Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Evening with Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich



I still can't quote believe it. Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich came to Tulsa last Monday night as part of the University of Tulsa's Presidential Lecture Series. And I was there.

Back in 2000, to commemorate Sondheim's 70th birthday, Rich began a series of conversations with him to talk about Sondheim's life and career and the state of American musical theater. You can read about them here. And now, ten years later, they are doing a limited number of engagements across the United States. The format is simple. They sit in chairs and have a conversation, with Rich asking questions and Sondheim answering. Monday night felt like sitting in on a conversation between old friends! And as a fan of Sondheim's for decades, it was an especially sweet evening. I sat there grinning like an idiot for most of the night. My favorite Sondheim moments:
  • Stories of growing up with Oscar Hammerstein as a mentor and godfather.
  • Describing what it was like to see "Oklahoma!" for the first time.
  • Cracking up with Rich as they described attempts to "fix" Sondheim's shows by overly ambitious college theater department heads. One changed "Merrily We Roll Along" to go forward chronologically in time. One had Bobby shoot himself in the head at the end of "Being Alive." Funny stuff.
  • Describing the writing process for the song "Sunday in the Park with George."
  • The story of writing "Rose's Turn" and introducing it to Ethel Merman.
I'm honored to have been there and grateful to TU for bringing them.

3 comments:

Heather said...

i've been waiting to hear about this! tell me about the last 2 bullet points: "Sunday" and "Rose's Turn". no, i'm serious. TELL ME. and no fluffy, general summaries. i want to know details.

Matt Nightingale said...

Well. He just talked line by line through the writing of Sunday... He talked about how he wanted the melody and the words to be jerky and stiff, reflecting Dot's feelings and irritation. He talked about the fun of writing stream-of-consciousness stuff like that. Then how the lines opened up and became much more fluid and legato as she got more comfortable and "lost herself" in the moment.

Merman: OK, apparently, Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the show, was going to have a "nervous breakdown" scene for Rose staged like a ballet with all the characters and scenes from her life flashing through her mind. Then he just basically said to Sondheim and Styne, "I've decided I'm too busy with direction, etc. to stage another dance. Just write a song." Ha! So Sondheim tried to do the musical equivalent of that dance, incorporating all the songs, lyrics, etc. into it.

Anyway, he and Jule Styne worked on it a lot. One of the key moments in the song is when she kind of loses it and stammers, "Mmm...ma...mama...mama..." He was nervous to play the song to her and when it came time, the whole cast was there so he was doubly nervous. He went through the song and she was OK with it, but then she specifically asked about the "mama" part. She wanted to know if it was on the downbeat or not. So Sondheim patiently explained to her that the orchestra would vamp, and she could do it however she was feeling it each night. That is wasn't so much about the timing of the music, but about the emotion of the situation. She nodded... and then asked again, "But does it come on the downbeat?" That got a big laugh...

He was basically saying that he would rather have an actor than a singer any day and using Merman as an example of someone who wasn't really known for her acting chops.

Heather said...

oh wow, awesome.

Sunday is definitely my favorite Sondheim, and probably one of my favorites, ever. i totally know what you're talking about.

and, man. Rose's Turn is my favorite moment in Gypsy. i love the emotion and those lines ("what did it get me? scrapbooks full of me in the background"). do you have a favorite performance of that song? i lovelovelove Tyne Daly so much, and she definitely has the acting chops. i don't know if i should be embarrassed to admit this, but i really liked Bette's performance in the movie version, too.

ah well. thanks for all the details. i'm so jealous. and i can't believe he's 80!

p.s. i really wish more had been done throughout history with his music from Evening Primrose. i consider it some of my favorite Sondheim work.

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