THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sondheim Talks Follies
Dorfman Theatre at the National
By Jarlath O'Connell
With a new production of his masterpiece Follies about to start previewing in the Olivier Theatre, Stephen Sondheim gave a platform talk at National Theatre where fellow composer/librettist Jeremy Sams interviewed him before a packed audience.
Now a sprightly 87 he shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down and indeed he revealed he is working on a new show based on two of Bunuel's movies, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. Erudite, articulate and witty he's an interviewer's dream, listening to questions and giving carefully considered answers. He answered one woman's question about process with a perfect two minute summation of his craft; the nub of it was: "Every song should progress in some way, it must have a function".
A walking encyclopaedia of the Popular Song this knowledge has always infused his own writing. His trademark has been to break new ground, thematically and stylistically, every time, while building on what went before. In this regard he commended Hamilton's Lin Manuel Miranda for stealing from the past in his work. "Talent borrows, genius steals," he quipped, quoting Stravinsky.
Sondheim explained that he and James Goldman started writing Follies in 1965 but Hal Prince diverted him to creating Company first in 1970, with Follies opening in April 1971. In the interim Goldman of course went off to write The Lion in Winter.
Initially the show was called 'The Girls Upstairs' and the plot had more tricks in it including the comical prospect of it ending with Sally attempting to shoot Ben with a pistol, only to find that the myopic Ben, standing across the room, has to pause to put on his spectacles to see what she is doing. A great middle aged gag, it must be said.
He described how through 5 drafts he and Goldman had trouble getting the plot started as they had fixed on the 'Follies' sequences being the driver of the piece, until it dawned on them to just dump the plot. Company, the first successful plotless musical, as he called it, had given them the confidence to do this.
What makes Follies so remarkable was how it married a conventional story of two middle aged couples meeting up at a 30 year theatrical reunion of former show dancers with the ingenious idea of using loving pastiches of period song styles to tell their story.
The pastiche songs reveal the truth of the characters' feelings whilst the 'book' songs, which advance the story, have them lying to themselves and to us. He recounted how the use of a simple 'ballet design' for the show made it easier to overlay the show's signature ghost scenes, where the older disappointed characters are mirrored by their younger ghost selves.
The pastiches are very specific love letters to particular song writers, be it Lehar, Cole Porter, Burton Lane, or Harold Arlen, or just recreations of vaudeville staples like silly novelty songs or cod French numbers.
'Losing My Mind', the show's big hit, was stolen, he said, from 'The Man That Got Away'. The late Barbara Cook, whom he warmly acknowledged, put the show on the map again with her performance in the now legendary 1985 Follies in Concert recording at Lincoln Center.
He also revealed the genesis of 'I'm Still Here' the show's other big hit, by stating "I wrote Joan Crawford's life in a song". It was hurriedly written while the show was trying out in Boston. The movie star Yvonne De Carlo, making her own comeback, needed a number to display her still impressive vocal range. The lyrics are a wonderful pen portrait of American social history and popular culture from 1925-1946 and now you realise they also map out Crawford's career. Has anyone else better summed up the fate of every female movie star: "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you're camp"?
Sondheim talked about the importance of getting choice of Director right and his preference for someone who will serve the text rather than themselves. He sang the praises of Marianne Elliott who is about to stage a new production of Company where Bobby, the central character, will be a woman. He described how she convinced him this would work. On the other hand he called a halt to a plan by John Tiffany, another director he greatly respects, to staging Company with an all-male cast and making it about a bunch of gay friends. He described how he was sceptical but he let them workshop it and it became clear it was tonally wrong and just wouldn't work. He put paid to the idea, often debated by Sondheim fans, that Bobby is actually gay, saying how that was never his intention and he would have written it differently if it was.