Sunday, November 28, 2021

Sunday Reading

A Last Visit with Stephen Sondheim — Michael Paulson of the New York Times visited him five days before his death.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa, New York Times.

ROXBURY, Conn. — Stephen Sondheim stood by the gleaming piano in his study, surrounded by posters of international productions of his many famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired whether a visitor might be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but hadn’t finished yet.

“And now would you like to hear the score?” he asked. Of course, the answer was yes. “You got some time?” he asked, before laughing, loudly, with a sense of mischief: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!”

That was Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, had welcomed me to his longtime country house for a 90-minute interview with him and the theater director Marianne Elliott about a revival of “Company” that is now in previews on Broadway. It would turn out to be his final major interview.

There was little indication that Mr. Sondheim, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, was unwell. He was engaged and lucid, with strong opinions and playfully pugnacious, as with the tease about his long-gestating, unfinished final musical. At one moment he complained that his memory wasn’t as strong as it had been, but he was also telling anecdotes from a half-century earlier with ease.

He was having a little trouble getting around — using a cane, seeking assistance to get in and out of chairs, and in obvious pain when walking — which he attributed to an injury. Asked about the state of his health, he answered by knocking on a wood table and saying, “Outside of my sprained ankle, OK.”

He was busy right until the end. On Nov. 14 he attended the opening of an Off Broadway revival of his musical “Assassins,” directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company. The next night he went to the first post-shutdown preview for the Broadway revival of “Company” — a reimagined production, opening Dec. 9, in which the protagonist, who has traditionally been played by a man, is now played by a woman. And just this week, two days before he died, he did a doubleheader, seeing a Wednesday matinee of “Is This a Room” and an evening performance of “Dana H.,” two short documentary plays on Broadway.
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“I can’t wait,” he said as he anticipated seeing those shows. “I can smell both of those and how much I’m going to love them.”

He was not inclined to make any grand pronouncements on the state of Broadway. “I don’t take overviews — I never have taken overviews,” he said. “Whither Broadway? I don’t answer the question. Who knows. I don’t really care. That’s the future. Whatever happens will happen.”

One thing he was hoping would happen: one more musical. For years he had been collaborating with the playwright David Ives and the director Joe Mantello on a new musical, most recently titled “Square One,” adapted from two movies directed by Luis Buñuel.

“The first act is based on ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,’ and the second act is based on ‘The Exterminating Angel,’ ” he explained during the interview. “I don’t know if I should give the so-called plot away, but the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”

Asked if he had any sense when it might be finished, Mr. Sondheim said, “No.”

Why did he hope to keep working when he could just bask in appreciation?

“What else am I going to do?” he asked. “I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?”

And did he write daily in his final weeks? “No, I’m a procrastinator,” he said. “I need a collaborator who pushes me, who gets impatient.”

When it was pointed out that he had been a procrastinator throughout his career, and that it had seemed to work for him, he said, “Yes, I have. Yeah, I think forever. Not when I was a hungry teenager — when I wanted so much to have a show done, I don’t think I was a procrastinator then. But once I had a show done, I think part of me got lazy.”

But with his shows running on Broadway and off, and a major film adaptation of “West Side Story” about to be released, Mr. Sondheim was clearly feeling good about the current reception of his work.

He confirmed his longstanding lack of interest in movie musicals, saying, “Growing up, I was a huge fan of movies, and the only genre that I wasn’t a fan of was musicals — I loved the songs, but not the musicals.”

But he was obviously delighted about the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation of “West Side Story,” a musical for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, that is scheduled to be released next month. “I think it’s just great,” he said. He added, “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”

He was looking forward to even more in the months to come: a new production of “Into the Woods,” for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, is scheduled to be staged by the Encores! program at New York City Center next May. Also, Mr. Sondheim revealed, New York Theater Workshop is hoping to stage an Off Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, directed by Maria Friedman, who has previously directed well received productions in London and Boston.

Asked which of his shows he’d most like to see revived next, he appeared stumped. “What would I like to see again that I haven’t seen in a while? I’d have to think about it, because an awful lot of the shows I’ve been a writer of have been done in the last few years.” He added, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had good revivals of the shows that I like.”

Oh, No, The Books Are Back — Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post.

I regret to say they are putting the books back on the shelves now in Virginia, the threatened books, the banned ones. They have evaluated them and found them to contain no threat. (Reports of their containing pornography were greatly exaggerated, or perhaps adjudicators were simply not flipping fast enough.)

This is no good. Such books are bad. Maybe all books are bad, not just the challenged ones. Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside. They make you feel things, sometimes, hope and grief and shame and confusion; they tell you that you’re not alone, or that you are, that you shouldn’t feel ashamed, or that you should; replace your answers with questions or questions with answers. This feels dangerous to do, a strange operation to perform on yourself, especially late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping.

They are an insidious and deadly poison. Years after you read them, they come back and bother you late at night. They clang around inside your skull. They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again. They have no respect for the boundaries of your dreams. They put turns of phrase into your gut where you digest them slowly and regurgitate them where they are least expected.

They make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows. Nothing happens in them at all, or they take you to hell and take you back out of it. They teach you how to fold a paper airplane or what is the wrong dress to wear. When people in them do things that are wrong, you are just as upset as you would be if you knew them.

Some of them, of course, pose less of a risk. They take you nowhere; they contain only stale, bland, erroneous facts; they are full of people you dislike, and you understand them less when you put them down than when you started. These are less threatening. Their illusions are less complete.

People should not be left long unsupervised with books. You can be riding a bus and miss eight stops because you are not riding a bus at all — you are somewhere entirely different watching somebody throw an important piece of jewelry into a volcano. Books give you the faulty idea that you can safely travel in realms of gold or voyage leagues underwater without getting wet; they make it impossible to be certain that your new classmate is not a rat under a series of raincoats; they send you pingponging into the past where you could do considerable harm if allowed to wander; they dispatch you into futures that don’t exist and trick you into thinking they could. Some of them are terrifying. Some of them are stomach-churning. All of them are treacherous, especially if you are reading them when walking. Don’t read them when walking.

Let me tell you about something that a book did: It convinced me that the things inside it were true; it told me so many lies that I started to believe it. I loved it; it infuriated me; I broke its spine in half. Books have taken me into dark woods and the bellies of whales and spat me out dazed and blinking into my own living room and knocked me around backward and forward through time and delivered me gossip from the distant past and facts from the recent present.

Books give you recipes for living, and some of the recipes are good and others taste foul the first time you try them. You read them with friends and come away with entirely different ideas of what has happened. They are uncontainable, uncontrollable, except if you never open them.

Burning them is odd. You would think that objects of such power would give off extraordinary heat or light, or explode, but they just burn as though unaware of what they are made of. They go off shelves and onto banned lists in the same manner, quietly, as though not conscious of their power.

You are right to be frightened of them, and it is very bad they are being brought back. You will realize they are much too dangerous when you think of all they can do.

Doonesbury — That’ll show ’em.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Books? All it takes is a New Yorker or NYMag or something and I can miss a subway transfer station. Then it’s some fast replotting to get where I want to go – like a dentist appointment in Manhattan a few days ago. Fortunately I had included some extra trip time (necessarily given that I live in southern Brooklyn).

    I don’t think I have any unusual powers of concentration. It’s just that we really pretty much have one track minds.


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