I remember as a theater student seeing ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and the impact it had on me, in terms of how different and experimental it seemed for a commercial Broadway musical. What is it about Sondheim that makes him such a talent?
What makes Steve distinctive throughout his career -- and ‘Sunday in the Park’ is a particular landmark -- is his talent, of course. But also, he always wants to do something new, to keep moving forward as an artist, and also for the sake of musical theater as an art form. In the case of ‘Sunday in the Park,’ Steve made a decision, after the Broadway failure of ‘Merrily Roll Along,’ to work off Broadway, where commercial pressures are less intense and artistic freedom is greater. For someone who is a self described “Broadway baby” -- Steve began his career with ‘West Side Story’ in 1957 -- that was a real change, to move off-Broadway almost 30 years later and to seek out and work with a writer-director like James Lapine, who was not a traditional theater person. ‘Sunday in the Park’ was very controversial at the time. It is now considered a classic. But working then as a New York Times drama critic, I liked it and praised it and was stunned, even from afar, at how much hostility arose around a show that took as its subject, in part, art; that jumped a century between the first act and second act, and told two complementary but different stories; that tried to reproduce some of the techniques of an avant garde painter, George Seurat, in both the writing of the book that James did and the writing of the music and lyrics that Steve did. And indeed, right down to the production design, which, of course, James, had a huge role in.
‘Sunday’ wasn’t ‘Oliver’ or ‘Hello, Dolly!’ or even ‘Cabaret.’ It felt radically different from the work of other mainstream musical theater composers.
Steve would be the first to say the American musical theater has produced a number of great songwriters. But the thing that makes Steve unique -- and shows his evolution -- is his willingness to write songs that are completely in service of the characters he is writing for. So he is not sitting around saying, “Gee, can I write a hit song for ‘Follies’ or for ‘A Little Night Music’ or for ‘Sunday in the Park’?” He is writing and inhabiting these characters. That’s an aesthetical artistic goal that is totally different from what had often been the tradition of Broadway, of serving the characters, but also writing a song that might have a lot of cover versions, like Louis Armstrong doing ‘Hello Dolly!’ And he learned this from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein isn’t thought of this way now, but he was experimental in his own way, in his own time. And what separated [Richard ] Rodgers and Hammerstein from their peers was that they would write serious scripts that dealt with serious issues, in shows like ‘Oklahoma!’ ‘Carousel,’ and ‘The King and I.’ Steve is a very explicit fan of all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. And the show that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote after ‘Carousel’ was a show that was failed, called ‘Allegro.’ And Stephen was Hammerstein’s assistant on that show. And he learned a lot about experimentation and the value of doing it.
I don’t remember when, but early on I remember talking to Steve about his shows and he said, “I think every show I write is gonna be a big hit. And it surprised me because whatever I write is always so interesting to me, I assume it’s going to be interesting to other people. And, of course, I’m often shocked that it isn’t.” But that’s why Steve doesn’t think about an audience: He just thinks about what interests him, and that’s what he wants to get involved in. I was so shocked when ‘Sunday in the Park’ came out and people thought it was so different. And I remember the first time I met Steve, he was so down in the dumps about ‘Merrily,’ and how none of his plays were big commercial hits. Even when they were Tony Award winners, I don’t think any of them had the kind of success that a lot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had had. And I said to him, “Well, I’m sure if you wanted to sit down and write a big commercial show, you could.” And he just looked at me like I was nuts. He said, “I would never do that.” The irony, of course, is that his shows have all gone on to have such a long life. And a lot of the shows that have great success in their time are long forgotten.
Sondheim shows like ‘Sunday in the Park’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ -- they didn’t make their investment back. That’s the definition of a flop, by Broadway accounting. And yet, they are always being produced somewhere.
One of the more revealing moments in the film is Sondheim talking about his complicated relationship to his mother. Do you think that fed his work in some way?