The following interview was conducted using questions gathered from Compuserve's ShowBiz Forum members.
Questions were sent to Mr. Sondheim and he provided his replies by audio tape. Questions and answers
were compiled by Bruce Janiga, with help from Diana Cantu and Terri McKean.
What are the considerations that go into planning cast recordings? What modifications are made in the scoring, orchestration, performances? How much of an active role do you play in the process? As more people know your music from the recordings than the live performances, is there a conscious effort to color the music differently?
There is considerable planning that goes into any recording. The first thing
that has to be decided is: what is the routining going to be. For example
with Passion, because so many of the songs don't end, one of the decisions
we had to make was how to make the continuity of the record: how many cuts
should there be? --that is to say, cueings for numbers. And how much dialogue
should there be? Lapine was most concerned that there be as little dialogue
as possible but, since the point of the show is the interweaving of music and
lyrics and dialogue, this isn't as simple a problem to solve as it may seem.
We recorded some dialogue that isn't on the record, and there are moments
where perhaps there should have been more dialogue to set things up for the
listener who hasn't seen the show.
Once the form has been decided (and this pertains to all the recordings of
my shows, or at least most of them; not in Forum, say, but in the ones that
tell more of an interwoven story) the orchestrator usually is the one who
decides on how much the orchestra should be augmented. And there's, of
course, a budget consideration with such things, but, usually, what it
amounts to is the augmentation of the string section. Because very few
Broadway pits are big enough (and very few budgets are big enough) to support
a large string section which is much more needed than might be supposed. Even
eight or twelve strings is a very flimsy sound if you're thinking of a string
choir. You ask about my role in the creative process: it's fairly intense;
and one is aware that this is the permanent record (no pun intended) of the
show so you want to be very careful that the recording truly represents the
feeling and atmosphere of the show.
Also, there's the consideration that any recording usually has to take place
in a one day period because the cast gets paid a whole week's salary for
every day they're called into a studio. This accounts for a lot of the
imperfections in cast recordings, which I happen to like. The perfection of a
lot of pop recordings actually bothers me. And so, when you hear people
singing flat, as you do for example in West Side Story and in Company, this
is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it isn't too off the mark and too
out of tune. The same thing with sloppy entrances of singers or even of the
orchestra. You try to avoid wrong notes which, unfortunately, we did not on
the original recording of Follies because there were so many songs to record
and because the record producers were inept and not caring, resulting in a
very bad recording, although the performances have a certain amount of
passion. But, generally, you have to take into account the fact that you have
three-hour sessions and, at the most, usually four of them; and you have to
get an enormous amount of music recorded in such time, so, quite often,
mistakes that you would hear ordinarily you don't hear in the studio. You
hear them much later when you have a chance to really listen. For example:
"Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures. Mark, the singer who played the
warrior, kept saying "kin" instead of "can" because he was from New Jersey,
and I didn't hear it in the studio; and I don't think anybody else did
either. He sang it very well, but every time I hear the recording it makes me
wince when he hits that verb. And that's partly because, with so little time,
you don't listen to details like that sometimes or, rather, you miss them
even though you hear them. So as far as your question about there being a
conscious effort to color the music differently: no - I think what you try to
do is color the music exactly the way it is in the theatre but for an
audience who has nothing to look at; and therefore, what you try to do is
enhance or intensify the color rather than in any way change it.
The other function I have in a recording studio is to give members of the
cast who have never made a recording before confidence, and even those who
have, because they're only allowed a couple of takes on numbers what with the
exigencies of time; and you have to make them feel that you're recording the
best of them because they have a number of songs to record during the day and
you want to keep their confidence up - you don't want them worrying about not
having a good enough take. Quite often, you will try to arrange it so that,
at the very end of the day or the evening, a couple of solos, perhaps just
sections of certain of the solo numbers, can be rerecorded for those singers
who are upset about their performances, particularly those early in the day
when their voices are not warmed up.
Were any of the Company reunion concerts held last year recorded for audio and/or television distribution? And what about this year's Sunday concert?
No, none of the Company concerts nor the Sunday concert were recorded
professionally. Needless to say, the click of a thousand tape recorders was
heard throughout the auditoriums on both occasions, but not professionally.
Is it true that a second mystery script was written with Anthony Perkins, and, if so, is there any chance it'll ever be either produced or, at the very least, published?
Tony Perkins and I wrote two other mysteries: one, a musical mystery called
The Chorus Girl Murder Case, and another for HBO called Crime and Variations
which has no songs in it. HBO still owns the latter so I have no idea whether
that will ever be produced, and it's very unlikely that it will be published.
As for The Chorus Girl Murder Case, it's conceivable, although unlikely. It
was written as a movie originally for Michael Bennett to direct, and he
wanted to have a murder mystery that took place in the 40s and involved a
musical in a theatre; and, so, he gave me a laundry list of things he wanted
to include and I carried out the assignment and then Tony and I wrote a
treatment of it.
Will Evening Primrose ever be issued on home video, or re-released to television or cable?
I don't think Evening Primrose will ever be issued or released. It could
conceivably be re-released, but it will never be issued for home video or
cable. The rights are very tightly controlled by the Collier estate. There
have been numerous efforts over the years to do it for the stage. Not only do
Jim Goldman and I not want to go back to it, but the Collier estate only gave
us the television rights, and I doubt if that includes any kind of public
sales of the video.
Many songs cut from your shows have turned up on the various compilations, but there's been no "extra" material from Sweeney Todd. Are there any leftovers from that show?
No, there are no sort of "leftovers," as you say, from Sweeney Todd. There
are some sections that were cut, one of which is in the vocal score (it's the
tooth-pulling section in the Pirelli sequence). Otherwise there are just tiny
sections that have been cut; no major songs that I can remember. Obviously
the Judge's song is in some versions and not in others, but it is published.
Are there any songs written for West Side Story with Bernstein that have yet to see the light of day? (Other than the piece on 'Lost in Boston')
There was another song that Lenny and I wrote for West Side Story which was
an opening called "Mix" and another one that was done in concert in Central
Park by Martin Josman and his choral group which was the original opening.
The entire prologue that is now danced on the stage was originally set with a
lyric in which the gang was in a clubhouse and they had a fantasy about
taking a trip to the moon, and then Riff came in. In the original version of
West Side when we first started to write it, a number of characters were
associated with specific musical instruments, Riff with a trumpet, and he
came in and what is now the Jets' Song was a song called "My Greatest Day."
That whole sequence, which took us about a month to write, was scuttled when
Arthur Laurents made, I think trenchantly and correctly, the observation that
it would be better conveyed in dance and movement, and Jerry certainly
concurred, and so all that work went for nil. The music for "Mix" showed up
in the Chichester Psalms - I think it's the third section in Latin.
A number of other pieces in West Side Story showed up in Candide. A major
section of "Oh Happy We" was originally a song for Tony and Maria imagining
visiting each other's parents, when they were in the bridal shop, the
Brahms-like theme. And we cut a large section of the balcony scene, but
otherwise that covers what was cut from West Side.
Several years ago there were reports circulating of plans to update West Side Story to the 90's. Any truth to this? If so, how would you approach it in light of Mr. Bernstein's death?
Yes, there was a plan afoot a few years ago (2 or 3) to do West Side Story
(it was something Jerry Robbins was pushing) and update it to the 90s, but
nothing has come of it. It would have mostly meant updating the
Is there any truth to the rumor that you are the vanguard for an invading force of hyper-intelligent extra-terrestrials?
Yes, but I can't tell you from what planet... yet.
Why do you think there has been so little memorable music composed by women? There have been brilliant women lyricists, but very few women composers. There are great women novelists, choreographers, instrumentalists... but hardly any composers.
This is an interesting question. I think that the problem with women
composers is that, if women devote themselves to families, as many of them
do, there isn't a lot of time to write music. It also may be that there's
always been a prejudice, certainly on Broadway, against women composers - not
so much spoken, but a sense that they don't know what they're doing. But, you
know, male chauvinism is fairly rampant all over this country, so it's a
little hard to answer that question. I'm a close friend of Mary Rodgers, and
she raised five children and wrote a number of shows at the same time as well
as a number of songs that were not in shows, so it can be done.
At one point, there was talk of you doing a musical version of Sunset Boulevard with Angela Lansbury, immediately following Sweeney. Was anything written for that?
No, I never wrote anything for Sunset Boulevard. The story behind that is
that shortly after Forum, Burt Shevelove and I started to write a version of
Sunset Boulevard. We got maybe an outline, I think, and just the beginnings
of a first scene, and I happened to meet Billy Wilder at a cocktail party,
and shyly said to him that a friend of mine and I were starting to make a
musical of his movie, and he said, "Oh you can't do that," and I figured that
he was going to say that we couldn't get the rights; but he went on to say,
"It can't be a musical - it has to be an opera, because it's about a
dethroned queen." And that seemed to me such a shrewd observation that I
called Burt and said "Let's forget it, because I certainly don't want to do
Many years later after Night Music, Hugh Wheeler wanted to do it for Angie
with Hal Prince. Hal had originally planned to do it with Andrew Lloyd
Webber, but they had a financial falling-out, and then with Kander and Ebb, but
he asked me if I would do it, and I told him the same anecdote, and he said
"Well, let's do an opera then." And I said, "If I wanted to do an opera, that
sounds like a perfectly possible idea, but I don't want to do an opera, and
therefore I really don't want to do Sunset Boulevard."
New lyricists often find themselves faced with a choice: You can get a good joke or pithy line in, but it makes the rhythm (or rhyme) a bit forced...or you can say "less" and make a more singable line. Have you ever/often found yourself confronted with this choice and how do you resolve it? Could you give an example since each occasion is probably unique?>
Yes, it's a common problem, and one gets faced with it all the time; but I
learned from Burt Shevelove (particularly Burt, and also Oscar Hammerstein)
that the idea is more important than the cleverness, and that, if you really
want to make an audience laugh, it's the situation. A perfect example is the
beginning of "Barcelona" which is the funniest line in the song and the least
clever, but it's the idea of it. The same thing is true of "Have an Eggroll,
I could give you lots of examples of choices, but, since all the people
reading this might disagree with my choices, I think I will not. But of
course, it's a problem. It's very hard to write a genuinely funny lyric. It's
easy to write a clever one, and hard to write a funny one. The best way to do
it, I think, is to be sure that the situation is funny to begin with.
Making lyrics "singable" (allowing for the performers' abilities) baffles some new lyricists. Apart from having the experience of hearing one's lyrics performed, do you have any tips? Anyone whose work is especially worthy of study in this capacity?
Singability is something very few lyricists do well. To make words sit on
music comfortably and sound effortless takes a great deal of effort, and very
few lyrics throughout the history of musicals really do this. Quite often,
one is acutely aware of the lyric writer, as in the case of people like Ira
Gershwin and Lorenz Hart, where the accents and the stresses are off almost
constantly, and where the effortfulness and the twisting of syntax points the
problem up. On the other hand, in those days prior to Rodgers and
Hammerstein, conversational lyrics were not at a premium. That is to say, the
characters were not characters in the shows; there were block comedy scenes
and then songs, and the songs themselves were playful and therefore didn't
have to sound natural. In fact, probably half the fun for the listener was
that they didn't sound natural, they sounded forced. [In the work of] the
best lyricists (as for example Dorothy Fields, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin
and others of that generation, and a lot of people of my generation because
we were brought up to tell stories and make the lyrics sound as part of the
stories and conversational) the forced quality is much less noticeable.
People like Fred Ebb, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Herman make the lyric sound
natural: the rise and fall, the stress, the inflection sound much more like
speech and much less forced and there's much less inverted grammar and
syntax, and that's because our generation was affected by Hammerstein who
pioneered, so to speak (and maybe it's unfair to say that), but whose primary
concern, particularly later in his life, was that lyrics should sound natural
and not sound written. As for anybody whose work is "especially worthy of
study", certainly the above, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields and Berlin
particularly, and, as I say, many lyricists of my generation.
In writing for Broadway, do you ever take into consideration that a given song or line might be so tailored for your Broadway star that it will not be right for others who subsequently play the part? Is there ever a thought or instance of changing the published book or score to better suit the needs and talents of other actors or of little theatre groups with smaller orchestras?
No, I never do take into consideration that a song will be so tailored that
it might not be right for others and, at least in one occasion, it was an
error. In A Little Night Music, I wrote the part of Anne for a tessitura of
an octave and six, I think (an octave and minor seventh maybe, but I think it
was an octave and six); and, of course, the part of Anne requires somebody to
be young and beautiful and an actress who can play a selfish girl
sympathetically. So she has to act, sing, be beautiful, dance in the opening
number, and sing an octave and six, and, of course, I was able to do that
because I knew that Vicky (Mallory)was playing the part. But, in fact, no
girl since then has had all those qualities that Vicky had. So it was a
mistake, because something is always sacrificed when subsequent productions
As for changing the published book, no; but changing the score to better
suit the needs and talents...not so much changing the score, but indeed
smaller orchestrations, absolutely. If a show is successful enough, MTI,
which leases the rights, will finance a smaller orchestration. Jonathan
(Tunick) has, in fact, just done a smaller orchestration for Merrily We Roll
Along, which was a slight expansion of the one at the York Theatre; and there
are smaller orchestrations, I think, of Company, and I'm not sure about the
others. But it costs quite a lot of money for not only the orchestration but
for the copying, and so it's a major investment, and somebody has to finance
When you have written lyrics for another composer, do you feel more confined as a lyricist? That is, do you feel the lyrics themselves are markedly better when you are also composing the music?
Sure, you're more confined as a lyricist if you're writing for somebody
else's music; but on the other hand, if you have a good collaboration going,
you're flexible with each other's needs and the concomitant exigencies. As
for whether the lyrics are markedly better, no, I don't think that that
matters particularly. Certainly Jule Styne was the most flexible I worked
with because he kept referring to himself as a tunesmith rather than a
composer, and I would outline rhythms and even sometimes melodic rises and
falls so that the lyrics in a sense led the music for most of the songs in
Gypsy; and I think that the lyrics are very good, so, if you have, as I say,
a properly flexible collaboration, there's no reason that they can't be as
good as when you write the music yourself.
When writing a show before rehearsal, before any casting has been done, do you ever "cast" the production in your head and imagine those performers singing as you write the songs? If so, do those actors become your first choice for the roles?
I'm not one of those writers who casts a production in my head. George
Furth, for example, when he writes a book, always has specific actors in
mind, if not specific people in his life; and some other librettists do. I
can't speak for other songwriters, but I don't. Sometimes, of course, as in
the case of Gypsy, we knew Ethel Merman was going to play the part, so I had
her in mind as I was writing the score. Also true of Elaine Stritch in
Company - "The Ladies Who Lunch" was written with her in mind in advance, and
the same is true of Angela (Lansbury) and Len (Cariou) in Sweeney Todd. I had
written the first seven songs with Len in mind, hoping he would play the
part, although I didn't write specifically for him. In the case of Angie, I
played her one song that I had written for Mrs. Lovett, namely "Worst Pies in
London" and half a song in the second act to show her the other comic
approach, namely the music hall approach ("By the Sea"), so that she could
judge whether she wanted to do the role or not. Once she said yes, then again
I had her in mind, but I didn't write for her. Out of town, once you have a
show cast (and also during the rehearsal period), it becomes much easier
because you know who you're writing for, and you can take advantage of their
assets and play down their liabilities as performers.
I noticed at the Kennedy Center Honors you were introduced as the "subversive musical genius". Did you find the "subversive" label puzzling?
No, I think subversive merely implies that I keep turning things upside
down -- which is literally what subversive means; and, in a way, I guess I
do. I don't find it puzzling -it's just one of those labels.
What's the best, most creatively provocative comment you ever got from a director in the course of collaborating on a show?
You rarely get any kind of provocative comment from a director, but I
suppose the most provocative was Jerome Robbins' remark when I played him
"Maria" and he asked me what Tony was supposed to be doing during the song. I
said "Well, he's just standing there singing it. I mean, what do you do with
a song?" And Jerry said, rather grumpily, "Well then you stage it." And it
led into a discussion of static staging and songwriting. Not that a song
necessarily involves staging ideas, but that it should have something for the
director to springboard from. Now, in the case of "Maria", he had scenery
move while Larry Kert sang, so the song wasn't entirely static; and God
knows, there's a whole school of directors and traditional musicals in which
people just plant themselves on the stage and sing. But Jerry, both to make
his own job more spectacular and certainly the show more interesting,
believes in staging a song in his head before actually doing it, so every
time I do write a song, I have a staging notion in mind even if it's a simple
one, which I spell out for the director; the director need not follow it, but
it does give him a blueprint, and he doesn't have to think it all up out of
his own head.
And, in the interest of avoiding the pitfalls, what's the worst thing a director ever said, the thing that no director should ever say to a collaborator?
The worst thing a director ever said to me was also something Jerome Robbins
said, but I don't think I'll tell you what it is. He put me down in front of
my other collaborators in both West Side Story and Gypsy, and
in both cases it was not a good thing to do because it just froze me for 24
hours. But those are anecdotes I will save for a book, or something like that.
I have a question along these lines too. Do you think, Mr. Sondheim, that there are any inherent pitfalls in a writer directing his own work?
No. I think in the case of a musical, it's dangerous only because it's such
a complicated ship to steer into harbor. On the other hand, you know the
history of American playwriting and certainly German playwriting, as in the
case of Brecht, is directors doing their own work. I think in the commercial
theatre it's probably a mistake simply because there isn't an awful lot of
time for the director to rewrite if it's his own work. On the other hand,
James Lapine is an exception. I think it is right that he directs his own
work; he does it brilliantly. But I don't know anybody else. I know George
Abbott did, but I don't know anybody else who I would trust to do that.
I saw Passion in previews and the audience reaction was decidedly mixed. It seems that the audience had problems with Fosca's passive-aggressive behavior, and so do I. Isn't her love too obsessive to be held up as something to be lauded as noble (or, worse, as something to be emulated?)? Certainly her love, unrestrained by reason, leads her to insanity and death. Is the audience supposed to find this noble or praiseworthy? Shouldn't love be tempered by some reason?
Obviously, I don't agree with you and what you assume the audience had
problems with. I don't think that's what they have problems with so much, but
the point is, you say, "Isn't her love too obsessive to be held up as
something to be lauded as noble?" When do I call it noble? When do I laud it?
I'm writing about it. "...as something to be lauded," you say, "or worse, as
something to be emulated." Where do I say it should be emulated? You're
reading things in. We told a story. It's a story about this woman and how her
love changes that man, and it's not an essay. It's like people who think that
Sweeney Todd is about "man devouring man," forgetting that the man who sings
that line is an insane murderer in the middle of a manic state; and they
think it's the author's point of view.
You say "shouldn't love be tempered by some reason?" That's not a question
to a songwriter, that's just a question to another human being. It's not
should love be anything. There are kinds of love, and kinds of love. You keep
looking for a sampler to sew. It's like being in high school and being taught
that Macbeth is about overweening ambition. That's one of the things it's
about, and how it can lead to bad things, but that isn't the only thing it's
You're right on the nose when you say the mistress never
learns this lesson but Giorgio does. The second paragraph seems to contradict
your first paragraph. Maybe you changed your mind as you thought about it.
What do you think of Zadan's and Gottfried's books about you?
Craig Zadan's book: I was very careful that all the facts are right - that's
all I care about. Gottfried's book: I was also very careful there. I mean I
can't (and wouldn't want to) do anything about his opinions, but he had about
twenty mistakes per page as did Craig in the original. All I cared about was
that these books would be factually correct, which, with the exception of
some captions in Martin's book because I never got to see them, are. Both
books are at least correct in the facts. As far as opinions, obviously, I
can't comment on that - that's their business.
I direct musicals with teenagers and want to direct Company next summer. But I am having trouble with parental reaction to the marijuana scene. I would love to ask if you would ever consider writing another scene that would work in its place now that drugs, etc. are not viewed in the same light as they were in the 70's.
You're addressing me as if I were George Furth. I didn't write that scene;
George did, you'd have to ask him. I would advise him not to, because the
idea that kids can't see a play with a very mild comic scene about a couple
smoking marijuana for the first time...what movies do they go to: The Lion
Seeing the revival of Merrily reminds me that this was the last time you worked with Harold Prince who was the director/producer for so many of your early works. It was also funny to see the massed chorus work in Passion which so recalls Prince's stuff in Sweeney and Evita. Why did you stop working with Prince? Do you think your work with Lapine is different from your work with Prince? Is this because of personalities or material or both?
You say "The massed chorus work in Passion which so recalls Prince's stuff
in Sweeney and Evita." I don't understand. There have been massed choruses
since at least Porgy and Bess. What are we talking about here? In fact, when
have you ever seen a musical where the chorus wasn't massed? They were massed
in the title number of Oklahoma! Besides which, the only time the Passion
chorus is massed is during the Finale, a practice which also dates back to
The Black Crook.
As for why I stopped working with Hal, he stopped working with me is what
happened. He wanted to go off and do other things. He's always worked with
other people, and one forgets that directors work with many more people than
writers do because it takes much longer to write a show than it does to
direct one; and he worked with many other people before our last
collaboration. At any rate, I started a collaboration with Lapine and it was
a very happy one, and still is. Hal and I might work together or not. We'd
have to find something mutual - we've talked about a number of projects, but
it'll have to be something we both want to do. And my work with Jim is
obviously different than my work with Hal because they're entirely different
kinds of people and because Jim is a writer and Hal isn't, and that is a huge
difference. Jim's writing temperament informs his directorial work. You say
"Is it because of personalities or material or both" - obviously it's both,
because material comes from personality and personality informs material. I
think you can tell the difference in the work. James is very concerned with
the continuity of humanity and with what generations pass on to each other.
He's particularly interested in Jung, and his work often has a Jungian
influence. In fact, the play of his that got me interested in writing with
him was a play called Twelve Dreams which is based on a single sentence from
one of Jung's casebooks. Hal is very into spectacle, which is why he's
attracted to opera, and into what Wagner would call "total theatre" in which
all the elements add up to something huge. Not that James isn't, but the
budgets don't permit; and he's much more into the specifics of material
rather than into how they will stage. Hal starts visually - James does too
because he started as a photographer, but he also starts as a writer, and
that's the difference.
The philosopher R. M. Hare said that even if creative works don't have an explicit cognitive meaning, they always have what he called a "blik"--an overall vision of the world (is it benevolent? malevolent? indifferent?), a basic presupposition about the meaning of experience. What do you take to be your/your works' "blik"?
I can't believe that anybody ever tried to coin a word as clumsy as "blik",
but all right. No, I don't think I have a blik. Because I'm a collaborative
animal, I tend to take the blik of the person I work with, or of the people I
work with, and, as you point out in the previous question, the difference
between Hal and James, who are the two directors I've most recently worked
with steaily, is the difference in their bliks. Hal is much more kind of
removed and cold, and James is much more into a kind of overall cosmic,
poetic human view. Hal is, I think, more hard-eyed and more of an observer
and sharp, and when I work with Hal it's reflected in something like Company.
Then, of course, there are the librettists that one deals with. George Furth
has an entirely different blik which has to do very much with show business
and urban material, and John Weidman is very into political stuff. You know,
people have alleys that they pursue and that they explore. Arthur Laurents on
the other hand is into many different kinds of things. I think your
philosopher Mr. Hare is merely trying to categorize and pigeonhole stuff.
Would you ever consider publishing your notes on your work? Samuel Beckett's notebooks were recently published and got strong reviews. They are a great way to view the creative process in progress, and they could certainly benefit from your input in compiling them. We could get to know what was going on inside your mind as you developed the works.
I'm in the process of writing a book about my lyrics. It's going to be a
book of collected lyrics with little essays, anecdotes, etc. on them. Prose
does not come to me easily (I don't think I'm very good at it), but I'm going
to try anyway, and I've been collecting notes on the stuff for a few years
now, and I've signed a contract with Knopf to do the book, and I have
actually started writing the introduction and some of the notes on some of
the specific lyrics.
Was the London production of Woods, a much darker version than the Broadway show, ever filmed for video?
No, the London production, I'm sorry to say, was not ever filmed for video; and I'm really sorry because it was just wonderful.
I have performed in three productions of Forum over the years. A major point of contention always boils down to one item: could you please tell us how to pronounce the word "minae"? I have no clue and Larry Gelbart's not talkin'.
The word "minae" is pronounced "MIN-eye." I can't imagine any other way it
would be pronounced; but if you've ever taken a course in Latin, which I took
when I was a kid, that's just classical Latin.
What advice would you give a director approaching your work? Is there anything specific about the canon of your work which it is important to be aware of in starting to direct one of the shows?
I have no advice except to look at the text carefully, and I really mean the
libretto as well as the lyrics, to try to figure out what is the thrust of
the piece. It's exactly like directing a play - I don't think it's any
different. When you talk about the canon of my work, one of the things I like
about the shows I've written (I don't consider them a canon) is how different
they are from each other; and one's approach to Sunday In The Park With
George should be obviously different than one's approach to a melodrama like
Sweeney Todd or Follies or a sharp-edged musical comedy like Company or
Merrily We Roll Along. Those styles are so different and their subjects so
different, obviously then, the approach has to be entirely different.
You have said publicly that you do not like to return to previous works, that you like to focus on new ideas. Can you discuss why so much energy went into the recent revisions/revivals of Merrily? Does it have a special place in your heart?
Yes, it does. I think it's a terrific show, and I thought it was a terrific
show even back then when everybody was leaping on it with both feet. I think
the major problem with the 1981 production was the production and the
casting, and we were all responsible for it - that wasn't just Hal. It was a
notion, the idea of casting young and therefore inexperienced people, that
didn't work out; and then the production, as Hal is first to admit, was a
dreadful mistake. It's one of the few times in his life when he's made such a
mistake, visually. The idea was fine: he wanted to do the show as if it were
put on by kids, as if they had designed the costumes and the sets; and
unfortunately, when he got to looking at it during the tech rehearsals, he
realized he had made a mistake and so had to do the best he could to retract
and try to make the show work by putting on those sweatshirts and things like
that. But the set was always oppressive, and there was nothing one could do
about it. The idea behind the set was to make it like a gigantic unfolding
toy, but it just didn't work. And then George and I talked about flaws in the
piece which, because there have been complaints ever since the original play
was done in 1932, that nobody's interested in a selfish, venal compromiser;
and Kaufman and Hart suffered for it, and we thought maybe there was a way to
overcome it. And in this last version I think we did overcome it, by
combining two scenes near the beginning into one. And also, since it was a
mistake to do it with kids, we took out the high school graduation which I
think was also a very good move. And so it's now in, I think, excellent
shape, and it worked great last year in New York.
Assassins was a show which met an early closing because of, among other things, a threatening world climate (the Gulf War). Are there any plans to rework the show?
I can't imagine why we would want to rework the show because it opened
during a war - I don't get the connection. No, certainly no plans to rework
the show. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't want to touch one sentence of
it. It's exactly what we meant it to be.
You seem to be very busy these days, working on, according to various press reports, the movie of Woods, a musicalization of Alice in Wonderland, a new musical, etc. Are you happy being so busy?
Don't believe everything you read in the papers. First of all, the movie of
Into the Woods hasn't even got a director yet, so there's no work to do on
that. The musicalization of Alice in Wonderland is not really a
musicalization. There may be a song or two if I do it. I am writing a new
musical, and I've also finished a murder mystery (non-musical) with George
Furth. Yeah, it's fun to be busy, but it's most fun to write as I am now
doing with John Weidman.
Next year you turn 65, an age at which many people slow down or even retire, yet you seem to be going full throttle. Do you think of retiring? Or is your work an integral part of your life that you can't see yourself not writing?
No, I don't think of retiring. If I have to, I will, but I'm hoping I don't
have to, and I'm hoping that people will keep putting on the shows. I enjoy
writing, and I think that work is as much a part of life as any other aspect.
I was brought up in a work ethic, and it's not that I feel guilty when I
don't work, I just genuinely like it, even when I'm having a rotten time
From the first preview to opening night, Passion ran 1 hour 50 minutes, even though it went through many changes. Did Passion change during previews more than any of your other shows? And was it deliberate to keep the show at the same length?
Actually Passion changed less during its preview period than any other show
except West Side Story and Sweeney. In Gypsy, Company and Follies there were
a few wholesale cuts - new songs added, old songs thrown out. West Side
changed very little, and Sweeney changed very little; but all the other shows
changed more than Passion. It wasn't deliberate to keep the show at the same
length; but it's hard to ask an audience to sit over two hours without an
intermission, just because of some kind of inner clock that's built in. God
knows they sit for three hour movies, but there's something about the
theatre: There comes a point at which they become restless just because of
sitting, and I'm afraid you have to take that into account. But the real
point about the length of any show is: content dictates form. How long should
it be? And Passion seemed to run its course in an hour and fifty minutes:
that was enough to say what we wanted to say: and it's as lean as we can make
it: and I don't think we want to cut anything now: and I don't think we want
to add anything. We're satisfied with it the way it is, and it turned out to
be an hour and fifty.
Have you thought about writing an autobiography? Is any work being done on it?
No, I wouldn't dream of writing an autobiography, but there's a biography
being done by a good writer named Meryle Secrest who recently did a biography
of Leonard Bernstein. She also wrote biographies on Bernard Berenson and
Frank Lloyd Wright; and she's been pursuing me for a while, and I finally
said yes, so she's in the process of doing it.
You have a passion for games and puzzles. In fact, at one point, it was reported that you were so disappointed with the reception you received from the theater community that you were considering changing careers. Would you ever consider devoting some of your energy to working on those for a while?
I'd work on computer games if I had the time. We plan to do a CD-ROM version
of Into the Woods in which there's going to be an Into the Woods game which
I've worked out to teach music to both adults and kids. But no, I think it
takes enough energy and time to write a show, and I prefer writing shows and