By Peter Filichia
It’s already been a year since we lost Stephen Sondheim, but now we have another way of remembering him.
Paul Salsini, who founded The Sondheim Review in 1994 and kept at it for ten solid years, has now published Sondheim & Me. Think of it as The Sondheim Review’s Greatest Hits.
Many books place the name of the book atop every even-numbered page and the name of the author atop every odd-numbered one. What’s significant here is that each even-numbered page states SONDHEIM in boldfaced capitals before a mere italicized (and therefor slimmer) & Me. Salsini apparently knows his place.
Still, he made The Sondheim Review happen. It inadvertently came about because of Kurt Weill, a composer for whom Sondheim had ambivalent feelings. (He liked Weill’s Broadway musicals but was less enthusiastic about his German ones.)
Once Salsini, a Milwaukee journalist, learned that there was such a thing as The Kurt Weill Newsletter, he thought, “If a dead composer could have one, why shouldn’t the world’s most important composer-lyricist have one while still living and breathing?”
The goal was to “include whatever news there was, reviews of Sondheim productions in the United States and abroad, reports of developments of new shows and revivals, interviews with actors and directors, essays and examinations of Sondheim’s work, lists of upcoming shows, and, for fun, contests, puzzles and quizzes.”
Yet Salsini feared that after every issue Sondheim would notice a mistake. Indeed, he was quick to correct a writer who had erred about the genesis of “Not a Day Goes By” in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
“The song was originally written for Beth to sing,” Sondheim noted, “but during previews it became clear that the girl who played the part simply couldn’t manage it so I had to make a quick lyric fix and gave it to Jim Walton, who could.”
Salsini faced facts: “I soon realized that this would be the norm. Sondheim would read the magazine from cover to cover, perhaps circling or underlining words or phrases with one of his famous Blackwing pencils.”
Didn’t Sondheim remember that he’d earlier written the line “People make mistakes”?
Errors weren’t all to which Sondheim objected. He complained after Salsini published part of a song that he’d written in high school: “I object vigorously to your reprinting my juvenilia.”
Oh, Steve! Ev’rybody has to go through stages like that!
And speaking of FOLLIES, if we ever had to wonder how different it was from THE GIRLS UPSTAIRS, Sondheim reported that “It’s the same show” but that Hal Prince said the original title “sounds too much like whores.”
Have you inferred why the strife between and among the Plummers and the Stones are interrupted by songs? Sondheim insists that “If you’re trying to show the mistake of living in the past, you have to show the past.”
Salsini asked readers “Who would you cast in a FOLLIES film?” The winning entry stated Meryl Streep as Sally, Jeremy Irons as Ben, Glenn Close as Phyllis, Ron Silver as Buddy and Elizabeth Taylor as Carlotta.
One answer that Sondheim gave to a different question in 1994 stands out now: “If you were writing COMPANY today, would you include a lesbian or gay couple?” As we well know, one of the last creative decisions Sondheim made was to allow this in the recent London and Broadway revivals. But 28 years ago, he said “There was a move to ‘modernize’ it for the 25th anniversary revival but I said no.”
And yet, a year later, he gave permission to Billy Porter, then a Carnegie Mellon student, to change Marta to Marty “who was trying to pry Bobby out of the closet, but Bobby wouldn’t leave.”
We find out what Sondheim added to some musicals: he wrote “Lullaby” for the Beggar Woman’s scene near the end of Sweeney Todd “because too many people did not know that she was Sweeney’s wife.”
If he were allowed do-overs on any of his musicals, he would have liked to have written “a trio in which Mrs. Lovett is trying to poison the Beadle and the glasses get switched.”
(Seems like a threadbare plot device to me, Mr. S, but I’m sure that you always knew better than I what’s best for a musical.)
And then there were ideas that he jettisoned. SUNDAY’S second act was to be “outside of Central Park with the Shakespeare Festival, which would have been the equivalent of the Grand Jatte.”
You might be surprised to read Sondheim’s statement, “I don’t like to read an awful lot.” Perhaps he spent that time instead listening to pop music. That would explain how, when seeking the right sound for ASSASSINS’ “Unworthy of Your Love,” he was able to say that “I was going to use Patti Smith, but then I used The Carpenters.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing sections involve the Sondheim show that he liked least: DO I HEAR A WALTZ? The first fascinating nugget is that he wrote a song called “Do I Hear a Waltz?” for a TV musical “that Arthur Laurents and I were going to write but never did.”
Thus, we can assume with almost 100% certainty that Sondheim gave the title to Richard Rodgers for their one and only musical. Wonder what their musicalization of Laurents’ THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO would have been called had Sondheim not written that song? We would have been denied one of Rodgers’ best swirling waltzes, too title.
“There was no reason to do DO I HEAR A WALTZ?” Sondheim would say with repeated regularity. Here, though, he also mentioned that Hammerstein some time earlier “was greatly taken with the idea” of musicalizing Laurents’ play but felt that not enough time had passed since its 1955 film version SUMMERTIME.
(Frankly, it wasn’t a markedly different amount of time from ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, a 1946 film, to Hammerstein’s turning it into THE KING AND I in 1951.)
Hammerstein’s interest brings up an intriguing question. Given that he usually wrote both book and lyrics, he had co-written the book to FLOWER DRUM SONG but ceded the libretto writing for THE SOUND OF MUSIC. So, had he lived and taken on THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO, would he have only served as bookwriter to Rodgers’ music and Sondheim’s lyrics?
You may say that Laurents would have wanted to adapt his own play (which he did indeed do with WALTZ), but he might have been satisfied with only directing it. Laurents had already staged I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, which he didn’t write, and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, which he did. But from then on, Laurents was directing on Broadway far more than he was writing for it.
Besides, had Laurents directed DO I HEAR A WALTZ?, it would have been spared John Dexter. On the other hand, considering the tyrannical and difficult reputations of both men, this may have been a lesser-of-two-evils situation.
We get opinions from those with whom Sondheim worked, such as PASSION’S Jere Shea when he had Giorgio on his mind. Virtually all performers said he was a genius, but Elaine Stritch preferred to say, “He’s scary” (an adjective that might lead many of us to add a sentence that includes the words pot, kettle and black.) Stritch did add that after Sondheim had sent her a compliment, “I celebrated that letter by having four martinis before dinner.”
We see how much respect Sondheim had for Jonathan Tunick. “When I saw HOW DO YOU DO, I LOVE YOU?” he said, referring to a 1967 Maltby-Shire musical in summer stock, “I thought I was listening to an orchestra of 25. I was astounded when I glanced in the pit and saw that Jonathan had made the sound with an orchestra of half that size. There has never been anyone like him.”
And there never has been anyone like Stephen Sondheim. In answer to “Would any of your songs serve as your epitaph?” Sondheim said that he wouldn’t choose an entire song but would like the line “There’s so much stuff to sing” from MERRILY’s “Our Time.”
Does anyone know if indeed that’s what was used? Whether it was or not, Paul Salsini’s SONDHEIM & Me is yet another reminder of so much stuff that The Great Man bequeathed so that we could sing it –
and sing his praises.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.