And I've obviously been to Paris, but how can I not fly over for the Châtelet?" The French capital's primary musicals venue is this month opening a new Sunday in the Park with George in the city where much of the show about the painter Georges Seurat is set. "That's exciting, but it's also scary. What you hope is that they won't think we're encroaching on their territory. That was one of the problems I know we had in London the first time around with Sweeney Todd."

As for the here and now? There's the prospect of a new song (not least for Oscar consideration, one assumes) as and when Rob Marshall's film of Into the Woods revs up in August, with Meryl Streep inheriting Bernadette Peters' Broadway role as the Witch. And Lapine is at the helm of a Sondheim-centred project for the American cable channel HBO that the composer says is largely complete. Barbra Streisand, meanwhile, remains committed to a fresh screen take on Gypsy, while back on stage, the director Jamie Lloyd has programmed Assassins as part of his ongoing season of work at London's Trafalgar Studios.

He waves his wrist by way of explaining the "hiatus" that he has been forced to take on his current project with the playwright David Ives, whose Venus in Fur was a Tony contender last season on Broadway. "I've simply got to get back on the horse, because it is true to say that otherwise you get rusty." Does he worry about health? "Well, I can tell you that the pain I experienced after my fall last September" – on a Covent Garden paving stone while in conversation with Jeff Romley, his partner for most of the past decade – "was the most excruciating I've experienced since my heart attack," more than 30 years ago. That said, in the immediate aftermath of the tumble, he picked himself up and went to a National Theatre matinee of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Art waits for no injury.

Nor does he spend undue time pondering his legacy. "I know Hal thinks about that a lot: he likes to talk about the past, to reminisce. That was part of what drew him to Merrily – the story of a dewy-eyed young idealist and what he wants the theatre to be; and there I was all those years ago just wanting to write shows. My very first show, Saturday Night, could not have been more conventional." But Sondheim speaks equally and with justifiable pride of the advances to which he has contributed and to which he can lay claim. "I look at a show like Company, which was every bit as much of a breakthrough or a watershed musical as Oklahoma! or Show Boat, though obviously in a different way. What will people make of all this after I'm gone? That can't be my concern. The truth is, I really should be writing." Time, in other words, to get to work.

'Merrily We Roll Along', Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1 (0844 871 7627; www.atgtickets.com) 1 May to 27 July, previews from 23 April

High notes: Sondheim's greatest hits

West Side Story

The 27-year-old Sondheim got his big break when he wrote the witty, romantic and memorable lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's Shakespeare-inspired smash hit.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The most operatic of Sondheim's works, and widely recognised as his masterpiece.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

This bawdy farce was based on a book inspired by the work of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus.

Into the Woods

A latticework of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, this musical won Sondheim the fifth of his six Tony Awards for best score.

Company

Sondheim's experimental work focuses on themes and characters rather than following a straight narrative – and earned him Tony Awards for both music and lyrics.

A Little Night Music

This musical features the ballad "Send in the Clowns", which went on to be recorded by Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins and many others.

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