Theatre in Wales

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“Something Dramatic, Something Erratic, Something for Everyone...”

Theatre Writer Book

Stephen Sondheim , Virgin Books , December 22, 2012
Theatre Writer Book by Stephen Sondheim Theatre is collaboration and Sondheim is generous and revealing towards his collaborators. Admiration for writer James Lapine runs deep: “I came up with plots, while he came up with images…James was also the first (and only) writer I’ve worked with who thinks like a director”. He describes Richard Jones’ 1990 premiere in London of “Into the Woods”. It features a giant eyeball and a twenty-foot long finger: “Unlike revivals which are hybrids of the original source, and the director’s additions, this one was a complete reinvention.” When Declan Donnellan does “Sweeney Todd” for the National Theatre he gives it a new “whispered intensity.”

But there is a downside. The chapter on “Wise Guys: The Workshop” shows theatre’s collaboration fraying. The actors become reluctant to accept changes. The director takes the part of his cast. The producer is caught in the middle. The book’s reproductions of newspaper articles report the legal actions and injunctions that follow. Musical theatre is made in the making. Sondheim, the unstinting self-critic, knows that “Without constant attention, while it is taking shape, it doesn’t take many performances before it becomes so efficient that what’s bad becomes accepted.”

There is one group in theatre, or on its borders, with whom Sondheim has never quite made his peace. In a dense two pages he draws the distinction between reviewers and critics, although “one thing that unites theatre critics and reviewers is that most of them have little knowledge of the craft as it is practised.” Artists, no different from any other human group, seek praise. “Every group of compliments about my work that started me preening soon” he finds “was peppered with potshots that unpreened me, and for every piece of thoughtful observation about other people’s work, there was a piece of mean-spirited snottiness.”

Criticism is ripe with error and retrospective critical self-flagellation, as with Sarah Kane, is popular. Sondheim makes mention of a “Lexicon of Musical Invective”. Its author, Nicolas Slominsky, describes the disdain that was first handed out to the likes of Brahms and Ravel.

“Look, I Made a Hat” is a tribute to word and wordcraft. “Comedy Tonight” may have been written over a weekend. With “Wise Guys” “the tinkering took ten years, three directors, two out-of-town tryouts, a rotation of six actors in the leading roles, the writing of more than a dozen news song, the discarding of more than two dozen, and we never did open on Broadway.”

A physical book is an aesthetic object in itself. Many a publishing firm has raised its game in response to digital rivalry. Virgin Books is an imprint of Ebury Books, itself a subsidiary of the mighty Random House. At a thirty-five pound list price it does not match the quality of books on pictorial art. Maybe the editorial intent has been to give precedence to the word. The photographs are muddy and the captioning inconsistent.

A picture from “Road Show” features six actors of whom just one is named. The five soldiers playing pool in “Passion” are labelled as “Scene Eight”. Seven British actors in Regents Park are labelled as “Negotiating with the Giant.” The picture of the cast of nineteen is a poor relation of the brilliant colour of the original picture. The double page spread given to the set of “Into the Woods” looks marvellous but no acknowledgement is given to the designer- it is the work of Soutra Gilmore. “God is in the Details” may be Sondheim’s artistic credo, but it is not obviously shared by the designers at Random House.

“Look I Made a Hat” follows its predecessor in not passing over the grind, the dismay, the occasional strokes of sheer serendipity, that accompany a life in art’s making. But then too there is the joy when, somehow, it all works. As the Roman slave Pseudolus sings in the opening song of Sondheim’s first independent success “Something dramatic, something erratic, something for everyone...”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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