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FEATURED: A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim

God walks onto the stage and instantly the audience erupts into deafening applause and the ovation continues. The sold-out Olivier Theatre is filled with his greatest fans and admirers, all of whom snapped up tickets within hours of the interview being announced only three days before. God subtly pushes at the air with his downward-facing palms and an excited hush descends. The strenuous applause, you feel, would have continued forever without his intervention. “This guy is the best” Director Dominic Cooke announces to an audience who shares his enthusiasm, and our brief encounter with God, best known by his mortal name, Stephen Sondheim, begins.

“The British appreciate language” Sondheim explains, and it was here that he found his first real success, one that unarguably endures with high calibre productions a frequent feature of the London theatre scene. The National’s own sublime version of Follies, directed by Cooke, which is due on this very stage in just over an hour captured the show’s fragile beauty, an aching hymn to memory and self-delusion, and a shot in the arm to the National after a poor run in its most difficult performance space.

After a Broadway transfer, Follies has returned for a second run and a, soon-to-be-released, cast recording, while over at the Gielgud, Marianne Elliott took her reworked vision of Company to Sondheim directly where the gender and sexuality switches have re-envisioned the story for a new generation, winning huge acclaim and truck-load of Olivier nominations. It’s a “one-off idea”, Sondheim insists, the work doesn’t need modernising, “what they are is what they should be”.

Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim never saw himself as a conscious innovator, it was just part of their mutual work ethic, he recalls, doing what the piece requires. Ideas, he explains, tend to come from a Librettist with a concept and a set of characters that his role as a composer is to explore further. “Characters should be different at the end of a song” he suggests, the music acting as a “point of change”, but the process of creation is deeply collaborative, months of conversation with the writer and composer informing each other’s perspectives where you “supply something and receive something you wouldn’t normally get on your own.”

Getting the work on its feet is another matter entirely and Cooke probes the issue of previews, rewrites and the pressure of delivery to which Sondheim jokes that he “never wants to write anything until he’s seen the show cast and performed.” In practice, he continues, some of the best songs are written during out of town previews when you can really see the work in full for the first time. But changes have to be iterative, starting with the first scene and seeing its effect before moving on to the second and so on.

Sitting among the crumbling ruins of the Weismann Follies so strikingly created by Viki Mortimer, the conversation naturally turns to the creative process behind this most emotional of musicals. I’m Still Here sung so magnificently by Tracey Bennett in the current production, was first written for Yvonne De Carlo when her 7-minute original number failed, while even Cooke is taken aback to learn that Losing My Mind was originally a duet for Sally and Phyllis, but Alexis Smith wanted a dance number to show off her legs so Sondheim pragmatically created a separate folly for Phyllis.

A lot of Sondheim pieces “are acting songs” he explains which a lot of performers like and that relationship with the actors becomes a vital part of the process. “They just have to be terrific” he jokes while paying tribute to regular performers including Bernadette Peters, Maria Friedman and Imelda Staunton who played Sally in Cooke’s original 2017 cast. Despite legions of fans and a permanent place in the musical firmament, Sondheim confesses that it is never enough, no writer is ever truly satisfied with how their grand imagination becomes a compromised reality. And just like that, 40-minutes is up, and God modestly exits, stage-right, making way for the ghosts of the Weismann Follies ready in waiting to reclaim their theatre for one last reunion.

Follies runs until 11 May 2019

Maryam Philpott | Image: Rex Features

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