"We'd written a romp, a fast and funny and sharp show, and he wanted to be more emotionally centered," Sondheim says. "Unfortunately, instead of doing that in private, we did it in public. And as far as I'm concerned that's the last workshop I will ever do."
Though more than two decades have passed since Prince and Sondheim did a show together, both men say it feels as if they never stopped. Theirs is a partnership fueled by opposing outlooks: Prince tends to optimistic; Sondheim, pessimistic.
"I've recently come up with a metaphor for the way we work," Sondheim says. "He sees to it that the truck keeps going; I see to it that it doesn't go over the cliff. Because I'm somebody who sees all the pitfalls, and he's somebody who barrels ahead, and it makes a very good combination."
"We're having a very good time," says Prince, who describes Gold as "quintessentially American" and "very funny and very rambunctious."
Sondheim, too, seems pleased with Gold. "All it is is a musical comedy. That's always what I wanted it to be." He worries, however, that "it's been so long in the birthing that people are going to be expecting some huge, ambitious enterprise."
If as a child, Sondheim found a surrogate family in the Hammerstein home, as an adult he has found it in the collaborative world of musical theater. "It's all about family," says this man whose musicals analyze with unflinching candor the joys and difficulties of relationships.
But now it's time for Sondheim to return to a newly formed family -- the cast of Sweeney Todd.
He initially told artistic director Schaeffer that he would just "pop in" on this first day of rehearsals. Instead, he stayed the whole day, taking notes, answering actors' questions and, of course, tinkering with a word or two.
"I'm going to make this lyric change," Schaeffer recalls him saying. "It's always been 'as.' I want it to be 'of.' It rolls better."
And so, for Stephen Sondheim the process of learning, mentoring and honing the work continues.
The problem is not finding trick rhymes; the problem is rhyming 'may.' There are so many words in the language, you can't possibly think of all the proper rhymes.
Lots of Sondheim, side by side
The Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration in Washington runs from now into September and includes six new productions of Sondheim musicals spanning more than two decades, as well as several other events. Tickets range from $20 to $79. For more information, including a full performance schedule, visit www.kennedy-center.org / sondheim or call 800-444-1324.
Sweeney Todd (1979)
May 10-June 30
A revenge tale about a wronged Victorian barber who slits the throats of his customers. Libretto by Hugh Wheeler. Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical. Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Beth Peil star, under Christopher Ashley's direction.