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.
Continue reading Sondheim speaks, we gladly listen