In the fifth and final part of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim’s shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd,Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. I interviewed him in a hotel room in New York. He had a show in workshop—Wise Guys, later renamed Road Show [currently receiving its European premiere in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory]—so he was writing at night and rehearsing by day, but his energy seemed undimmed.
You met Oscar Hammerstein when you were around thirteen?
I was thirteen exactly. When I was fifteen he took me to the first night of Carousel in New Haven. He took me and his son Jimmy, who was a year younger than I, and it was during our spring vacation at school so we were able to do it. I don’t even remember when I saw Oklahoma!: it certainly wasn’t on the first night, and I’m not sure how close I was to the family by the time Oklahoma! opened. I was close but not as close as I was in Carousel, because I remember that one of the high points of my childhood was being asked for advice on Carousel, when he and Rodgers were writing it. They wanted the opening of the second act to be this treasure hunt on the island, and I was into treasure hunts, so I was the treasure hunt consultant.
He’d give you brilliant advice subsequently.
Yes, he—that dreadful word—he critiqued my work. I showed him everything I wrote from the age of fifteen on, and he treated it absolutely on a level with professional work. He never pretended for one second that I was a child: he just treated it seriously, and I learned a great deal very quickly. I’ve said before: as a result of Oscar I think I probably knew more about writing musicals at the age of nineteen than most people do at the age of ninety.
What was he like?
He was exactly the reverse of the image of his lyrics. He was a very sharp city boy, as opposed to somebody who sat on a porch with a stick of hay in his teeth and looked at the cattle. Which he also did. But he was a very good critic and very sharp-tongued. Not mean but sharp. He was in fact a sophisticated man. I once asked him why he didn’t write sophisticated musicals, and he said: you mean musicals that take place in penthouses with people smoking with cigarette holders? I said: well, yes, if you want to put it that way. He said: because it really doesn’t interest me. And in fact it didn’t: what interested him was quite the reverse of what his life was like. Not that he was a partygoer or anything like that, but he was a sophisticate. He was enormously kind and generous, and a true idealist and a true optimist. What he writes about often in his lyrics, that did fit him: he was an optimist. I won’t say he always looked on the lighter side, but he believed in the better part of mankind not in the worse. And he did not die a disillusioned man.
Did the book musical come into being as a result mostly of Oscar Hammerstein’s work?
Prior to Showboat, musicals were essentially collections of jokes and songs, and even after Showboat most of them were. Hammerstein virtually alone pioneered the idea of trying to tell a story through music, trying to meld the European operetta influence and the American freewheeling jazz musical-comedy influence—I shouldn’t say influence, but, he melded those two streams of presentation into one. Which resulted in a kind of American operetta. From Showboat to Music in the Air and through the 1930s, his star rose and fell, and he resuscitated it with Oklahoma! when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers, who brought a different kind of sensibility. Jerome Kern, with whom he did most of the shows, was very much a European composer. Rodgers was much more a kind of American vernacular composer. And the result of that was Oklahoma! And Oklahoma!, though today it seems very naive as a story and rather naive in terms of the depth of the characters, nevertheless, because of its enormous success, influenced musicals ever since. Innovative musicals mean nothing if they aren’t successful, because nobody pays attention to them. If, for example, Threepenny Opera had been a success in this country, musicals might have matured much more quickly. It was only when it was done off-Broadway in the early fifties that the Brechtian musical came into being. But the book musical really can almost solely be attributed to Hammerstein’s efforts.
Is it a question that can be answered with the book musical whether the music or the book comes first?
No, I think the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song. Why should they sing? It has to be a group of characters and a story that you’re not just enhancing by adding songs but in which musical expression becomes intrinsic. I think any good musical starts with the book, the libretto, the idea, the story, the characters. I can’t work on anything until I’ve discussed for weeks and sometimes months with my collaborator what the story is, why is music needed, why is music intrinsic as opposed to decorative, and what will music do to the story. When I was writing Sunday in the Park with George, I was really frightened that the music would tear the delicate fabric of what James Lapine was trying to get at in terms of the creation of a painting. You must start with libretto, all the strong musicals have strong stories. One of the reasons that West Side Story attained its popularity—apart from the success of the movie, because it was not all that popular when it was done on the stage on Broadway—is that the story is such a good story. Something happens all the time.
With the exception of you taking the musical in a different direction, why did the book musical die?
Oh, it hasn’t died it’s merely gotten swollen. The so-called sung-through musicals… Les Mis is a book musical. If you’re talking about the musical in which there’s speech and song, speech and song, it didn’t die so much as become subsumed by the success of the sung-through musicals, mainly stemming from Britain. And audiences now are very used to the sung-through musical. But whatever you think of the book, the Disney musicals have books. And Ragtime is a book. It’s not dead: in fact, more likely, the sung-through musical is on the way to either being transformed or being dropped for a while.
It got disconnected from popular culture with the coming of rock ’n’ roll.
The effect of rock ’n’ roll on musicals is the equivalent of the effect of television on theatre or movies on theatre. It’s made both musicals and theatre in general—I don’t say a cottage industry, but you know, it’s no longer the only game in town, it’s not even the major game in town, theatre. It’s a—I want to avoid the word ‘elitist’—but it does appeal to and attract fewer people, at least in this country [USA] than it used to. I mean, what’s deplorable about the American theatre on Broadway is: you look at the list and it’s twenty-four musicals and two plays. And in London the last time I counted it was fourteen musicals and eight plays. That’s not good. Now the off-Broadway theatre and the fringe theatre is very much alive, and people are writing plays, but not an awful lot of people can fit into a two-hundred-and-fifty-seat house—two hundred and fifty people can fit in—for six weeks, which is what you have in London in the fringe theatres. So how many people are gonna get to see that play? Unless it transfers to the West End, which few of them do. And the same thing is true here. So I fear it’s not so much the death of the book musical as the gradual fade of theatre and musical theatre. I don’t think that we’ll ever fade entirely, because I think there’s always a hunger for live storytelling. But it’s never going to be kind of the central entertainment again, it just isn’t.
This is the final instalment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre’ special, featuring edited extracts from Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People. The full interview with Stephen Sondheim is published in the new paperback edition of the book. To order your copy at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.