By George Basler
Stephen Sondheim is not a big opera fan.
That’s one discovery I made while attending an appearance by Sondheim last weekend at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown.
The renowned composer was interviewed by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter. The two have known each other from the time Jamie, now 63, was a child. Sondheim, of course, worked with her father on the groundbreaking Broadway classic West Side Story.
The question-and-answer session, which drew a capacity audience, dovetailed with the Glimmerglass staging of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as part of its current season.
Sondheim said he prefers musical theater to opera because he likes how singing and the spoken work complement each other. There is something inherently silly about singing about taking out the garbage, he said.
At the same time, trying to label some of his works, notably Sweeney Todd, as opera, is not something he cares about. “Making labels is a fool’s game,” Sondheim said.
Essentially the difference between the two forms is the expectation of the audience, he argued. An opera is something done in front of an opera audience in an opera house. A musical play, or musical comedy, is something done on either a Broadway or off-Broadway stage before a musical theater audience, he said.
Sondheim has made this argument in the past, and people can certainly disagree. But what came across is that the composer doesn’t believe in categorization and believes there should not be a wall of separation between Broadway and opera audiences.
Sondheim said Sweeney was designed as a melodrama, which is basically a silly dramatic form. It also happens to be one of his favorite dramatic forms, if it’s done well.
The major reason for its success is the story, not the music, he said, because Christopher Bond’s retelling of the Victorian tale transformed a cartoonish monster into a more complex character. “Revenge is basic. We all feel it one way, or another, and Bond caught that,” he noted.
While some have read social and political themes into Sweeney Todd, Sondheim said that was not his intention. “I couldn’t care less about saying anything,” he said.
His goal in Sweeney was purely, and simply, “to scare an audience.”
Asked about pop composers who try their hand at writing Broadway musicals, Sondheim said that many don’t realize that the most important thing in a musical is telling a story.
The composer, who is 86, said he is working on another musical, and, as might be expected, the subject is not conventional. The show will blend two movies by the Spanish film director Luis Bunuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, into a musical.
Composer Thomas Ades has turned The Exterminating Angel into an opera, Sondheim said, and both works are due to be staged in 2017 in New York. Sondheim said he is excited about the prospect because audiences will be able to compare how the same material is presented in an operatic format and a musical theater format. (Sondheim said he has made a point of not listening to any of the opera, which has already been staged in Salzburg, Austria.)
On a lighter note, the composer talked about how he wanted to be the first composer to use a four-letter word on the Broadway stage when he wrote the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story. Goddard Lieberson, the head of Columbia Records, gently talked him out of it by explaining that using the word would mean the cast album couldn’t be shipped across state lines. Leonard Bernstein suggested the alternate ending, “Krup you,” which worked a great deal better, Sondheim acknowledged. Also the inclusion of this word could have caused an offsetting moment as the musical contained no other expletives.
Sondheim shared an anecdote about the great Ethel Merman, whom he worked with when he wrote the lyrics for Gypsy. Merman was known for her brassy style on, and off, the stage, but Sondheim said he had no problem with her
Not so, Loretta Young.
The movie actress had a television show in the 1950s, and Merman was a guest, Sondheim related. Young was known for her strict propriety, and when Merman used a mild curse word in rehearsal, Young told her swearing was not allowed on the set, and she would have to fork over a quarter for charity.
When Merman did it again, Young collected another quarter. But Merman got the best of it when she cursed a three times in a row. As Young approached her to collect a quarter, Merman handed her a $10 bill and said, “Here’s $10, Loretta. Go f—k yourself!”