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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Mandy Patinkin on Stephen Sondheim: “I received to be within the room with Shakespeare. Who will get that?”

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On the time of his loss of life on 26 November, aged 91, the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim occupied a novel place within the historical past of musical theatre – oddball and important man, freak and god. He wrote musicals for individuals who don’t like musicals, giving an urbane (some would say chilly) makeover to a folks artwork, scary the distaste of critics like John Lahr and colleagues comparable to Jerry Herman and Cy Coleman, however reaching alongside the way in which what one sceptic known as “in style unpopularity”, and within the course of recreating the mainstream – or a Lin-Manuel Miranda-shaped a part of it – in his personal picture.

That a minimum of was the popularity he acquired. Sondheim himself – although his style might appear fiercely slender – had much less religion in such divisions. His apprenticeship, first as a boy with the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein, a household buddy, after which as a scholar with the Schoenberg disciple, Milton Babbitt, had for him a type of consistency. Hammerstein, he favored to say, was an “experimental playwright”, pointing to his oddest collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Allegro (1947) – and Babbitt, the author of a weird musical of his personal with Fabulous Journey (1946), would use Hammerstein songs as instructing materials. In different phrases, this had been the apparent, maybe the one, apprenticeship, for a author who needed to push the shape into exhilarating new locations.

Sondheim might be best-known for an early work, West Aspect Story (1957), for which he wrote solely the lyrics, and a late one, the ingenious fairytale mash-up Into the Woods (1987). However his nice run, the majority of his achievement, got here in between, beginning with Firm (1970), persevering with most notably with Follies (1971), A Little Night time Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Alongside (1981), and culminating in his masterpiece Sunday within the Park with George (1984). Songs from these reveals embrace “Sorry-Grateful”, “Marry Me a Little”, “Being Alive”, “In Buddy’s Eyes”, “Too Many Mornings”, “Ship within the Clowns”, “Somebody in a Tree”, “The Worst Pies in London”, “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, “Sunday” and “Kids and Artwork”. Aside from Pacific Overtures, which issues social change in Nineteenth-century Japan, all of those musicals have been carried out in London through the 20 years of my theatre-going lifetime, in lots of circumstances on the Menier Chocolate Manufacturing unit (earlier than transferring to the West Finish), although additionally on the Nationwide Theatre and the London Coliseum. Sunday within the Park with George is because of return, in a celebrated manufacturing starring Jake Gyllenhaal because the agonised painter Georges Seurat.

On 28 November, appropriately sufficient, I spoke to Mandy Patinkin, the actor and singer who originated the function within the 1984 manufacturing, which was workshopped at Playwrights Horizons (in a forged that included Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski), earlier than working for 18 months on the Sales space Theatre on Broadway, and successful the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The evolution of Sunday is the topic of a brand new e-book, Placing it Collectively, an exceptionally full oral historical past constructed by James Lapine, the director who additionally wrote the play’s e-book.

When Patinkin was supplied the function of Seurat, he had lately completed enjoying Che in Keep away from. This was a special problem. Sunday was a piece in progress – however a piece in progress being carried out. “I wasn’t used to doing an unfinished work in entrance of patrons,” he instructed me. “I wasn’t conditioned for that.” A few of the central parts weren’t in place. Lapine and Sondheim knew that they needed to placed on a musical play about Seurat’s pointillist portray The big bowl, which was nearly precisely 100 years previous and had acquired solely posthumous recognition (Seurat died aged 31 in 1891). However whereas the figures depicted within the portray had been given songs, the painter himself was a blur. “They realised their mistake,” Patinkin mentioned.

Patinkin, now 68, recalled a day when Sondheim got here by to observe a run-through. He was fascinated about put to music a dialogue scene by which George is patronised by a standard older painter. Within the earlier scene, George is proven having difficulties speaking along with his mom. Patinkin determined that whereas the actress Barbara Bryne sings the tune “Stunning”, and he merely sits with a sketchpad, he would induce himself to cry – to purge himself of tension in time for the scene that Sondheim had come to observe.

That evening, Sondheim known as to say that he needed to speak about George’s half in “Stunning”. Patinkin urged him to disregard his crying – it was only a little bit of preparation, a approach of preparing for the vital scene with the older painter. Sondheim instructed him he was proud of that scene because it was. “He mentioned to me then one thing that I’ll always remember: ‘I discover that the scenes that have to be musicalised are ones the place the feelings are larger than we are able to perceive.’ The music one way or the other creates the way in which – in to these feelings which are simply greater than explainable. He mentioned, ‘That scene is obvious, it doesn’t want music to assist it, the feelings aren’t difficult. I realise I’m now prepared to jot down the mom’s scene.’”

Later that day, their dialog turned on what Patinkin known as “essentially the most painful side of our expertise – our mutual wrestle to attempt to genuinely join with our moms”. Sondheim spoke typically about his fraught relationship with the lady generally known as Cunning, who he could or could not have despatched up within the Firm tune “Women Who Lunch”. (He refused to attend her funeral.)

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“Stephen’s story is properly documented, the ache of it. Now right here he was writing a good looking tune for the mom and wanting to jot down the son’s half. I had a relationship with my mom that I don’t suppose was as tough, it had slightly extra grace, nevertheless it was difficult nonetheless. Stephen and I got here to the conclusion that we by no means made the connection in the way in which we had been trying to find it. We saved passing by one another like ships within the evening. A number of days later, he palms me my a part of the mom’s tune. He’d taken our dialog and poeticised it. I received to be a teeny tiny a part of what he was attempting to say for this character. He wrote essentially the most stunning love tune of two human beings attempting to achieve one another. That was the spotlight of my complete skilled life.”

One other key second that was lacking from the present through the workshop manufacturing was the tune “Ending the Hat”, Sondheim’s biggest achievement, a searing monologue by which George units out the predicament of balancing the calls for of artwork and love. (The titles of each of Sondheim’s books of annotated lyrics derive from the tune.) Sondheim carried out “Ending the Hat” for the primary time on a piano in a bar throughout the road from Playwrights Horizons. “He walked in, with a dry shirt on, and performed for the primary time for us ‘Ending the Hat’. When he completed enjoying, he was drenched, like he’d walked into the ocean – he was sweating so profusely. He thought he wasn’t adequate. We had been all consumed in tears, as I’m simply retelling it to you, and he mentioned, ‘Is it OK?’ We mentioned, ‘Sure Steve, it’s OK.’ He gave it to me on that onion-skin sort paper, and I pasted it into the again of the sketchpad. I sang it that evening. When the tune was completed, I realised I by no means appeared on the phrases, which has by no means occurred to me earlier than or since.” That evening the director Mike Nichols was within the viewers. He got here right down to Patinkin after the efficiency, and embraced him. “It was all about ‘Ending the Hat’.”

“Did he plan to have these moments?” Patinkin requested. “I believe he didn’t. They had been intuitive. I believe what he labored on, and used his craft to the nth diploma for, had been the musical constructions and the development of the rhyme, with the rhyming dictionaries and the play with phrases. I believe he was just like the hen within the nest that simply has its mouth open till mamma places the final worm in it.”

In latest days, Patinkin has discovered himself reflecting extra typically on Sondheim. “It was a privilege,” he mentioned. “I received to be within the room with Shakespeare. Who will get that? How come I received to have that even for a minute? And it was much more than a minute.” Since showing in Sunday, Patinkin has sung Sondheim many instances – at birthday and anniversary tributes, in his personal live shows, and on the 2002 double album Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim. Patinkin derives consolation from the information that his buddy is “the furthest factor from gone. He left the center and soul of his existence, his being, what he cared about, what he thought, what he wished for, needs that he typically couldn’t realise for himself – that can be right here without end.” He wasn’t positive if Sondheim ever recovered from the ache of his childhood. He acknowledged that Sondheim used “the canvas of the music paper because the battlefield for his feelings”. However, Patinkin puzzled, “was he in a position to hear our thanks? Was he in a position to really feel our love for him? Might he let it in, or was the wound too nice? I’ll by no means know. I hope so.”

When Patinkin heard about Sondheim’s loss of life, he went for a stroll within the woods close to his dwelling. “My canine normally wanders off, in search of squirrels,” he mentioned. “However he stayed by my leg the entire time. I wasn’t weeping. I used to be simply singing each phrase I might keep in mind.”

[See also: Zadie Smith’s stage debut is a filthy, feminist reworking of Chaucer]

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