Sondheim, Songless : The master minus the music? Well, he’s been playing with puzzlers for years and now takes a turn at mystery playwriting with ‘The Doctor Is Out.’

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Stephen Sondheim does not like to do interviews, he explains, but he has an important message: His latest work, “The Doctor Is Out: A Comedy Thriller,” is not a musical.

The new play, which he co-authored with George Furth, premieres at the Old Globe Theatre on Saturday.

Cast members are being asked how many songs they have, Sondheim worries, but it’s a logical mistake. The prolific artist has written music and lyrics for such landmark musicals as “Follies,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods.” He is a musical theater icon, winner of seven Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize (for “Sunday in the Park With George”). And playwright Furth was Sondheim’s collaborator on both “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”


There are major productions of Sondheim shows either onstage or scheduled soon, including New York and London revivals of “Company” and a revival of “A Little Night Music” at London’s Royal National Theatre. There is also a touring production of “West Side Story,” with its Sondheim lyrics, that will stop in Orange County in October and Pasadena in January. Starting early next year are rehearsals for a London production of “Passion” and a Broadway revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Sondheim, 65, is also working on a new musical with John Weidman, his collaborator on both “Pacific Overtures” and “Assassins.” Their show about the entrepreneurial early-20th-Century Mizner brothers--architect-decorator Addison and writer-adventurer Wilson--should be ready for a workshop next spring, Sondheim says, and “with any luck” for a production at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington next fall.

Now comes “The Doctor Is Out,” Sondheim’s very first play, and what has the famed composer and lyricist chosen to write? A comic murder-mystery. A whodunit with laughs.

The man who set barbershop murders, skewed fairy tales and presidential assassinations to music is merging vocation and avocation. A noted game enthusiast, he wrote the New York magazine crossword puzzle for a year and a half in the late 1960s. He usually lives amid cabinets and walls filled with 19th- and 20th-Century games, although a fire in February in his New York townhouse forced him to relocate temporarily.

Sondheim says he’s read few thrillers, but he’s been writing around the genre for years. He has invented complicated mystery games for friends to play, and he and Anthony Perkins co-authored the 1973 film mystery “The Last of Sheila,” directed by Herbert Ross.

Relaxing in a bayfront hotel room, his feet up on the coffee table, the usually intense Sondheim is in very good spirits. But that doesn’t mean he’ll give away much about “The Doctor Is Out.”


Question: There seems to be considerable secrecy around the plot for this show. What is it about?

Answer: It’s a mystery--a comedy-mystery. It’s supposed to be funny and supposed to have some surprises in it. And I think it does. Obviously I don’t want to tell a lot about the plot.

Q: I wouldn’t worry so far.

A: It concerns a group of people in therapy and their psychiatrist. Let’s see what else I want to tell you. I think I can say it’s about the murder of the psychiatrist and the efforts of the group to find out who did it.

Q: Is it contemporary?

A: Yes, it’s contemporary. It takes place in New York, and it’s very much about urban people. It starts as a group therapy session and becomes something other than that when they discover why the doctor is not there.

Q: There are rumors that “The Doctor Is Out” is based on Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None.” Is that true?

A: No. It has the same tone as the [Rene Clair version of the] movie, which was comic and did have some surprises. But Agatha Christie isn’t so much full of surprises as her solutions are full of surprises. The surprise is usually in the last five minutes or last five pages, whereas with a play like “Deathtrap,” or “Dial M for Murder” or “Wait Until Dark,” there are surprises along the way. And that’s what we hope to have.


Q: Would you call it a puzzle?

A: “The Doctor Is Out” is not so much a puzzle as it is a twisty journey. The characters are, as in this kind of genre, very vividly drawn. They’re enormously colorful--or at least we hope they are--and the interplay among them is one of the things that moves the plot forward. It’s very much about plot. It’s partly a mystery because there are clues and things to be discovered. It’s a thriller in that it’s also a melodrama, but the tone of it is comic. And I think that we have a first-act curtain that will surprise everybody.

Q: Why did you decide to write a mystery?

A: I did it with “The Last of Sheila.” [Director] Herb Ross was a friend of mine and once said to me, “Why don’t you write plays?” I said I thought they’d be too hard to write, and I didn’t have any ideas except for mysteries. He said “OK, what about movies?” I plotted one and didn’t want to write it alone, so I asked Tony Perkins, who was a murder-mystery fan and a friend and who I knew to be a very funny writer, to do it with me. I plotted it alone, then we wrote alternate scenes.

So that’s the answer to your question. I think they’re fun. They’re fun to watch and they’re fun to write. I love inventing plots.

Q: How did you start inventing plots for murder mystery games?

A: I invented a murder-mystery game for [actress] Phyllis Newman. She appeared in Frank Loesser’s last musical, “Pleasures and Palaces,” which closed out of town [in 1965]. She was depressed and said, “Would you give a game party for me?” And I said “sure,” and I invented this. We did it at Jerome Robbins’ house.

I’ve done it several times since then, but I haven’t done it in many, many years. . . . The problem is that it can only be played once. There are two parts to it: the melodrama part, where people wander around in a darkened house and there are a murderer, murder and victim. Then everybody, even the victim, gets to play the second part, which is to prove who the murderer is. It is played optimally by 10 to 15 people.

Q: Your games inspired Anthony Shaffer when he was writing “Sleuth,” didn’t they?

A: What happened was I did the murder-mystery game at the request of Tony Perkins at his house in New York, and one of the guests was Peter Shaffer [author of “Amadeus” and “Equus”]. Peter is a friend, and he said he and his twin brother Tony used to write murder-mystery novels under a pseudonym before they became playwrights. He asked if I would set it up next time I went to England so Tony could play it. I said “absolutely,” and set it up in England for a group of people. Tony was one of them, and I’m happy to say he didn’t solve it. But he liked it.


Q: Is it true that “Sleuth” was originally called “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?”

A: Yes. I saw the script and said to the producer, “You can’t call it that. Nobody knows who I am.” That wasn’t false modesty. It’s just that, even these days, my name is mostly familiar to people who are interested in musical theater. It’s not the same thing as Kevin Costner. “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?” is like “Who’s Afraid of Sam Smith?” It was a whim on his part, I think, so he changed the title.

Q: Does your interest in games and puzzles carry over into your work as a lyricist? Do you consider lyric writing a form of puzzle solving?

A: I used to invent crossword puzzles for New York magazine. It’s fitting a certain amount of information into a pattern. You make a pattern out of a series of discrete bits of information and try to make it graceful so you won’t feel the effort behind it. In that sense, lyric writing is a puzzle. As a matter of fact, it is more like a jigsaw puzzle than a crossword. It is about words, but they have to fit so they bleed and join the way jigsaw pieces do into an overall pattern in which the cracks are virtually invisible.

Q: Do you think creating art generally is like that?

A: Art is making order out of chaos. I think it is as basic as that, whether it is music or painting or a novel or poetry.

Q: Does it help to have a collaborator?

A: I’ve only been a collaborative animal. I love collaboration. I like the exchange of ideas, I like somebody to call on when I’m stuck and I like the family feeling of it. I don’t think I could write anything totally alone.

Q: I notice you go back to the same collaborators--George Furth, James Lapine, John Weidman. What do they have in common?


A: They’re first-rate writers. Librettists always get the short end of the stick. If the show doesn’t work, the first person blamed is the librettist. It is very rare, although it’s happened, that the score is attacked and the book praised. Usually everything gets slammed, or the book gets slammed. Rarely does anybody blame the director or the performers.

For example, Peter Shaffer loves musical theater. I’ve tried to seduce him into writing musicals many times. But he’s always resistant because, he says, the composer gets to have all the fun. He gets to build up to the moment where the explosion occurs, and you know in Peter’s plays, monologues are part and parcel of what he does. Well, if you write a musical, guess who writes the monologues? The songwriter. So all he would get to do is preparatory work. He’d get all the foreplay.

Q: How did your collaboration with George Furth work on “The Doctor Is Out?”

A: It started because I had an idea a few years ago and mentioned it to George. He kept badgering me to do it with him over a period of a couple years. I said that after I got through with “Passion” [Sondheim’s 1994 Tony-winning collaboration with James Lapine] that I’d make a detailed outline of the play, which I did. He read it and invented a group of characters to fit the plot.

Q: You live in New York and George Furth lives in Los Angeles. Since you work on different coasts, what was your process?

A: We talked about the characters and wrote a couple scenes. Then he wrote a whole act and the beginning of the second act. When he got bogged down in the plot, I took over, and I wrote the second act. Then we started to work with each other’s material. We would rewrite each other, add stuff, things like that. So it became a true collaboration.

Most of this was done on the phone. We both have Macintoshes, so we’d write, then send each other stuff by fax modem, then occasionally have long phone conversations where we would take notes on each other’s work.


Q: When did you decide to actually try to get it produced?

A: When we had a first draft in decent shape, I gave it to playwright-writer friends, like Arthur Laurents. He was the first one to read it. He’s a severe critic, but he likes murder-mysteries. To my surprise, he liked it. So I gave it to some other people--writers, directors and others. The reactions were encouraging enough so we arranged a reading, George and I, last January. George came to New York and we had a reading at Lincoln Center.

Q: How did it wind up at the Old Globe then?

A: It wasn’t done under Lincoln Center auspices. They arranged for it, since they had a casting department, space, and all that and were hosts for us. That reading was directed by Scott Ellis, but Scott is doing “Company” now [at the Roundabout Theatre in New York] so I went to Jack O’Brien, whom I know personally and whose work I like. I know him to be an enthusiast.

The Old Globe is also an ideal spot for it. “Into the Woods” [which was developed at the Old Globe prior to its Broadway run] was a terrific experience. Not only do I like the Old Globe but I like its audiences. They’re open and they’re varied--a mixture of tastes and ages.

I was fully aware that regional theaters as successful and well known as the Old Globe are booked a year in advance. So it was an outside chance. But God was good to us. Not only did Jack like it, but he had a slot that was open. And a slot that suited us.

Q: What do you mean?

A: One of the problems we had is that I have a number of shows in rehearsal in New York and England over the next few months, and I’m writing a musical with John Weidman which has to be done by next spring, so if we weren’t able to have a production by the end of this summer, it would have to be postponed at least a year. Neither of us wanted to wait that long because the momentum had developed, and we were having fun doing it. We wanted to get it off the ground as soon as possible.

Q: Can you tell us more about the musical you and Weidman are writing about the Mizner brothers?


A: It’s about [architect and decorator] Addison and [writer-adventurer] Wilson Mizner and is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 22 years old. It involves 40 years of American history, from the 1890s to the early ‘30s--they played a minor but significant cultural part in that history.

They led very American, very entreprenurial lives and had a kind of hustlers’ energy. They were extraordinary characters and had, I think, an extraordinary and quite symbiotic relationship that was quite complex and dramatic.

Q: But you’ve also said you expect it to be funny.

A: Wilson Mizner was one of the great wits of the century. In fact, many things that were attributed to people like Dorothy Parker were his.

Q: He was involved with the Brown Derby here, wasn’t he?

A: Wilson made the Brown Derby. It was his invention. He wanted a place where he could hang out and drink with John Barrymore and W.C. Fields until 4 in the morning and hold court. He was a great raconteur. That was one of his contributions to American culture.

Q: Most of your musicals wind up on Broadway. If “The Doctor Is Out” fares well here, will it go on to Broadway?

A: Sure. I would hope it will. We have a producer involved, Roger Berlind, who would like to take it further if it works well here.


We’ll know by the San Diego reaction. This kind of play in particular depends on things like surprise and shock and manipulation. Either the audience has a good time or it doesn’t.

Q: Is the tryout route essentially the same as it is with musicals?

A: Plays and musicals both either work or don’t work. But there are so many elements to a musical that need polishing, and musicals are too expensive to try out now, so it’s a moot point anyway.

Musicals generally have to open in New York unless they have a huge star like Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria” where they can afford to tour out of town because they can draw audiences on the reputation and name of the star or of a pre-sold property. But otherwise, musicals either arise in regional theater and go to New York or tryout directly in New York. The road tryout is a thing of the past. The road is now for established musicals, not tryouts.

I don’t know that plays can travel either. There are exceptions, but most plays in New York start either in regional theater, in England, or right in New York and open without going to Boston or New Haven.

Q: You were also saying that “The Doctor Is Out” has quite a complicated set that would make it difficult to travel?

A: It’s not the kind of piece that you want to keep trying out. But I don’t know. This is my first play. I told Jack O’Brien, “George is the experienced playwright. I’m the fledgling here.”


It’s nice to work on something that nobody knows you’re working on, because they don’t keep asking, “How’s it going, how’s it going?” I never told anybody I was working on [“The Doctor Is Out”]. Nobody knew. It really was just for fun.


“The Doctor Is Out: A Comedy Thriller” opens Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Shows are Tuesday-Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Through Oct. 21. Tickets: $20-$36. (619) 239-2255. Also, the West Coast premiere of a newly revised “Merrily We Roll Along” opens Thursday at L.A.’s East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake. Shows are Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 5. Tickets: $25. (213) 660-0366.