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Stephen Sondheim is cool now

<a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/10/23/1207224793/stephen-sondheim-last-musical-here-we-are" data-key="4590"><em>Here We Are</em></a> was not yet in previews when Sondheim died. It is playing at The Shed in New York.
Emilio Madrid
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Here We Are
Here We Are was not yet in previews when Sondheim died. It is playing at The Shed in New York.

Stephen Sondheim — composer-lyricist for A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and more than a dozen other musicals — is having "a moment" as one of his Into the Woods lyrics might have put it.

Or perhaps a better fit for the Broadway legend, who was widely regarded as brilliant but an acquired taste when he died in 2021, would be a tweak to a lyric from the song "Children and Art" in Sunday in the Park with George:

"There he is, there he is, there he is,
Sondheim is everywhere,
Broadway must love him so much."

Indeed, the hottest ticket on the Great White Way at the moment, judging from what people are willing to pay for it, is Sondheim's notoriously troubled musical-that-goes-backwards, Merrily We Roll Along.

Its original Broadway run was a snappily disastrous 16 performances after it opened, and it has never entirely worked until now. But it's currently playing to SRO crowds and standing ovations at Broadway's Hudson Theater.

Meanwhile, the hottest ticket Off-Broadway, and already the longest running show ever to play at Manhattan's new venue The Shed, isHere We Are,the musical Sondheim was still working on when he died.

Also playing to capacity crowds in New York, his penny-dreadful horror tale Sweeney Todd, starring Josh Groban at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. London's petite Menier Chocolate Factory has Pacific Overtures. And on tour in the U.S. is a gender-reversed revival of Company, the last show the composer-lyricist saw before he died.

Side by Side by Side

All of the revivals were less successful in their original runs in the 1970s and '80s. As I've been catching them, I can't help thinking how pleased Sondheim would be — pleased and a bit surprised, no doubt — and wishing I could hear him talk about them, especially that new show, Here We Are.

And then, I discovered I could.

/ Harper
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Harper

"I think the idea," says his unmistakable growl on a scratchy cellphone recording, "is to do it in the spring of '18."

D.T. Max interviewed Sondheim several times in 2017 and 2018 for a New Yorker profile that he turned into a book —Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim was working at the time on what would become Here We Are, or rather, on its first half, which is based on the surrealist Luis Buñuel comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about three couples searching everywhere for a place to eat.

"There is a complete score [for that first act]," he tells Max in the recording, "but I want to add and tweak. Second act there's a complete draft of the book [by David Ives based on Buñuel's Exterminating Angel] and I've just begun the score."

Art isn't easy

Max had recorded his in-person interviews on his cellphone, and while the sound quality isn't all one might wish, the conversations are intriguing. For instance, this, about how a producer's stray remark decades ago planted the seed for Here We Are:

"It stems from a remark Hal Prince made in a cab once," remembers Sondheim. "We were looking out at night — coming back from the theater or something — and he said, 'Y'know what the dominant form of entertainment is? Eating out.' Because all the restaurants were lit up and that's what people were doing. They weren't going to the theater, they were eating. And I thought, 'Gee what an interesting idea.' And I didn't immediately think 'oh that would make a musical' but somehow, on seeing Discreet Charm..."

A scene from<em> Here We Are.</em>
Emilio Madrid / Here We Are
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Here We Are
A scene from Here We Are.

What Sondheim put to music and to his characteristically witty lyrics, was the frustration of diners who are perpetually being told they will not be getting food, or even coffee.

"We have no mocha.
We're also out of latte.
We do expect a little latte later,
But we haven't got a lotta latte now"

"I'm still feeling my way," says the songwriter, "because it isn't the kind of tight story that something like Sweeney or Merrily is. There are six main characters and they interact, but there's very little plot."

Opening Doors

There's plenty of plot in his other shows — almost too much sometimes. Back in 1981, audiences got confused by the time-going-backwards thing in Merrily We Roll Along, and also couldn't keep its characters straight. The original production tried to clear up who-was-who with T-shirts saying things like "Best Pal."

The current production has a better trick: It cast Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe as the best pal; it's easy for audiences to keep him straight. He's playing a budding writer of musicals in the 1950s and '60s — exactly what Sondheim was back then.

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe in <em>Merrily We Roll Along.</em>
Matthew Murphy / Merrily We Roll Along
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Merrily We Roll Along
Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe in Merrily We Roll Along.

"It relates to my life," Sondheim tells Max. "It's not about my life but it relates." When asked how seeing a Merrily production generally hits him, he says that remembering the frantic, gotta-put-on-a-show craziness of his youth gets to him every time, especially the deep-in-rehearsal-panic lyric, "We'll worry about it on Sunday."

"I always cry," he tells Max. "'We'll worry about it on Sunday' always makes me cry."

That song is called "Opening Doors," and its next lyric is "we're opening doors, singing 'here we are'...."

And here we are, four decades later, with his final show — called Here We Are — feeling like a valedictory victory-lap, filled with references to his earlier work.

Finishing the hat

The man who wrote a song (and a book of lyrics) called "Finishing the Hat," never finished that second act — in librettist Ives and director Joe Mantello's hands, music disappearing from the characters' lives becomes a plot point — but his legacy is secure. He talks in Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim about feeling low energy, and even old-fashioned.

"The kind of music I write has nothing to do with pop music since the mid-'50s," he notes.

When gently reminded that he's regarded as a genius who's altered an art form, he deflects the compliment by citing "Stravinsky, Gershwin, Picasso" and saying he doesn't belong in their company.

He may have been the only person who thought that. But anyway, it's not up to him — posterity gets to decide who belongs in the genius pantheon.

And with stars and directors clamoring to do his shows and audiences embracing them as never before, the early verdict is clear: Stephen Sondheim's work — all of it — is, as Merrily's characters sing of the show that came out of all those frantic rehearsals...

"a surefire, genuine,
Walk-away blockbuster,
Lines down to Broadway,
Boffola, sensational,
Box-office lollapalooza,
gargantuan hit!"

This story was edited for broadcast and digital by Jennifer Vanasco, and produced for radio by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.