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Friday, January 28, 2022

Stephen Sondheim Reflected on ‘Company’ and ‘West Side Story’ in Final Interview

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ROXBURY, Conn. Stephen Sondheim stood beside a gleaming piano in his office, surrounded by posters of international productions of many of his famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired if the visitor would be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but had not finished yet.

“Now do you want to hear the result?” Asked. Of course the answer was yes. “do you have some time?” He asked, before laughing, out loud, with a sense of hurt: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!”

It was a Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, welcomed me into his longtime cottage for a 90-minute interview with him and theater director Marianne Elliott about the revival of “The Company” now under preview on Broadway. It will turn out to be his last major interview.

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There was no indication that Mr. Sundem, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, was ill. He was engaging and straightforward, had strong opinions and comically feisty, as was the mockery of his last long-running and unfinished musical. At one point he complained that his memory wasn’t as strong as it was, but he was also telling tales from half a century that passed with ease.

He had little difficulty getting around – using a cane, asking for help getting up and down from chairs, and had obvious pain when walking – which he attributes to an injury. When asked about his health, he answered by knocking on a wooden table, “Out of my sprained ankle, okay.”

He was busy until the end. On November 14, he attended the “Off-Broadway revival” opening of his musical “Assassins,” directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company. The following night, he went to the first post-lockdown preview of a Broadway revival of “The Company” – a reimagined production, which opened on December 9, in which a woman now plays the hero, traditionally played by a man. And just this week, two days before his death, he did a double headshot, as on Wednesday he watched an attendee at “Is This a Room” and stage performance of “Dana H.” Evening on Broadway.

“I can’t wait,” he said, anticipating those shows. “I can smell both of them and how much I will love them.”

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He was not inclined to make any major statements about Broadway. “I don’t take overviews – I never take overviews,” he said. “Where’s Broadway? I do not answer the question. Who knows. I don’t really care. This is the future. Everything that will happen will happen.”

One thing he hoped would happen: another song. For years he has been collaborating with playwright David Ives and director Joe Mantillo on a new musical, his most recent being Square One, based on two films directed by Luis Buñuel.

He explained during the interview that “the first act is based on the ‘hidden magic of the bourgeoisie’, and the second chapter is based on the ‘the annihilating angel’.” , they encounter all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”

Asked if he had any sense of when it might end, Mr. Sundem said: “No.”

Why was he hoping to keep working when he could only enjoy the appreciation?

“What else would I do?” Asked. “I am too old now to do a lot of travel, I am sorry to say. What else do I do with my time except to write?”

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Was he writing daily in his last weeks? “No, I’m procrastinating,” he said. “I need a collaborator who pushes me and loses his patience.”

When it was pointed out that he had been procrastinating his entire career, and that it seemed to work for him, he said, “Yeah, I did. Yes, I think forever. Not when I was a hungry teen—when I wanted so much on a show, I don’t think I was. Procrastinated at the time. But once I finished a show, I guess a part of me got lazy.”

But with his shows on Broadway and off, and with the release of a film adaptation of “West Side Story” looming, it was clear that Mr. Sondheim was satisfied with the current reception of his work.

He confirmed his long-standing disinterest in movie theaters, saying, “Growing up, I was a huge fan of movies, and the only genre I wasn’t a fan of was musicals—I liked songs, but not musicals.”

But he was clearly pleased about the Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of “West Side Story,” a musical in which Mr. Sondem wrote the lyrics, which is due out next month. “I just think it’s cool,” he said. He added, “The great thing about it is that people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”

He was looking forward to more in the coming months: a new production of “Into the Woods,” for which Mr. Sundem wrote the music and lyrics for, is set to be presented by The Encores! Program in New York City Center next May. Sondheim also revealed that New York Theater Workshop hopes to stage an off-Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” for which he wrote music and poems, directed by Maria Friedman, who has previously directed well-received work in London and Boston.

When asked which of his shows he’d like to see refreshed next, he seemed to falter. “What would I like to see again that I haven’t seen in a while? I have to think about it, because a lot of the shows I’ve been writing for have been done in the past few years.” He added, “I was lucky. I had a good revival of shows that I love.”

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