Opera or Musical? Sondheim made Sweeney to scare an audience
The big revelation instantly splashed across the media was that Stephen Sondheim’s new musical is to have its premiere Off Broadway at the Public Theater in late 2017 — “ if I can finish the score in time.” But in an onstage conversation at Glimmerglass Opera on July 30, Sondheim made what may be an even more revealing admission: “I’m not an opera fan.”
“I’m a musical theater fan,” he said. When opera and theater come together, “as in Carmen, I’m a fan.”
The sometimes blurry relationship between the two genres emerged as the theme in Sondheim’s conversation with Jamie Bernstein at Glimmerglass, the summer opera festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., a remote upstate town otherwise known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Introduced by Francesca Zambello, the noted opera and theater director who heads Glimmerglass, the two entered to a standing ovation from a full house. Sondheim pointed out that he had known Bernstein — daughter of Leonard Bernstein, his collaborator on West Side Story — since “just after she was born.”
In the conversation, they spoke of “building bridges or knocking down walls” between genres. While Sondheim placed himself firmly on the musical theater side, he acknowledged the connections to opera in his own work.
“The closest I came was Sweeney Todd,” he said. “But they’re not the same thing.”
Second-closest was A Little Night Music, which he categorized as operetta or “opera-esque” rather than opera. “It uses operatic techniques,” he said, among them leitmotif. “I’ve always been attracted to leitmotif,” he said. “Movie music is nothing but.” What makes Night Music an operetta, he said, is “primarily the attitude — the lightness.”
West Side Story might be considered a close third, or perhaps a close call, chiefly because of Leonard Bernstein’s vision for the show. Bernstein loved both forms, Sondheim said, as his body of work makes clear: in addition to West Side Story and Candide (to whose 1974 Broadway revival Sondheim contributed additional lyrics, and which Glimmerglass produced in 2015), it includes the musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town, and the operas Trouble in Tahiti (at Glimmerglass in 2015) and A Quiet Place (which incorporated the smaller Trouble in Tahiti). “But he also knew the differences,” Sondheim said.
“He had ambition,” Sondheim said, an understatement that drew laughter from the audience. Bernstein wanted his work to be performed on opera stages. “The rest of us were writing a musical.”
Bernstein, he said, “was always complaining about how we were tamping down” his operatic ambitions for the show. He thought, for example, that Maria should have a suicide aria, a case in which “we may have tamped down where it didn’t belong.”
“What really counts is, does a piece work in an opera house in front of an opera audience? Because it’s something else on Broadway,” Sondheim said, citing differences in works by Gian Carlo Menotti produced in both opera houses and Broadway theaters.
When New York City Opera presented Sweeney Todd in 2004, he recalled, some in the audience were shocked that the Beggar Woman turned out to be Sweeney’s wife, presumed long dead after taking poison. “They had never been 10 blocks south to Broadway,” he said. Still, audiences from one genre find their way to understanding the other, primarily through the proportion of speech to singing. “They recognize what’s going on,” Sondheim said, “and they adjust.”
In the case of West Side Story, he said, the connection to opera is “not through the singing, but the orchestral scoring.”
“It doesn’t feel like an opera to me,” he said. “It’s a musical with these monumental pieces of music, but it’s not through-composed.” Later, he added, “Thematic ideas are there, but it’s not composed as an opera.”
Most important, though, is storytelling. “Fear of storytelling,” as Sondheim put it, is in fact one of the greatest weaknesses he finds in musical theater composers who are inexperienced or trying to cross over from other genres, such as pop. He recalled working with young composers in a program at the National Theatre in London. “They come from a different way of making music,” he said. “They think in terms of theatricality — rock concerts are theatrical — but not storytelling. The story is what counts.” (“Oh, I see,” he quoted one young songwriter as saying. “It’s an art, not a hobby.”)
“Can it be done?” Jamie Bernstein asked, referring to creating musicals successfully in a pop idiom.
“It has been done,” Sondheim answered, citing Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Such composers, he said, “understand what theater is about.”
Storytelling was certainly what mattered to Sondheim when he was writing Sweeney Todd, which was being performed at Glimmerglass twice the day of his conversation with Bernstein, sandwiched between performances. The Demon Barber tale goes back at least as far as an 1846 penny dreadful, The String of Pearls, but the Christopher Bond play of the 1970s that inspired the musical added elements of the Jacobean Revenger’s Tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo.
“I made Sweeney to scare an audience,” he said in response to a question from the audience. “That was my entire purpose.”
As to the eternal question of whether the show is musical theater or perhaps an opera, Sondheim said flat out: “Sweeney is a musical.”
“When I was writing it,” he added, “I was writing a movie.” He compared it to the kind of movie melodramas that once starred Bette Davis. “It’s still melodrama and still kitsch,” Sondheim said, “but when you dig into it, you ennoble them.” And after all, isn’t that a big part of what opera is all about?
In Bond’s script, Sondheim noted, Sweeney kills mainly for the sake of killing: “I have tasted blood, and I want more!” That motivation wasn’t enough for him. “I spent a month writing ‘Epiphany’ to justify that,” he said.
In doing so, Bernstein observed, “You made it have a voice for the whole human race.”
“Injustice is very easy to find,” he responded. “That’s why Jacobean tragedy is so effective.” Later he added: “You don’t take a topic and write about it. The topic comes out of the story you tell. … Every story you tell has some sociological significance.”
In addition to Carmen, Sondheim admitted liking two other radically different operas: Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. “I like the sound of singing and speech counterpointing each other,” he said.
“The genius of Carmen is that you applaud the numbers, as you do on Broadway,” he said. “Applause is a mini-catharsis.”
“I’m not a Mozart fan,” he said. But when Peter Shaffer, the Amadeus playwright who died in June, wanted him to listen to the opening of The Marriage of Figaro, he finally gave in. “It really is something special,” he said.
And what musicals feel like operas to him? The Most Happy Fella readily came to mind.
Sondheim’s new show, a collaboration with the playwright David Ives (All in the Timing, Venus in Fur, dozens of adaptations for the Encores! series at New York City Center) is a conflation of the Luis Buñuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. “Both movies are about people trying to find a place to have dinner; that’s literally what it’s about,” Sondheim said.
Coincidentally, Thomas Adès’s new opera The Exterminating Angel had just had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. “What we did was arrange for Adès to have the rights to do it as an opera, and for David and me to have the rights to do it as a commercial musical theater piece,” Sondheim said.
What’s the musical language, Bernstein asked? “It’s just my own general language, which is a combination of, you know, various composers,” Sondheim said. “Content dictates form and style, and the two movies are complete opposites in tone: both are satires, but one is comic, the other grim.”
The Adès is on the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule, just about the time the Public is to produce the musical. “For people who are interested in the difference between operas and musicals, it ought to be an enlightening and provocative study,” he said.
While waiting, Sondheim devotees can take in John Doyle’s production of Pacific Overtures, coming to Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company in April, and possibly a production of Night Music, about which Sondheim declined to give even a hint of who, where or when.
In addition to retelling familiar anecdotes about Ethel Merman and Hermione Gingold, he reminisced about two legends who influenced his work: the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose Smiles of a Summer Night was the basis of Night Music, and Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed Gypsy.
Bergman’s interest in opera was by no means limited to his 1975 film of The Magic Flute. He wanted Sondheim to collaborate with him on The Merry Widow for Barbra Streisand, in which a communist was going to blow up the entire movie at the climax. Bergman’s English script was “at least as literate as Oscar Wilde,” Sondheim said. “He needed no help.” He also said that when Bergman saw the original Night Music on Broadway, he was “very frightened” by the opening number because Victoria Mallory, who created the role of Anne Egerman, looked so much like the young woman on whom he had based the character.
Sondheim also described the origins of “Rose’s Turn,” the 11 o’clock number in Gypsy. Robbins wanted a dance incorporating all the characters in Rose’s life, but he didn’t have time to choreograph it. “So we did it as a song instead, incorporating all the musical themes of Rose’s life,” Sondheim said. To show what he was looking for, Robbins began moving across the stage like a stripper. “I thought, ‘This is what theater is about,’” Sondheim said. “It was one of the most thrilling evenings of my theatrical life.”
Echoing one of his own songs, Sondheim said, “How you put a musical together — that is its triumph.” As for those who endlessly debate the opera-versus-musical question, he clearly has no patience.
“Making these labels,” he said, “is a fool’s game.”
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.
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Opera or Musical? Sondheim made Sweeney to scare an audience