The Stephen Sondheim-Frank Rich question and answer session, staged by Literary Arts at the Schnitz Tuesday, was about as delightful as it possibly could have been. Rich was a terrific interrogator: smart, prepared, completely aware that his role was to spark Sondheim into memorable bits of reflection, story-telling, even emotion. He succeeded brilliantly at all three, succeeded to such an extent that the nearly full house (which would be 2700 or so) sang “Happy Birthday” to Sondheim at the end, in anticipation of his birthday on March 22 (when he turns 78, by my count). Sondheim had won us over completely, as though we needed winning over to begin with.
What did they talk about? Musical theater, of course, from Sondheim’s particular, insider perspective. So there were anecdotes about Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim’s mentor and father-figure) and a couple of great Cole Porter anecdotes (more about these a little lower), recollections of putting West Side Story together, Gypsy, Company, Sunday in the Park With George and of course Sweeney Todd, which led to observations about the difference between film and theater (film is more propulsive; theater allows more imagination from the audience), and much more. Marty Hughley gives an account of it all on Oregonlive. With actual quotes!
Many of the anecdotes were familiar ones, especially to those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s biography of Sondheim. But what a difference hearing the stories from Sondheim’s lips. So, he describes walking over to play his songs for Cole Porter in Williamstown, Mass., (where he went to Williams College) and we can feel the trepidation he must have felt, the awkwardness, the Porter-esque parody he played and his relief that Porter not only enjoyed it but helped him make the ending even better. Sondheim helped us understand the meaning of the encounter for a young artist, the joy it gave him, the inspiration. All of which is missing from Secrest’s book, which deals with the incident quickly. Ditto, the last time Sondheim played for Porter, when he was seriously ill, both legs amputated, and managed to elicit a gasp of recognition from the dying man, a smart turn and unlikely rhyme. And this is in microcosm the power of theater itself — to attach feeling and meaning to words that might slip by unattended by either.
Who emerged from the chat, what sort of Sondheim? A very smart, articulate man, deeply versed in musical theater, of course. What else? But more than that: a practical, well-organized man, a pragmatist about both his work and the people he deals with, a man who has been around enough to grow wise. And that isn’t to say distant or disengaged. In fact, when he talked about his last moment with Hammerstein, he had to pause at the memory to regain his composure.
Rich, to return to our interlocutor, was splendid throughout all this, and maybe some of the same things can be said of him as well. Which may be why they got along, make that get along (because they’ve known each other a long time), so well.
So, if you missed it, what’s your recourse? A fine version of Sweeney Todd is headed our way next month (April 8-13, Keller Auditorium), for one. And then the DVD of the recent Sweeney film production (Sondheim admires it) and many other Sondheim shows, CDs, etc., because Sondheim is so deeply embedded in the culture at this point. You can catch up on your Sondheim and that’s a fine thing to do.