Tonight I slipped into seat 18 row AA in the balcony at the Skirball Center on NYU's campus and eavesdropped on a conversation between two of the most important voices in musical theatre. Tony Kushner, perhaps best known for Angels in America and Caroline or Change played the role of journalist to Stephen Sondheim's (West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, Company, etc) gracious legend.
The following are a collection of quotes from the evening. I only wish I brought a tape recorder.
When asked his thoughts regarding the connection between himself and his characters Sondheim said "When people think you are your work you become a cliche."
Speaking of his characters: "They are creatures that have nothing and everything to do with me."
Sondheim pointed out that the greats of the generation before him (Porter, Hart) revealed themselves through their music. It wasn't until after Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! that lyricists were required to write music based on a story.
Regarding show material: "It's never occurred to me to write about a subject. I write about a story."
In discussing West Side Story Sondheim said that he and Jerome Robbins discussed the feeling and intensity needed for Anita's song and then "I just went home and wrote it."(By "it" he meant "A Boy Like That.")
Regarding "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy Sondheim in a fascinating turn discussed Jerry Robbins' initial concept for a ballet. Rose was to relive all the hardships of the past and struggles throughout the show up until that point. But, in large part decided by the talents of their leading lady, Sondheim and Robbins decided to pen "Rose's Turn" instead. Sondheim described to the audience Ethel Merman's response (complete with an impression of the diva): "Sounds more like an aria than a song!" He went on to say of Merman his inner monologue at the time: "She has no idea what she's doing and does it great."
Sondheim defines genius as "a man of endless invention" and gives that title to only one man he's known in his life: Jerry Robbins. Sondheim discussed the "games parties" he used to host. (Can you imagine?) He said that Robbins would invent games on the spot. One such game involved the party goers sitting in a circle and Robbins making sounds behind them (the click of a lighter or an umbrella opening) and guests would try to identify the noise. "Jerry was listening to things we heard but never noticed." Genius.
In a hilarious recount of the 80th birthday special Kushner compared Mr. Sondheim to Christ "complete with an ascension." (Kushner's sense of humor and low-key demeanor strikingly reminded me of an older Michael Cera.) Sondheim said "but Christ didn't openly sob in public."
Regarding his modesty Sondheim said "I know how good I am and I know what my flaws are."
When asked whether he goes where the music takes him or has an end goal with each song Sondheim said "a lyric is such a short form that you better know where you're going."
"Rhyme helps to prevent you from being trivial...It's about focus."
"Lyrics have to convey on first hearing what is going on."
"Lyrics must be surprising but not so dense they can't follow it."
Kushner then discussed Merrily We Roll Along and the role of politics in Sondheim's work. When asked whether he was optimistic about the future Sondheim said "I do believe in the goodness of man but I don't know that good always triumphs. But goodness does."
Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts then joined the conversation and asked Sondheim about his role as teacher. He noted that in Sondheim's new book Finishing the Hat he had a very pedagogical tone. "My life has been saved through teachers. It is the sacred profession." "Art is a form of teaching. That's why I'm so pleased to be an artist."
Sondheim proved further inspiring as he went on: "Art is conveying something about humanity...it [should] enlighten." Kushner expressed that in his view art is not necessarily teaching. Sometimes it is meant to "confuse them," he said in a joking tone.
The final topic asked of Sondheim to discuss was his view on critics--a timely topic given the painful reviews hurled at Spider-man after its first preview last night. "Critics have a stewardship to this vulnerable art form. It's not just about being honest about your opinion but knowing your role in the art form." Sondheim pointed out that without the luxury of advertising dollars critics have the power to see a show sink or swim. He expressed his delight that critics can't kill a book (speaking of Finishing the Hat) but they certainly have killed plays.
At the conclusion of the discussion the Public announced that Alec Baldwin will be hosting the next Public Forum on Tuesday December 14 entitled "Afghanistan After America".