OK, well, admittedly, I did get to speak to Stephen Sondheim TWICE today. The first time, I asked him a question about orchestrators. Namely, why did he use Michael Starobin on “Sunday in the Park with George”, which I find to be such a dreadful orchestration. (Side note: one thing I apparently did not learn from Sondheim today was that you can criticize the deceased to your heart’s content, but hold your tongue when it comes to the living. Oops.)
Turns out, Starobin was the house orchestrator of the theater company that first mounted “Sunday”, and Steve told Jonathan Tunick who turned out to be working on another show. The only Sondheim orchestration I like less than “Sunday” is “Assassins”, another Starobin work, but in truth, I do find it hard to separate what I don’t like about the music itself in those scores from what I specifically dislike about the orchestration.
Sondheim came to IU today and delivered two talks: one in the afternoon for students of the Theater Department (i.e. not Music) — into which I snuck, and one in the evening at the IU Auditorium.
I went to both, and, despite the fact that I have read every major book about the man and his work, I did learn a few things. For example, did you know that he wanted to switch “Officer Krupke” and “Cool” in West Side Story for the original stage version of West Side Story? And when they finally did it in the movie version, he ended up saying it didn’t work!
Also, I was so glad to hear him say that the central conceit behind the current revival of West Side (the Sharks singing and speaking in Spanish) backfired on Arthur Laurents. Incidentally, it seems that the version playing in NYC now is significantly less bilingual than the Washington preview that I saw. So, if it’s only used in one or two scenes, what’s the point?? As Mr. Sondheim said, the Sharks might look menacing at the beginning of the show, but as soon as they start dancing, you’re not afraid anymore! Also, he pointed out that the Sharks end up looking so much better to the audience then the dimwitted Jets since we see that they have the sophistication of speaking two languages.
But I simply can’t agree with him that the film version of Sweeney is any good. He says it’s the only film musical that works for him. For me, it doesn’t work at all. Helena Bonham Carter was a total mist-cast. His theory that her low-energy portrayal of Mrs. Lovett somehow adds to the context of the movie just doesn’t hold water with me.
Now for my personal tragedy with regards to today’s fora. I ran — RAN, I tell you! — all the way around the IU Auditorium to the stage entrance at the end of the second talk. To my amazement, there were only like 2 other people waiting to greet Mr. Sondheim. And after waiting another 20 minutes for him to exit the theater, some sycophant comes out of the door and proclaims that, “Mr. Sondheim will not be signing anything.”
AAHHHHHH!!! I had brought my score of Into the Woods and a Sharpie for him to sign it with! He couldn’t spare 5 seconds to write his name on a piece of paper? Perhaps he was expecting a bigger crowd and didn’t want to be detained, but come on Steve!! I did get to thank him though, and he did acknowledge it, so I guess that’s pretty good.
Still, it was a disappointment…
PS. Steve says you can sing his songs in any key — there is no large scale key structure when he writes a musical, unlike a Puccini opera or some such.