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Arts & Culture

Sondheim and Rich chat on stage

Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

Theater fans trekked through the cold to a crowded Salomon 101 Saturday evening to hear Stephen Sondheim discuss his life and creative process with New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

The pair has had these conversations for the past several years at various universities. They met over thirty years ago when Rich was still an undergraduate at Harvard, after an article he wrote for the Harvard Crimson on Sondheim’s “Follies” during its pre-Broadway run in Boston caught the attention of the composer and lyricist. Sondheim invited Rich out for drinks and the two had their first conversation.

Rich told The Herald the experience was “overwhelming.”

“He gave me encouragement at a young age,” Rich said. “You never expect something like that as a college student.”

Since their first meeting, Rich has served as the chief drama critic for the Times and now writes one of its most popular op-ed columns, while Sondheim has continued to write award-winning musicals such as “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Sondheim and Rich were reunited about ten years ago when Rich was asked to interview Sondheim for the New York Times Magazine in honor of the artist’s 70th birthday. Since then, the two have become friends, Rich told The Herald.  

Saturday’s event, hosted by the Creative Arts Council, had the intimate air of eavesdropping on a friend’s conversation.  Salomon 101 was transformed into a miniature living room, complete with wingback chairs and a Persian carpet spread across the stage.

Clearly comfortable, Sondheim casually related stories of his greatest flops and most amusing memories. But, as Rich was quick to point out to the audience, even if many of Sondheim’s works were not immediately successful, “they have made the classical repertoire.”

Sondheim told the audience that he performed “Sweeney Todd” for 13 potential producers but received no financial support. 

“Shock takes a while to recover from,” Sondheim said. “Any work of art … has to find its level,” he added.

If Sondheim had listened to the critics, some of today’s most beloved musicals would not have ever been made, Rich told The Herald. Rich recalled his first time seeing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” saying there were 15 people in a 1,800 person theater because the critics had given it such horrible reviews.

“He’s an example of somebody who sticks to his guns even in the face of enormous criticism,” Rich said.

Sondheim said he never lost his passion for music and urged audience members to “write for love and for no other reason.”

Sondheim said that it was producer Hal Prince’s determination that pushed production of “A Funny Thing” forward despite the negative reviews. It was also Prince’s encouragement that helped Sondheim write the musical’s memorable opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” he said.

“Yeah, that was (written) over a weekend,” Sondheim said. “You could have read the audience the phone book after those eight minutes and they would have loved it.”

Sondheim underscored the importance of taking risks as an artist.

“Big failures are dignified. Little failures are shameful,” he said.

Sondheim discussed the people who have inspired him to push his own boundaries, including Tim Burton and Leonard Bernstein. 

“Lenny taught me to be a little less square. I’m pretty square by nature,” Sondheim said. “He was never afraid to fall off a ladder.”

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