Stephen Sondheim on Broadway, Lady Gaga, and Sex Dungeons

The Times of London

March 13, 2015

“There is no basis of truth in it whatsoever. It bothers me. What it represents is people trying to put me down and trash me. It’s like saying, ‘So and so’s a drunk’, ‘Who does he think he is?”

Any visitor to Stephen Sondheim’s Manhattan townhouse must first run the sniffing, leaping gauntlet of his two black standard poodles, Addie and Willie, named after the lead characters in his and John Weidman’s 1999 musical, Road Show. “My partner Jeff [Romley], who’s a great deal younger than me he is 36, Sondheim 84], takes them for hikes in the country,” says Sondheim. “Willie’s a lovebug, Addie’s a predator. Anyone even smelling of food is in danger.”

The godfather of modern musical theatre is like a benevolent bear: white-haired, bearded, in T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and recovering from a heavy cold. We sit in his plush living room , its walls crowded with vintage games and puzzles. “I’d swap them all for one Seurat drawing,” he says, smiling, reminding me of the one that inspired Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which he later tells me “a very famous film producer” wants to make into a movie.

Sondheim is emotional, witty and candid (he worries too much), which one would expect from the composer of such exceptional musicals as Company, Merrily We Roll Along and Follies, with their piercing lyrics and bewitching, off-kilter melodies.

Among his more rambunctious musicals, Sweeney Todd is about to resurface twice in the West End. The demon barber of Fleet Street will be plying his trade at English National Opera in a semi-staged production starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. And there’s a scaled-up version of Rachel Edwards’ Tooting Arts Club production that played in Harringtons Pie and Mash shop, London’s oldest functioning pie shop, last October and which Sondheim enjoyed immensely. “There were 32 people, a pie counter, four tables, a piano and cello,” he recalls. “When one actor started singing in front of the lady across from me, she screamed.” Another night, alerted by reports of screams, a policeman asked about the dead bodies on the floor.

You’re never far from a Sondheim production (there’s also a West End transfer coming this month of Gypsy, starring Imelda Staunton, the 1959 musical on which Sondheim worked as the lyricist). He says his current favourite is an off-Broadway production of Into the Woods. He liked the film adaptation of his fairytale mash-up starring Meryl Streep, preferring “actors who sing rather than singers who act” because he writes conversational musicals. How he creates is illuminated in two books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. The “hat”, first referenced in Sunday in the Park with George, is a metaphor for the joy of artistic creation. Into the Woods didn’t victoriously sweep awards season, but Sondheim thinks “very little” of that. “Awards matter when you’re young. They give you confidence. Most come when you’re older when it’s too late. The ones that have real meaning come with money.”

All Together Now, the musical Sondheim is writing with the playwright David Ives, is “coming along slowly”. Based on two Luis Buñuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, he says, “If I’m lucky I’ll finish it. I don’t see it as my final piece, but there can’t be that many left. It takes a long time to write them.”

“Ageing is no fun,” he says. “My memory isn’t sharp. All your energies diminish. You don’t want to make any more friends than you’ve made and they’re all dying anyway. You want to leave the house less. I don’t want to even leave the couch to go to the next room. I rode a bike to Broadway for 20 years. You get to know every pothole in New York. Watch me climb the stairs and you’ll know I’m an old man climbing the stairs. That also happens at the piano.”

Stravinsky and Picasso are exceptions, he says: “The late work of most first-rate artists is second-rate.” This worries Sondheim, “but if you’ve gotta write, you’ve gotta write”. He contemplates his mortality, “all the time. You find yourself thinking more about death than about life. Work is the great revivifier.” Sondheim goes into a trance state when writing and still finds “making something out of nothing” — that hat — thrilling. At retirement, Sondheim scoffs: “I don’t know what that means.”

He was close to his supportive father Herbert, a dress manufacturer. His cruel mother was a “difficult and selfish woman. She wanted a career and didn’t want children,” but too much has been made of their vexed relationship, Sondheim says. “Many people have difficult relationships with their parents. People see Madame Rose in Gypsy, and say ‘It’s your mother,’ but it wasn’t.” At the age of ten, Sondheim became friends with Jamie Hammerstein, son of Oscar, the lyricist who became Sondheim’s “surrogate father” and mentor. His experimentalism inspired Sondheim’s.

Sondheim and Romley have been together for 11 years. “It’s having somebody in your life who enriches you,” Sondheim says, “somebody who doesn’t let every day be the same day, somebody who forces you to go outside of yourself”. It is his second relationship; his first, when he turned 60, was with Peter Jones, a dramatist who now works for him. The age gap between him and Romley is “an interesting deal. The kinds of music I grew up on are entirely different to his. Although he loves my kind of music, I do not share his taste for contemporary pop music.”

While Sondheim enjoyed the new Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“the essence of the musical theatre I grew up on”), he is not a fan of Lady Gaga, whom Romley “would crawl a mile to see. On the Academy Awards [in which she performed a medley of Sound of Music songs] she was a travesty. It was ridiculous, as it would be from any singer who treats that music in semi-operatic style. She had no relationship to what she was singing. What people liked was her versatility.”

Sondheim may not want to deal with pop concerts’ “screaming fans”, but he went to a Radiohead gig where “the audience was more like church than concert”. He is a fan of the group’s harmonies. “For me music has always been about harmonies. Most pop music today isn’t: it’s about rhythm, sonic values, performance and visceral reaction.”

The lack of innovation on Broadway frustrates him. The UK stage is creatively richer, he thinks, because of government funding of the arts. The rise of the “jukebox musical” also rankles. “I’m interested in storytelling and these are stories designed around groups of songs and that restricts storytelling, so I don’t find them interesting. The genre doesn’t excite me.” As for the vogue for primetime television musicals, such as NBC’s Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams of the TV hit Girls, he is scathing. “From what little I’ve seen, they’re so embarrassingly bad you have to sit and make fun of them or you’re just wasting your time.”

People assume that Sondheim writes autobiographically. “No. These characters have been created by a playwright. The discovery Schubert was a homosexual has led people to look for clues in his music. They look for clues in mine. It’s nonsense, but it helps people navigate through the mysterious shoals of creativity.”

When I met Sondheim in 2012 he spoke about the state of Broadway, having his first non-platonic relationship at 60 and the state of musicals. Yet a couple of Manhattan theatre-addict friends had only one question for me afterwards: “What about the sex dungeon?”

There’s a rumour you have a sex dungeon, I say. Sondheim laughs. “I have heard of this. I don’t know how it got started.” (He ponders one possible source as the critic Martin Gottfried, who died last year.) So you haven’t got one? “No, I haven’t. There is no basis of truth in it whatsoever. It bothers me. What it represents is people trying to put me down and trash me. It’s like saying, ‘So and so’s a drunk’, ‘Who does he think he is?’

“If you go downstairs there’s a washing machine and a boiler. There’s one great thing down there and that’s a cedar closet with all my original manuscripts in it.” In 1995 a fire almost destroyed a cupboard in his assistant’s office, so the papers were moved to the cellar, “which of course could be flooded but we’re hoping that doesn’t happen”.

Fame and being “Stephen Sondheim” means very little. “I have no sense of myself that way. That’s not modesty. It’s lack of awareness. When people would shake my hand and their palms were wet I would think, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It’s also because my mother convinced me I was a piece of shit and that lasts. My father would say I’m the best.” The effects of both “prevented me being egotistical”.

He doesn’t care about his legacy: “I won’t be around to enjoy it.” Sondheim still likes writing. “Then you think of the other things. How will it be received? Will people be disappointed? Do you have any fresh ideas left? All the self-doubt . . . and then when you’re finishing the hat” — he smiles — “it’s really good.”