Sam Mendes On Stephen Sondheim: ‘He Was Passionate And Totally Open-Air And Sharp As A Knife | Stephen Sondim

NSHe keeps a selection of grooming supplies in his guest bathroom: nail scissors, nose hair trimmers, that kind of thing. He had a slightly rough air, and an upright gait, like a graduate student impersonating an adult, or as if the nanny had blown his hair for him that morning. He would shake his head back when he spoke and would often talk with his eyes closed, like someone communicating with a higher power, perhaps he was. His latest excitement was always on the surface – to hear him talk about him Hamlet Rory KinnearFor example, it was to make one want to go and see it all again (in fact he took a group of his New York friends to London to see the production). He was equally expressive in his condemnation of an act he did not care about. He was passionate, stubborn, indifferent, sharp as a knife.

“He broke down in tears and retired to the bathroom”… Sondheim and Mendes in 2003, when Gypsy took off on Broadway. Photo: Bruce Glickas/Getty Images

Until his later years, when he chose to spend more time in Connecticut, it was all New York. Steve saw it all: he taught me how to calculate exactly how much time it would take to walk to each individual theater by judging the number of blocks from east to west (five minutes per block) and north to south (2 minutes). For this wide-eyed Briton, Steve’s life on East 49th Street was a dream of 20th century New York. Beautiful brown stone, wood paneled, with walls full of framed word games and puzzles. A grand piano overlooks a walled garden filled with vines and flowers.

Katharine Hepburn lived next door. When he first bought the house, he told a story of wandering in the garden at dusk, turning back and seeing Hepburn standing in the lit window. Behind her, Spencer Tracy stepped out of the darkness, wrapped his arms around her, and closed the blinds. Years later, after his music the killers Having made her off-Broadway debut, Hepburn slowly approached him and shook to pass her judgment on the garden wall. “You are curious Oh man, Mr. Sondheim,” she said. It was.

As he got older, his emotions were closer to the surface – ironic for someone who has sometimes been accused of a lack of warmth in his work. I dined with him alone on 49th Street, where he described the legendary production of The Tempest by Giorgio Streler. When he spoke of his last moments, and of Prospero accepting the demise of his powers, he broke down into tears and retired to the bathroom.

He was a great collaborator when he was on your side. He wasn’t much fun when he wasn’t – I watched him walk out of A Little Night Music production in Chichester in sheer rage. And I was working at National Stage When he first saw Stephen Pimlot’s (I thought) wonderful production of Sunday in the Park with George – and somehow the entire building knew what he thought of Chapter Two by 10 a.m. the next morning. But when I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his admiration – an experience I had with both Assassins and Company in Donmar – it was absolutely exhilarating. He was crying (tears were never far away), capturing the moments he loved, capturing every detail, and waxing sings.

Company, written by Sondheim and directed by Mendes, at Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1995.
“He has been a wonderful collaborator” … Inc., written by Sondheim and directed by Mendes, at Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1995. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He was always quite open to new interpretations of his work. In fact, he encouraged them—and in doing so, breaking the traditional mold of American musical theater, which tended to decree that the original production was one and only, so the work was calcified forever by the strict rules followed. By the author’s property and entertainment attorney. He believed that art – and specifically theater art – had to be something living and developing, or it was nothing. In this regard, he was the opposite of his assistant Arthur Lorentz, with whom he co-wrote the West Side story and Gypsy. Lawrence was literal, tough, and lacked Steve’s confidence that the work could withstand multiple interpretations. For example, see the staggering array of Sweeney Todd productions, as opposed to the only no-nonsense production of West Side Story that has been on the tour for decades — a situation that was only recently remedied after Laurents’ death with new versions of Ivo Van Hove and now Steven Spielberg.

Evidence of Steve’s boundless enthusiasm for new iterations of his work is still alive and well in New York as I write this – John Doyle’s productions of Assassins and Marianne Elliott’s of Company, both as fresh and fresh as the day they were first introduced.

His legacy is indisputable – and it is best left to others to describe. Not only performances, but also his extraordinary books, I wrote when he mostly ran out of juice on stage. They are rare and important pieces because they describe creation from within. Filled with fascinating detail and insight, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what theater as high as possible, and for all those who should now try to stand on its shoulders.

Theatrical performance… Assassins, directed by Mendes, at Donmar Warehouse in 1992.
Theatrical performance… Assassins, directed by Mendes, at Donmar Warehouse in 1992. Photography: Donald Cooper/Almy

As for the shows themselves, the highlights remain personal: Sorry-Grateful from Company, Every Day a Little Death from A Little Night Music, Sunday from Sunday in the Park, and pretty much the entirety of Sweeney Todd. There are many memories that belong to me on my own, and yet there is one thing for which I am still stupidly lucky and stupidly grateful. Here’s one: We were working on a somewhat ill-fated New York Theater Workshop production of his latest musical production, then called Wise Guys. Steve had brought a new song to rehearsals that morning called A Little House for Mama. As our music director Ted Sperling sat down singing the song for the first time at the piano in his cute fake, the afternoon sun pouring into the dusty old practice room, tears were streaming down my face.

The song was so easy, so simple, yet seemed to speak to the heart of those who had struggled (as did Steve) with a lifelong need to heal a relationship that could never be healed. I looked at him and he was crying too. He said: “Mothers.”

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