Sam Mendes on Stephen Sondheim: ‘He was passionate, utterly open and sharp as a knife’ | Stephen Sondheim

He saved a collection of grooming utensils in his visitor toilet: nail scissors, implements for trimming nostril hair, that form of factor. He had a barely shambolic air, and a itemizing gait, like a grad scholar impersonating a grownup, or as if his nanny had brushed his hair for him that morning. He would rock his head again when he talked and typically spoke together with his eyes closed, like somebody communing with a greater energy, which he in all probability was. His newest enthusiasms had been all the time close to the floor – to listen to him discuss Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet, for instance, was to make one wish to go and see it over again (he truly flew a group of his New York associates to London to see the manufacturing). He was equally expressive in his condemnation of labor he didn’t look after. He was passionate, opinionated, uningratiating, sharp as a knife.

‘He burst into tears and retired to the bathroom’ … Sondheim and Mendes in 2003, when Gypsy launched on Broadway.
‘He burst into tears and retired to the lavatory’ … Sondheim and Mendes in 2003, when Gypsy launched on Broadway. {Photograph}: Bruce Glikas/Getty Photographs

Till his later years, when he selected to spend extra time in Connecticut, he was all New York. Steve noticed every little thing: he taught me easy methods to calculate precisely the period of time it could take to stroll to every particular person theatre by judging what number of blocks east to west (5 minutes per block) and north to south (two minutes). For this explicit wide-eyed Brit, Steve’s life on East forty ninth Avenue was a dream of New York within the twentieth century. A good looking brownstone, wood-panelled, with partitions stuffed with framed phrase video games and puzzles. A grand piano regarded out on a walled backyard crammed with vines and flowers.

Katharine Hepburn lived subsequent door. When he first purchased the home, he instructed a story of wandering out into the backyard at nightfall, turning again and seeing Hepburn standing within the lit window. From behind her, Spencer Tracy stepped out of the darkness, wrapped his arms round her and closed the curtains. Years later, after his musical Assassins had debuted off-Broadway, Hepburn approached him slowly and shakily to ship her verdict over the backyard wall. “You’re a curious man, Mr Sondheim,” she mentioned. He was.

As he obtained older, his feelings had been nearer to the floor – ironic for somebody who was generally accused of a lack of heat in his work. I as soon as had supper with him alone at forty ninth Avenue, throughout which he described the legendary manufacturing of The Tempest by Giorgio Strehler. When he spoke in regards to the ultimate moments, and of Prospero accepting that his powers had been gone, he burst into tears and retired to the lavatory.

He was an incredible collaborator when he was on your aspect. Not a lot enjoyable when he wasn’t – I watched him storm out of a manufacturing of A Little Evening Music in Chichester in utter fury. And I was working on the Nationwide Theatre when he first noticed Stephen Pimlott’s (I assumed) fantastic manufacturing of Sunday within the Park With George – and one way or the other the entire constructing knew his opinion of the second act by 10am the following morning. However once you had been fortunate sufficient to be on the receiving finish of his admiration – an expertise I had with each Assassins and Firm on the Donmar – it was fairly exhilarating. He would cry (tears had been by no means distant), select moments he cherished, spot each element, wax lyrical.

Company, written by Sondheim and directed by Mendes, at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1995.
‘He was an incredible collaborator’ … Firm, written by Sondheim and directed by Mendes, on the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1995. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He was all the time utterly open to new interpretations of his work. Certainly he inspired them – and in doing so, he broke the standard mould of the American musical theatre, which tended to decree that the unique manufacturing was the appropriate and just one, so the work was then calcified for all eternity by draconian guidelines handed down by writer’s estates and leisure legal professionals. He believed artwork – particularly theatre artwork – needed to be a dwelling, evolving factor, or it was nothing. In that regard he was the other of his someday collaborator Arthur Laurents, with whom he co-wrote West Aspect Story and Gypsy. Laurents was literal, inflexible, and lacked Steve’s confidence that the work may survive a number of interpretations. For instance, see the astonishing array of productions of Sweeney Todd, as against the only stale manufacturing of West Aspect Story that did the rounds for many years – a scenario solely remedied very lately after Laurents’ loss of life by new variations from Ivo Van Hove and now Steven Spielberg.

Proof of Steve’s boundless enthusiasm for brand new iterations of his work is alive and properly in New York as I write this – John Doyle’s manufacturing of Assassins and Marianne Elliott’s of Firm, each new-minted and as recent as the day they had been first carried out.

His legacy is unquestioned – and finest left to others to explain. Not solely the reveals, but in addition his two extraordinary books, written when he had principally run out of juice for the stage. They’re uncommon and important items in that they describe creation from the within. Full of fabulous element and perception, they’re important studying for anybody who desires to know what theatre might be on the highest attainable stage, and for all those that now should attempt to stand on his shoulders.

Hit show … Assassins, directed by Mendes, at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992.
Hit present … Assassins, directed by Mendes, on the Donmar Warehouse in 1992. {Photograph}: Donald Cooper/Alamy

As for the reveals themselves, the excessive spots stay private: Sorry-Grateful from Firm, Each Day a Little Demise from A Little Evening Music, Sunday from Sunday within the Park, and just about the entire of Sweeney Todd. There are a number of recollections which are mine alone, nonetheless, one thing for which I stay absurdly fortunate and stupidly grateful. Right here’s one: we had been working on the considerably ill-fated New York Theatre Workshop manufacturing of his final produced musical, then known as Sensible Guys. Steve had introduced in a new track to rehearsals that morning entitled A Little Home for Mama. As our musical director Ted Sperling sat singing the track for the primary time on the piano in his mild falsetto, and the afternoon solar streamed into the dusty previous rehearsal room, I discovered that tears had been rolling down my face.

The track was so easy, so easy, but appeared to talk to the center of those that struggled (as Steve did) with a lifelong must heal a relationship that may by no means be healed. I regarded over to him and he was crying too. “Moms,” he mentioned.

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