Tonight, I looked on and listened in for an hour and a half while a couple of gentlemen, sitting in two comfy armchairs, had a rambling and rambunctious conversation about musical theatre. Of course, these weren’t any two men – one of them was Stephen Sondheim, the other, local actor, historian and theatre critic Jerry Wasserman, and the site of their talk was the Vogue Theatre, packed to the rafters with musical theatre lovers. It was a unique and memorable evening!
Sondheim, 79, was a relaxed and engaging presence. Head often cocked to one side, eyes baggy and half-closed yet still sparkling with energy, he threaded his responses to Wasserman’s (and later the audience’s) questions through his six decades of musical theatre history. The audience, naturally, was keenly attentive – hanging on every word, laughing at every turn of wit and backstage anecdote, even murmuring intensely when Sondheim mentioned the two stars (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury) of an upcoming Broadway revival of A Little Night Music.
He mentioned early on that he’s “not a reader” – and that this surprises everyone who doesn’t know him personally – but his responses, while direct and accessible, were occasionally sprinkled with words like “manque” and “argot” that made me wish I’d brought a dictionary. No surprise that this is a man who knows his words!
There were tales of his early training, and of revelations about the “nuts and bolts” inner workings of musical composition that helped him realize his true calling. Studying with modernist composer Milton Babbitt, who was years ahead of his time – “when atonality came in he was already experimenting with electronic music” – and yet who was at the same time composing a show for Mary Martin. Sondheim said that he learned from Babbitt that a three-minute song and a Mozart concerto share the same underlying musical concepts.
He said his favourite musical – the one he feels is the all-time greatest work of musical theatre – is “Porgy and Bess”.
He said that “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, set in ancient Rome, originally ran four and a half hours and had an extra subplot which was dropped, but at the cost of losing some choice funny lines. His two examples: during a celebration when a bottle of wine is being passed around, someone looks at it and says, “Two. That was a very good year.” And elsewhere, one character tells another, “You’re stupid! S-T-V-P-I-D, stupid!”
Being perhaps the only chance I’ll get to see and hear a genuine musical theatre legend, I was immensely glad to be there. And although I was up in the cheap seats, (though with an excellent close-up view through the binoculars I happily remebered to take) there was something special about being in the room and soaking up the incredible vibe, that of hundreds of people all savouring each word from someone who has contributed so much to the theatre and to popular culture. Let’s hope that this is not, in fact, the last time he visits us here, but only the first of many.