An Audience with Stephen Sondheim

Stephen SondheimI arrived at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, knowing my ticket needed to be changed. My seat was to be taken by a television camera. The whole event was to be recorded for posterity and will be aired on television in the near future.

The Theatre Royal foyer was packed beyond capacity. Shuffling my way through to the cloak room, I could hear an excited buzz, everyone was talking about the prospect of seeing and hearing from a genius of the modern theatre. I bought a program and quickly scoured the details to see who would be hosting this special event. Much to my excitement I read that the very clever and funny Jonathan Biggins would be conducting the interview. Rather than enter the auditorium too early, I bought a drink and watched a who’s who of Australian theatre enter through the theatre doors.

All ticket holders were notified by email that Mr Sondheim would be taking a small number of selected audience questions before the end of the show. Like many others I pondered all week about what I would ask him if given a chance. Of course, there were too many questions to ask, so I had finally emailed two questions half an hour before the deadline.

Upon entry to Door 2, I was notified that I had been moved - Row T down to a central seat in Row E! Of course I floated down to the front section, with envious friends shaking their fists and throwing daggers (well figuratively with their stares).

The auditorium was full and the atmosphere was electric, with people talking about this once in a lifetime experience. And sharing news about who was performing and how nervous and lucky they would be. Many had already been to the opening of Company the previous night and seen Stephen Sondheim in the audience and at the party afterwards.

I’d just taken my seat when a gentleman in black came shuffling along my aisle. After confirming my name, he said "We would like you to ask your question to Mr Sondheim." Of course I went blank, looked at him in horror and meekly enquired "Which one?". So nervous, I couldn't remember either of them! Luckily he had a copy and while I started to read the question, the lights went down to signal the start of something very special.

Audience members could not contain themselves and applause and cheers burst forth with anticipation. The cast of Company appeared in the light, performing the opening title song like they were singing and dancing on air. The ovation afterwards was euphoric and then the audience collectively held their breath.

Everyone was on their feet before Sondheim made it halfway centre stage. He was met with ear deafening applause and whistles and cheering... for what seemed like forever.

Jonathan Biggins led the interview questions in a career chronological order. Sondheim spoke of his apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein (another music theatre revolutionary, most famously known as collaborator of Richard Rogers, lyric writer of Oklahoma, The Sound of Music to name a few). He also shared the joy and lessons learned on his first big break working as the lyricist with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story. And later with Jules Styne collaborating on the Ethel Merman star vehicle that became Gypsy.

Sondheim spoke about his rocky transition into being accepted as a composer and lyricist in his own right. It was not until Company in 1970 that Broadway hailed his enormous talent as both.

The interview was excellently directed by Biggins and included Sondheim's approach to writing and how he starts with musical phrases, an idea of the tempo and feel of the style when approaching a musical piece. He also feels that projects should be dangerous and revels in the need to be challenged by the new and unknown.

We were treated to excellent performances by Geraldine Turner singing "Could I Leave You?" (Follies) and Peter Coleman-Wright singing "Epiphany" (Sweeney Todd).

Sondheim also spoke of his current work on the musical Bounce, and how, unlike previous works, it has taken a number of re-writes to try to complete it successfully. It is still a work in progress, which the world theatre community is eagerly anticipating.

A young seventy-seven, Mr Sondheim was charming and relaxed, enjoying many laughs with the interviewer. His frankness and generosity of praise for others was wonderful to hear. And his approach to his writing and stories of collaboration were very inspirational.

When it was finally my turn to ask my question about his talent for imitating the writer's intentions in his writing, I stood and took the microphone, trying not to gush. With my question buzzing around in my head the gaps in concentration will need to be filled in by watching the forum again on Foxtel (and hopefully ABC).

The standing ovation for Sondheim at the end of the program was like an emotional Australian farewell (his last visit here was thirty years ago) and thanks for a special afternoon that we will always treasure.

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