Editor’s note: Since the printing of this article, Sondheim is reportedly no longer collaborating with David Ives on the project.
Back in the summer of 2016 a report that Stephen Sondheim’s new musical had received a secret reading at The Public Theater generated speculation in the theater community that we could be witnessing a new work from God himself as early as 2017. Of course, as with so many rumors in this ever-changing business, 2017 came and went without another word or story or sense of what exactly is going on with this anticipated collaboration between Sondheim and playwright David Ives. Information about new shows reveals itself rarely and in scattered webpages, so we thought we’d pass the time by finally pooling together our resources and try and lay out everything we know about Buñuel (previously referred to as All Together Now).
We know the musical is based on two films by surrealist director Luis Buñuel, whose notoriety came from producing explosive and challenging works of visual storytelling that never ceased to draw crowds (both admirers and staunch protesters) from 1929 until his death in 1983. While mostly known for his entertaining and often unnerving depictions of dream sequences, Buñuel never steered away from his favorite pastime: criticizing the bourgeoisie—especially those who came to see his work in the first place. Buñuel made a case against complacency in the face of evil, be it the evils of a fascist regime, or the evils he saw being perpetuated by the Catholic Church. He was a filmmaker who wasn’t satisfied merely lighting a match on political tensions, he provided the kindling and happily poured on the gasoline.
The two films being adapted, The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), both share one plot-point in common: dinner. Discreet Charm follows three couples as their desperate attempts to simply eat a meal together are foiled again and again by increasingly absurd interruptions. Exterminating Angel, on the other hand, centers itself on the aftermath of a dinner party wherein the guests find themselves unable to leave the room. Their night progresses from revelry to desperation as they destroy the house from the inside. Sondheim has been quoted as saying that the premise of Angel is his “cheerful view of the world today.” Given that Roger Ebert once posited that the film acts as a scathing commentary on the bourgeoisie in Franco’s Spain having essentially kicked out the working class in favor of a never-ending party certain to end in disaster, it’s probably safe to assume that Sondheim’s “cheerful view” is going to be just as dark.
Both films are seen as stark critiques of the Spanish ruling class, and with David Ives on board as the book writer, the musical has the potential to be Sondheim’s most political since Assassins in 1990. Ives has had an active career as a playwright-of-all-trades since the 1970s. However, mainstream audiences knew little about the “maestro of the short form” until his play Venus in Fur stormed Broadway in 2012 with a pre-#MeToo-era examination of the relationship between sex, gender, and power in theater and the workplace. Like Buñuel, Ives is intent on using his preferred medium with as much precision and effectiveness as possible. He never wastes a word, always knowing how to build tensions to extraordinary breaking points before slicing them with a moment of comedic relief. The audience of a David Ives play knows they’ll get to laugh, but first they have hold their breath, and hold onto their seats.
How much dialogue will be incorporated into the new musical remains to be seen, as the report from the private reading suggests a story woven throughout music (much like 1998’s Passion), rather than the traditional structure of writing show-tunes to accompany spoken-word scenes. Weaving music and dialogue has become the new normal on Broadway, but what makes the Buñuel piece so exciting is that its source material is unlike anything in recent memory. Buñuel was equally praised and criticized for his lack of narrative realism, and Discreet Charm is notorious for baffling audiences by cutting to dreamlike imagery without warning or explanation. Could it be that we’re in for a theatrical acid trip that is one-part dinner party and one-part political dystopian satire? David Ives is uniquely positioned for such a challenge, having established himself as a master of absurdism and suspense, two traits that overpower Buñuel’s films.
What we do know for certain is that The Public Theater is committed to the piece, and will be producing it whenever Sondheim and Ives are ready. We know the two inspirational films, and can conceive countless conclusions from their own notoriety. We know that there have been at least two readings of the piece. And we also know…not a lot else. Articles about the show all seem to have a common thread in that Sondheim and Ives want to be as tight-lipped as possible, which can only exaggerate our collective imagination.
At 88, the composer-lyricist is unafraid to remind us of his deep love of film and his ambition to keep re-inventing his style, even if it means flopping now and again. Sondheim is no stranger to adapting movies that are typically only known to film aficionados. A Little Night Music was adapted from an Ingmar Bergman comedy, and Passion was inspired by an obscure Italian drama by Ettore Scola which went to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and has since rarely resurfaced, even in the home video market. However, Buñuel may be Sondheim’s most adventurous project in years, which might explain why it keeps getting postponed for revisions. And perhaps in his advanced years, he’s become more of a perfectionist than ever. In which case, he may want to look at the later ruminations of Buñuel himself, who often derided “proper” aesthetic choices in place of merely letting the images that move you the most take hold of the scene. Then again, maybe we’re all just being a little too selfish demanding new work from a man who has already given us 60+ years of musical theater from which to draw on. It’s hard not to imagine the kind of pressure an artist might put himself under in order to churn out a few final pieces in his twilight years. Perhaps, then, he’d prefer a different quote from Buñuel: “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you’re a cheese.” Press on, Steve Sondheim, and make your musical stage as weird and dreamlike as you see fit.
Eric Grant is a playwright, essayist, and theater-maker based in Chicago. His work has been presented through The Kennedy Center Internship Program, The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, and most recently at Second City’s De Maat Theater. He is also a screenwriter and film producer, and was the founding editor of The WOLF, a performing arts review magazine at The University of Michigan. You can read more of his work at www.eric-grant.net