Sondheim Isn’t Quite Out of the ‘Woods’ : The composer/lyricist hones his present musical even as he plunges into new projects

Cinderella wasn’t sure Prince Charming was her Prince Charming. She wanted to mull it over. But she had to do it fast. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was finishing up his score for “Into the Woods,” and “when we got to Cinderella’s song, the action by that time was so tight and swift, you wanted to know what happened next. You didn’t want to stop for a philosophical song about what the experience meant to her.”

So Sondheim scrapped the contemplative “Back to the Palace” for the more plot-oriented, funnier “On the Steps of the Palace.” Here Cinderella reviews her options while stuck in the muck of the palace’s pitch-covered steps. This version, says Sondheim, “keeps the humor going.”

“Obviously, I don’t change lyrics very much once they’re finished, because they’re very hard to write, and very hard to arrive at,” Sondheim says. “But if it’s broke, I keep trying to fix it.”

“Woods” is the musical tale of what can happen if you actually get what you think you want. Even after three workshops, six weeks at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and a year on Broadway, Sondheim and librettist James Lapine still have it under scrutiny. They were fiddling with the show even as the national company started rehearsing here in November.


So expect a few changes, Sondheim hints, when “Into the Woods” arrives at the Ahmanson Theater on Wednesday, featuring Cleo Laine as the witch and Charlotte Rae as the mother of Jack (of Beanstalk climbing fame).

The scene is Sondheim’s East Side townhouse. The 58-year-old composer may be casually dressed, he may be stretched out comfortably on his sofa, but his talk with Calendar is no informal get-together. He’ll respect the reporter’s assignment--he agreed to the interview, after all. But if a question isn’t specifically asked, it isn’t likely to be answered.

The best part of his work, says Sondheim, is coming up with a great lyric or song and then sharing it with his collaborators. And what collaborators--composers such as Leonard Bernstein ( “West Side Story”) and Jule Styne (“Gypsy”), playwrights such as Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) and directors such as Harold Prince (“Follies,” “Company,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd”).

Nowadays the excited calls are to Lapine, the playwright/director with whom he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for their musical “Sunday in the Park With George.” Sondheim says that besides the camaraderie and creative stimulation he gets from collaborators, they also provide him with what he calls “real deadlines.” By his own admission, he’s a procrastinator.

“Woods” co-producer Rocco Landesman has said he “wouldn’t be surprised if (Sondheim and Lapine) put in new stuff the week it closes.” Sondheim added the witch’s song, “Last Midnight,” just a week before the show opened on Broadway. During the tryouts at the Old Globe, the show premiered without what has become the show’s anthem, “No One Is Alone.”

At that point, there was simply a spot in the “Woods” script that said “quartet for Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Baker and Jack.” During intermission at a Wednesday evening performance, Sondheim showed up with “No One Is Alone.” He played it for the cast after the show that night, and it was part of the score by Friday. The next day Sondheim and Lapine left for New York.

For Sondheim, writing is a disciplined search for inspiration. He has frequently described lyric writing as “an elegant form of puzzle.” An avid puzzle and game player, he “composed” crossword puzzles for several months for New York Magazine that have been described as “maddeningly diabolical.”

Long before writing a single note or lyric for the “Woods” score, Sondheim prepared for the challenge. He would meet regularly with Lapine, as he had with other collaborators, taking extensive notes on three legal pads--one for characters, one for songs and one for ideas. There’s obvious crossover, he explains, as he jots down what the scenes are about, what points to make in a song, and where the plot’s going.

Then he gathers up his notes and waits.

“I usually wait until the book writer writes at least a few pages, a couple of scenes, so I know how he hears the characters talking. Once I know what the style of diction is, and what the emotional outlines of the characters are in his mind, I start writing songs. You talk about what characters (are), but until they’re on the page, they’re not alive.”

Sondheim and Lapine started thinking about “Into the Woods” “almost immediately” after “Sunday” opened in 1984. Sondheim had long wanted to create a quest tale along the lines of “The Wizard of Oz,” and after deciding they didn’t want to either invent a fairy tale or expand an existing one, they combined several fairy tales plus adding one of their own.

After Sondheim grilled everyone he knew on just how much they remembered about fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, the collaborators began to worry that while some audience members might not remember a thing about the plot, a literal retelling might bore those who knew it by heart.

So with such familiar characters as Jack, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, they focused on “the essence of the experience,” rather than the characters’ actual experiences; Lapine wrote what Sondheim calls “interior monologues” that Jack, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood might say to themselves, and Sondheim then “fashioned” songs from those monologues.

The show had its first reading at Playwrights Horizons, the same Manhattan theater that launched “Sunday in the Park.” From there, the show went careening off to San Diego’s Balboa Park, then back to workshops in New York, and in November, 1987, to Broadway.

On the Road Again

Now it’s on the road again. Scenery modifications in the touring production made the show move along more swiftly, says Sondheim, “so there are a couple of things that have been changed.” For instance, Sondheim has brought back about a minute’s worth of music to underline the idea of community responsibility, “which is what the second act is about,” he says.

Sondheim could make this change relatively easily, because he throws nothing away. “I keep everything I write,” he says. “I’m a pack rat. Everything I’ve ever written on the backs of envelopes, or anything, is in file boxes. You never know when it’s going to come in handy.”

If it wasn’t for saving all that, says Sondheim, such compilations of his songs as “Side by Side by Sondheim” wouldn’t have been possible. Both that revue and “Marry Me a Little” included songs from unproduced shows, songs that had been dropped in rehearsal or songs that were incomplete.

Sondheim has been writing musicals since he was a teen-ager and living a few miles from Oscar Hammerstein II, father of a school friend and a man he has called his surrogate father. (Sondheim’s parents divorced when he was 10.)

After deflating Sondheim’s fantasy of being the first 15-year-old with a Broadway hit, Hammerstein essentially taught him his craft. The legendary lyricist gave the teen-ager assignments (such as turning a good play and a bad play into musicals), then kept him around during the creation of such Rodgers and Hammerstein classics as “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”

Sondheim’s apprenticeship lasted six years. By the time he graduated Williams College, Sondheim has said, “I was really ready for professional work.”

After college, Sondheim used his Hutchinson Prize fellowship to study theory and composition privately with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt in New York. But before he settled into writing musicals, he first headed off to Hollywood to write scripts for the “Topper” TV series.

According to “Sondheim & Co.,” film producer Craig Zadan’s biography on Sondheim, it was in fact “Topper” creator George Oppenheimer who got Sondheim an audition that brought him to the attention of playwright Arthur Laurents. Laurents didn’t much like Sondheim’s music--"Arthur is nothing if not frank,” Sondheim told Zadan--but thought his lyrics were good and sent him to meet Leonard Bernstein.

“West Side Story” opened on Broadway in September, 1957, with Bernstein’s music, Laurents’ book and 27-year-old Sondheim’s lyrics. Just two years later, Sondheim turned out the lyrics for Jule Styne’s music for “Gypsy.” (The show’s star, Ethel Merman, didn’t want an unknown like Sondheim writing the music--lyrics, OK, but not the music.) He didn’t get the opportunity to write both lyrics and music until “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1962.

“Forum” remains his longest-running hit (964 Broadway performances). The show, based on plays by Plautus--not your usual source material for musicals--also established the pattern to come: Never take the easy way out. His next show, “Anyone Can Whistle,” lasted just nine Broadway performances, but speaking of it later to Zadan, Sondheim said, “I don’t mind putting my name on a flop as long as we’ve done something that hasn’t been tried before.”

Again and again, Sondheim and his collaborators defied tradition, turning out musicals such as “Company” and “Follies” that had minimal plots, putting unusual and sometimes bizarre subject matters to song.

Later he was back with “A Little Night Music,” a show “suggested by” Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” for which he created an entire score (including the hit “Send In the Clowns”) written in multiples of three-quarter time.

“Pacific Overtures,” which came next, was an attempt to document the opening of an isolated Japan to trade with the West in the 19th Century. Then “Sweeney Todd,” which won eight of its nine Tony nominations, told the black humor tale of a murderous barber whose victims became a key ingredient of highly prized meat pies.

An Acquired Taste

Sondheim’s work was once considered an acquired taste, but his circle has widened. He’s even been Muzak-ized with the ubiquitous “Send In the Clowns.” “Sunday in the Park” was broadcast on TV, and there have been Sondheim revivals everywhere from 99-seat theaters in Hollywood to London, where a revival of “Follies,” with four new Sondheim songs, closes next month after a year on the West End.

Now, just a few years after Barbra Streisand’s hit, “The Broadway Album,” brought several of his songs into a few million new homes, Sondheim is back with what many observers consider his most “accessible” show. The fairy tales in “Into the Woods” may be a little different from what we remember--and a little less likely to end happily ever after--but they’re still familiar. The show continues a healthy run on Broadway even as the second company tours.

Yet Sondheim doesn’t think “Woods” or most other musicals will endure through the ages. “Musicals get quaint,” he explains. “They are very much a product of their time. Very much the only decent musical theater that’s going to be interesting in 50 years, if the world lasts another 50 years, will be ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I think everything else will seem quaint at best.

“Operas last longer because from generation to generation they’re a chance for singers to show off. So they’re a performer’s medium. And that’s why perfectly dreadful operas are done over and over and over again, in major opera houses all over the world, because each generation of singers comes along and uses them.

“Musicals don’t lend themselves to that. They become old-fashioned very quickly because popular musical tastes change quickly. So, you look at a Victor Herbert show today and it’s quaint. Rodgers & Hammerstein have become quaint already, and it’s only a generation later.”

Trying out shows in a nonprofit resident theater such as the Old Globe is something new for Sondheim, but he likes it. In the old days, he recalls, “you wrote a show and you went into rehearsal. You repaired it during rehearsals and when you went out of town. (That’s) why most musicals have much better first acts than second acts--because they never got a chance in Boston to get to the second act.”

The nonprofit arena offers less pressure, more time to think. “It’s wonderful because it’s much freer,” Sondheim says. “It’s much more like people get together and put on a show.”

It also offered him the chance to retool his “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show that flopped on Broadway in 1981, then was revived (and extensively rewritten) in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse. In La Jolla, Sondheim, librettist Furth and Lapine, who was brought in to direct the revival, “took a whole fresh look.”

Sondheim calls “Merrily,” done later in Seattle, “this thing that never got fully born.” It has now improved, he says, but still needs work. “There are things moving about it, and George and I want to do it under the right circumstances. So we’ll see what happens.”

What’s next for Sondheim? Saying Lapine wants to take some time away from musicals now--"we’ll do another show but not for a year or two"--Sondheim indicates he has a few projects under way.

One is a collaboration with theater artist Robert Wilson, to be produced in Spain in 1992. Sondheim feels their very differences make for compatibility. “That’s one of the reasons I think he wanted to work with me, because his work is not particularly verbal and mine is. When he uses language, he uses it as he does color. We’ll see what we can come up with. But when he told me what he wanted to deal with, I had a lot of ideas, suddenly, and I trust that instinct.”

Sondheim demurs discussing two ideas for musicals that he’s had now for “oh, well over 10 years.”

“I don’t really want to go into them. It’s like the pregnant woman (where people ask) ‘haven’t you had the baby yet?’ You don’t tell anybody you’re pregnant until the seventh month. As long as you don’t have to tell people, don’t tell them something, because otherwise, you keep getting asked. I don’t want people saying, so whatever happened to that show about Japan, or whatever, when I’m just toying with an idea.”

Revealing an idea makes a person too vulnerable, he says. “If you tell an idea to somebody, it’s just an idea, and if you see a shadow cross their face, (you’re sure) they think you’re being crazy, that’s a terrible idea for a show. It’s very discouraging. But as you write, you get more firm about it. By the time you’re halfway through writing a show, and a shadow crosses somebody’s face, you can take it, because you’re committed. You go ahead with it. But at the beginning, you can kill it very easily.”

Meanwhile, he’s finishing up two, “maybe three” songs for Warren Beatty’s upcoming film, “Dick Tracy.” The feeling of “Dick Tracy” is late ‘30s, early ‘40s, he says, “and one of the main characters is a nightclub singer (who) sings a couple of songs that will also serve as underscoring. They’re period songs, pastiche.”

Sondheim, who earlier also composed the score for Beatty’s film “Reds,” took on this new assignment because “I hadn’t done any real heavy creative work since (“Woods”) opened, it was almost a year, and I started to get panicky, because your muscles rust and it’s very hard to get back to it. I’m by nature lazy, so I could very easily just let time go by.”