Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stephen Sondheim Interviewed by Frank Rich

For weeks Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to be interviewed by Frank Rich at the Upper EAST Side Barnes and Noble (not Lincoln Square but another really nice one just across the Park). I kept checking because this seemed hard to believe: a free interview with the most acclaimed musical theater composer of our time questioned by one of our most discerning journalists. But it, in fact, did happen and I was there. I should add that in order to reserve my spot in the audience, I had to buy my copy of the latest Paris Review Interviews (that includes an excellent interview with Sondheim) and I had to arrive at 5:30 for a 7:00 appearance. But it was definitely worth it. The two of them spoke together for 50 minutes in an always engaging and animated conversation. No questions from the audience allowed, but we had Frank Rich, with his encyclopedic mind, pitching some very good questions, so that was just fine.

Sondheim, who has some sort of difficulty with his left eye which causes it to close completely, was in excellent spirits and although he is about to turn 80, he had the energy, at least, of a man of 60. One of the things that he and Rich discussed were the many tributes that are planned for Sondheim to celebrate his 80th birthday. The Roundabout Theater is doing Sondheim on Sondheim, which is apparently a mixed live and multimedia production that includes film clips of Sondheim interacting with the cast. This is all part of James Lapine's vision, the great producer/director who has been working closely with Sondheim since "Sunday in the Park with George." There is a limited engagement of "Anyone Can Whistle" coming up, which, I guess, is one of the most famous flops in the Sondheim canon, and there is a plan in the works to do "Merrily We Roll Along," another very early show that is now regarded an an underrated classic. Frank Rich also mentioned that he is a big fan of the current production of "A Little Night Music" with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. So I guess you could say that of late everything is coming up Sondheim. And I didn't even mention the special productions of vintage Sondheim shows underway in London and Paris.

The big revelation of the night, at least for me, is that Sondheim almost never reads. He is a slow reader, doesn't particularly enjoy it, and so pretty much doesn't do it any more except when he has to. His medium, he claims, is movies, and he took a few minutes to recall all the movie theaters that used to line 86th Street, the location of the bookstore we were in, but also Sondheim's homebase (more or less) since he was a kid. His favorite marquee memory of a double feature along this very street was "George Washington Slept Here - Between Us Girls." The audience and Sondheim got a big kick out of that one. At any rate, it was a treat to hear these two brilliant, articulate guys trade stories about the theater. I walked back across Central Park (on a night that hit 52 degrees) thinking about what they had said and smiling just about the whole time.

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