In New York we're starved of plays, says Stephen Sondheim
~ Matt Wolf, London Evening Standard - 29/02/12 ~
The master of the modern musical adores London, a city he first visited in 1952, and it's safe to say that the capital more than repays Stephen Sondheim's affections. The veteran Broadway composer and lyricist rarely goes unrepresented on local stages, and it's the Chichester revival of Sweeney Todd, currently in the throes of transferring to the West End, that has brought him here for a long weekend.
He has been invited to attend the new cast recording of his 1979 musical, which famously begins with an exhortation to "attend the tale" of cannibalism, black comedy and revenge. The leads on this occasion are Michael Ball as the single-mindedly murderous Sweeney, and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, the Fleet Street barber's chirpy yet cunning accomplice.
"You don't necessarily want to see a piece of your own when you've worked on it that much and seen it that many times, but I think those two performances are extraordinary," Sondheim says of his latest stars in Jonathan Kent's production. He had worked with Ball on the 1996 London premiere of Passion, about an army officer's love for a dying woman, so knew that the veteran of many an Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical could tackle more difficult material as well. But Sweeney? The musical theatre butterball as a man consumed by a rampaging bloodlust?
"Michael, in my view, is what they used to call in critical circles a revelation; who knew he could grow facial hair for a start?" says Sondheim, his wryness and perceptiveness un-dimmed with age; 82 on March 22 (his birthday shared with Lord Lloyd-Webber), he was fêted at a tremendous gala 80th birthday concert two summers ago at the Proms. An occasional searching for names marks the only concession to age during a chat that finds him relaxed and convivial, even with the long-haul flight back home looming as soon as our time is up.
As for the "absolutely remarkable" Staunton, she won an Olivier Award in 1991 for her co-starring role (opposite Julia McKenzie) in the West End debut of Into The Woods. "But I didn't think she was going to do musicals again, or if she wanted to. But if you're going to do so-called dramatic musicals, Mrs Lovett and Rose" - the focus of the 1959 musical Gypsy for which Sondheim provided the lyrics - "are the two juiciest female parts: they're sort of the Hamlet and Lear of the female repertoire."
Sondheim chimes in enthusiastically when I mention that the diminutive powerhouse would make a formidable Momma Rose in the musical inspired by the life of Gypsy Rose Lee and her overbearing stage mother. "Imelda wants that part very badly, and I'm hoping it will work out."
It was during one of his many London visits - this one, appropriately, in 1973 for the Angela Lansbury revival of Gypsy - that he travelled to Theatre Royal, Stratford East, to see Christopher Bond's play of the Sweeney story, and the idea for his musical was born.
"I was so intrigued that I thought, this is my kind of thing. I had lunch with [the late director] John Dexter and said, 'Tell me about Sweeney Todd, because I really know nothing.'" Six years later, the show about the vengeful barber whose lovesick companion makes pies out of his victims opened on Broadway, with Lansbury as the female lead and without Dexter's endorsement.
"John thought it should be an opera, which didn't interest me, and he was very ungenerous about the piece when it finally happened. And if John were around now, he wouldn't change his mind for a second."
That is certainly a minority view: in the intervening years, Sweeney has played every possible scale and size of venue, from studio theatres to opera houses, despite offering a hefty 120 minutes of music: a challenge for interpreters at any level. As with all his shows - and Sondheim's masterworks include not just the Britten-esque Sweeney Todd but Follies, Company, A Little Night Music and the troubled but also beautiful Merrily We Roll Along - Sweeney is a piece about adults pitched very much at an adult audience. And though more death-obsessed than is Sondheim's norm, Sweeney folds robust comedy into a bitter, even bruising look at human behaviour, as perhaps befits the perspective of a gay man who wasn't in a relationship of his own (one that since ended) until well into middle age. He has, in much of his work, written piercingly about marital discord and the foolishness of love, not least in the song from A Little Night Music, Send In The Clowns, for which he to this day, arguably, remains best known.
And yet, for all his reshaping of the musical theatre, it's plays that Sondheim seeks out when in London (though he says Matilda "sounds like fun"). This trip, he points out, has been "strictly business", leaving time to take in only one show (She Stoops to Conquer at the National Theatre). When he returns, he wants to see the Hockney exhibition and much else besides. "In New York, you're starved for plays, except Off-Broadway, so when I'm here, I want to go to the National and the Tricycle and the Almeida and the Royal Court and also and also and also." Sondheim laughs. "The list goes on." Then there's the Donmar, which he describes as "quite possibly the best space for theatre in the Western world, in my experience", and not just because Sam Mendes launched his regime there in 1992 with the European premiere of Sondheim's Assassins.
That show, in turn, took a while to catch on with a larger public, given the troubling nature of terrain that a piece about presidential assassins and the lethal American tendency to reach for the gun inevitably describes. How, one wonders, do Sondheim's musicals sit these days back home in an America that can turn a sometimes censorious eye towards art?
"You know that in the US now there are places that won't do [his 1962 comic musical] A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum simply because it uses the word 'virgin'. And that is not a joke. Curiously enough, we rarely get any problems with Assassins. They're much more worried about 'virgin' than they are about shooting presidents."
Sondheim is at a point when he could clearly spend his time globe-trotting and keeping tabs on one revival or another. He tells me that he will be back in a few weeks to check in on previews at the Adelphi and is only sorry that he missed out on a Finnish Opera Sweeney Todd last year. He certainly won't miss a forthcoming Paris production of Sunday In The Park With George, his soul-searing, largely Paris-set musical about the painter Georges Seurat. He'll be interested, he notes, to see if the French "take it the way the British first took Sweeney Todd", when the Broadway original opened in Drury Lane in July 1980 to a chilly response. "They may think, what are the Americans poaching on our territory for and making a musical out of one of our icons?" Time will tell.
Time will also reveal what happens with a planned film adaptation of Sondheim and Sunday collaborator James Lapine's follow-up musical, Into The Woods, to be directed by Rob Marshall, who brought the stage shows Nine and Chicago to the screen. (A separate attempt at filming Into The Woods some years back fell apart despite a line-up of big-name actors: Cher, Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn.) "James is writing the screenplay now," says Sondheim, who speaks highly of film-maker Tim Burton's recent Sweeney Todd, with Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.
"It's very hard to conceive a stage play as a movie - I had never seen one that I thought was any good until [Sweeney]. That's because Tim thinks filmically, and it shows."
London's Open Air Theatre production of Into The Woods two summers ago, meanwhile, will open with a new cast in New York's Central Park in August.
Meryl Streep is cited as a possibility to play the defining role of the Witch. "We will see," says Sondheim. "I think she'd be great."
But not content merely to revisit the past, Sondheim speaks of pushing forward and says he has "20 or 30 minutes" written of a new musical that he is collaborating on with American playwright David Ives, a New York regular little known in London. "Having spent the better part of four years writing two books [both sizeable tomes in which he anatomises his own career as lyricist alongside that of others], I'm really rusty. I sit at the piano and think, 'Where's middle C?' Any muscles, as you know, atrophy when you don't use them, and I haven't been using my musical muscles."
So it's no surprise to hear that Sondheim, for all the joy he takes in London, sounds keen to get back to his New York and Connecticut homes and to his dogs, and to tap into his own artistry anew.
"I've got to get back to work," he says, sounding for all the world like his stage version of Georges Seurat. Not that he's concerned about posterity.
"I couldn't care less about that," he states. "If you can't enjoy life while you're alive, then what's the point?"
Sweeney Todd previews at the Adelphi Theatre (0844 811 0053, sweeneytoddwestend.com) from March 10 and is booking to September. The New York Philharmonic's concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's Company, starring Patti LuPone and Christina Hendricks, will be broadcast to selected London cinemas on March 15 at 7pm (picturehouses.co.uk)