A post-mortem on Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous production
I went to New York this past weekend to see the world premiere of Here We Are, the musical that Stephen Sondheim was working on at the time of his death in November, 2021. If he’d only been alive to complete it, it would have been wonderful. But he didn’t, so what we have is an incomplete masterpiece.
The existence of a masterpiece left incomplete at the time of its author’s death compels a question upon the people left responsible for the work: what’s the “moral” way forward? Do you let the public hear it in its incompletion? Do you guard it? Do you destroy it? How do you do the right thing?
Before I get into the solution proffered by Sondheim’s estate and his co-creators — and my opinion thereof — let’s take a brief diversion into musical history.
The two most famous incomplete works in the classical canon are Mozart’s Requiem and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony.
In the case of the Mozart, they did the wrong thing: the widow Constanze brought in two of her late husband’s colleagues to comb through his remaining sketches and bring the work to completion. Franz Xaver Süssmayr did the lion’s share of the work and wrote some of his own original music to fill in gaps (including complete movements) where no Mozart sketches existed.
This collaborative version of the piece was accepted into the repertoire early on, and it now has a performing tradition of well over two hundred years, so most folks have decided to be okay with it (including me.) But in recent years, musicologists have come to think that they know better than musicians who actually interacted with Mozart while he was alive, and it seems that new completions are cropping up with increasing regularity. This is doing even wronger things.
In the case of Schubert’s B minor symphony, the unfinishedness was leveraged as a selling point (doubtless due in part to the romanticized history of Mozart’s Requiem) and even though Schubert left behind a third movement in short score (and even about a hundred measures in full score) this movement has never caught wind, though it has been completed by scholars. The completion has occasionally been performed and it has been recorded, so you can listen to it right now if you’re interested. This is doing the right thing: the greater public can hear what Schubert actually wrote, and the cognoscenti can listen to a realization of what Schubert might have written, understanding the context full well.
Opera offers more gray areas than purely instrumental music, because a composer generally composes the music of an opera to a fully-formed pre-existing libretto. So if the music of the opera is close enough to the finish line, it can be possible — and justified — to finish the piece by bringing the composer’s work to its logical conclusion using sketches and grafting on music from earlier in the show (particularly in music dramas that use leitmotivs) as was the case with Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu (one of Sondheim’s favorites.)
I think both of those completions fall into the “do the right thing” category because it would be such a loss not to be able to hear the work that these great artists did write, but you can’t just truncate the story ten minutes before its conclusion. In theory, you could stop the music and have the singers simply speak the rest of the libretto, but this would be jarring to the point of distraction in a thru-composed work and would completely ruin the effect of everything that had come before.
However, this is not the case with musicals, and this brings us to the curious case of Here We Are.
Words and Music
The development history of this show was chronicled quite ably by Frank Rich writing for Vulture. To sum it up, the team (Sondheim, writer David Ives, and director Joe Mantello) had been working on the piece since the early 2010s. Lacking any real production deadlines, Sondheim did what he was wont to do and chipped away at the songs bit by bit, putting it together in a procrastinatory fashion.
(To give the guy a break: he was in his ninth decade, he was managing several film adaptation projects and stage revivals, and he was — seemingly — responding personally to every random scrap of paper that had ever been addressed to him.)
In September of 2021, Sondheim went on Colbert and announced that the project was picking up steam again, and that he hoped it would be produced in the coming season. Two months later, the day after Thanksgiving, he died.
When Sondheim died, he had written all the songs and scene for the first act, as well as the first three numbers of the second act. That’s a substantial amount of material, enough that a case could be made for going forward with the project. But how to go forward? Should they fill the gaps in the second act with reprises from the first? Should they hire a composer to write ersatz-Sondheim, perhaps based on his sketches? Should they simply end the show with the third song in the second act? What’s doing the right thing — by Sondheim, by the producers, by the audience?
To the immense credit of the producers of Here We Are at the Shed, the solution they have chosen is both the simplest one and the right one to boot: after the third song the second act, the second act of Here We Are becomes a straight play bereft of singing. As you may have read in the Frank Rich piece, the final 45 minutes of the show do include a few instrumental cues based on earlier music, but these cues come fewer and further between as the show continues, such that the greater part of the second act feels notably different than everything that preceded it.
These Are My Takes
I love everything that Sondheim wrote for this show, and I am eternally thankful that the show has been produced so that people like me can have a chance to see and hear it. But there is no question of it being a completed work — it is not. And I say this in spite of what Ives and Mantello told Frank Rich, namely that this “two-thirds sung, one-third spoken” concept was a deliberate dramaturgical decision made by the creative team prior to Sondheim’s death, on the grounds that the material demanded it.
Their claim is that because the characters in the second act find themselves stuck in one place, it doesn’t make sense for them to keep singing. My counterclaim is that this is complete and total bullshit.
I’m not saying that Ives and Mantello are necessarily lying, because it’s possible to believe that they had actually reached such an agreement with Sondheim. The scenario I imagine is this:
With a production announced and a deadline finally looming, Sondheim was struggling to finish the score (par for the course with him), and his co-authors didn’t have the deftness of touch that Hal Prince and James Lapine had had in compelling him to work. So they created a well-intentioned excuse that would let him off the hook, but also let them move forward with the production, and Sondheim leapt at this “gentleman’s agreement.”
That may well be what happened, but if it is, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality that these three creators chose to enter into a shared delusion for practical purposes; this was not a path born of legitimate artistic values.
All you have to do is watch the show to reach the conclusion that it was meant to have been musicalized. There’s nothing in the libretto after that third song of the second act that is so radically different from what preceded it that it begs for dry recitation. In fact, there are several moments that positively cry out for songs, the two most notable being a long conversation between two characters about the meaning of life, and the very end of the show, where you’d expect a big reprise.
Now, assuming that my hypothetical scenario was what actually transpired – that there was a tacit agreement to move the show forward as a musical-play hybrid and thus let Sondheim off the hook – I know in my heart of hearts that Sondheim would have seen this version and written the remaining songs in show. Sondheim had a long history of building the plane at 30,000 feet (not unlike most other musical theater writers) and there are many spectacular examples of him writing his best work on short notice during previews (“Comedy Tonight”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Children and Art”, etc.) I think it’s a good bet that he would have completed the show even more brilliantly than he had begun it.
So my one and only complaint in this whole saga is that Ives and Mantello are propagating this white lie that the show as it stands is what Sondheim really wanted it to be. It’s just not, and that’s ok. These guys have done the right thing by mounting the show with the songs that Sondheim wrote and letting us see the rest in draft form, thus allowing us to understand the full shape of the piece. But there’s no denying that it goes from color to black and white.
Once again, I’m purely grateful and not at all sorry that I got to experience Here We Are. (Speaking of which, they should have gone with Sondheim’s title, Square One.) I doubt this show is going to get produced many more times. Maybe they’ll take it to London, and perhaps a few regional theaters will mount their own productions, but this work can’t be said to be part of the canon. I’m sure they’ll film it, and I hope they’ll release the video and audio recordings.
Here We Are is a little world unto itself, but it’s a stump. It will always be a stump, but with this production, we can appreciate it for what it is and imagine what it might have been.