In truth, Rich needn't have showed up. His questions were rather on the soft-ball side, and didn't really go much beyond "And then you wrote Follies. What was that like?" Pretty much anyone with even a passing knowledge of musical theater could have performed the same function. Sure, there was a certain added value to his presence, given his now legendary review of Follies for the Harvard Crimson, and other such overlaps, including his presence at the final DC performance of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But on the whole, the added value to Rich's presence was minimal.
Sondheim talked about a lot of stuff that we've heard before, but it was certainly a delight to hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were. What follows is a show-by-show breakdown of some of the stories and recollections that Sondheim related to a rapt audience of about 1,100 admirers. There was so much great stuff to relate that I'm going to be breaking it up into two separate posts.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
- This was definitely one of the more oft-told tales of the evening, but Sondheim related a few details that I found compelling. Famously, Forum was flopping in DC. The final out-of-town performance had 50 members sparsely scattered throughout a 1,700-seat theater. Jerome Robbins had come in to help doctor the show, and said the opening number, "Love Is in the Air," wasn't working. The song was charming, but Forum isn't. It's a low comedy. Enter "Comedy Tonight."
- Sondheim says that this certainly made sense to him, given what had learned from his apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein, who told him that the opening number is the most important part of a musical: it needs to tell the audience what to expect in terms of style and substance. "Comedy Tonight" went into the show in Broadway previews, and the rest, as they say...
- The original closing number to Company was called "Happily Ever After," which was eventually replaced by "Marry Me a Little" and ultimately "Being Alive." It's often said that "Happily" was cut because it was too much of a downer, but Sondheim said it was actually cut because it made the ending too bitter.
- "Side By Side" was originally supposed to be the 11 o'clock number, but Sondheim's agent suggested moving it to the opening of act 2 to give the audience a sort of progress report on Bobby. In its current place, the song really livens up the rest of the act.
- Most of the characters in Company were based on real people in librettist George Furth's life, while the part of Joanne was written specifically for Elaine Stritch. Sondheim was working on a number for her called "Crinoline," which was about memory and living in both the present and the past. (This, of course, would later become the theme for Follies.) Furth said, "No, that's not Elaine." Furth was out drinking very late one night with Stritch, in a bar on 3rd Avenue that was about to close. Stritch persuaded the bartender to keep bar open for her. "Honey," she said, "just give me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan." That's Elaine.
- During the show's tryout in Boston, the opening sequence to Follies was somewhat abstract and featured shrill, dissonant music and slowly moving ghosts, and the audience just wasn't getting it. Sondheim spoke of the responsibility that creators have to their audience. "It's OK if they don't like it, but if they don't understand it, that's something you have to fix," he said.
- Sondheim thought the original opening would have been truer to the theme of the piece, but he worked with choreographer/co-director Michael Bennett to devise a new opening. "The audience is your collaborator," he said. "It's not about pandering. You can be subtle or indirect, but you're not allowed to baffle."
A Little Night Music
- After such an expensive "flop" (his word, meaning Follies), Sondheim and Harold Prince wanted to make something that was a crowd-pleaser. Sondheim joked that he may indeed have a bit of a dark streak, but at the time a friend advised him to use Night Music as a chance to "show off." The friend exhorted him to "make it delightful, just a lighthearted operetta."
- The show was based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." While Night Music was running, Bergman contacted Sondheim about collaborating on a movie version of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. Bergman visited Sondheim the day after Bergman first saw A Little Night Music on Broadway. Sondheim asked him what he thought. Bergman said, "My dear boy, my movie and your musical share a story and nothing else. But we all eat from the same cake." Strangely enough, Bergman related that Victoria Mallory, who played the part of Ann, looked just like the woman Bergman had based the part on. "As for that Hermione Gingold, she does tend to fuck the audience, doesn't she?"
- Speaking of Hermione Gingold, when she auditioned for Night Music, Sondheim and Prince were worried that she might be too campy for the role, but she actually read extremely well. On her way out of the audition room, she told Sondheim and Prince, "I notice the character is 74 years old. So am I." (Later they found out she was actually 75.) Gingold also had noticed that at the end of the show, Madame Armfeldt dies, and the stage direction indicated that she slumps over and her wig falls off. Gingold took off her own wig, revealing that she was completely bald.
- Rich asked Sondheim if he knew whether Ingmar Bergman had seen the film version of A Little Night Music. "It may be what killed him," he said.
- Of course, Elizabeth Taylor played the part of Desiree in the movie version. Sondheim said that, to make her appear to sing on key, they had to cut and paste individual notes from multiple audio takes. And this was before digital editing.
- Taylor shared a trailer with co-star Diana Rigg. One day, Rigg asked Taylor if she knew that day's date. Taylor didn't, but started looking around for a newspaper. She found one, but said, "Oh, never mind. This is yesterday's paper."