He wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical starring Emma Thompson, in 2008. “We are still looking for a producer,” says Sondheim, who, a year earlier, had caused a stir when he called for a new song on 40th anniversary of the show, “Give It Up”. “It’s a lack of continuity. It is certainly a play, and now it’s being produced as a song cycle. The only thing I can say about it is the most important thing is that the guy’s in charge of it. If he has the right idea, we can be fine.”
This is Sondheim’s first tour since his 1988 double album Songs of the West End (which, like many Sondheim albums, made you sad). “I have had a crazy year, and my career has been crazier than it usually is. People told me that I was being vicious and mean, so I wrote a book, called Letters From a Man About his Life and Work. I have done concerts, opera and musical theatre. What I am doing is a tour of songs from the book.”
I discuss Sondheim’s and John Steinbeck’s former sartorial similarities. “Steinbeck’s hair was a fight for me,” says Sondheim. “I’m always in battle with the dressing-room rat, with other actors. You dress first, and usually some of the costume designers are selected after you have spoken to the actors and actors have made a couple of choices. I have fought against that. I always preferred to dress. As I was getting older, I was more conscious that there is a changing generation of actors. There is this thing I hear, ‘Hey, guy, get dressed.’ I say, ‘I’m not doing any trick here.’ And there is a sense of competition.”
In short, the conversation about dress vs dressing turns to the subject of gender-swapped male-female roles. “What’s in a name?” asks Sondheim, a question that is not my phrase of choice (my son is 6 and is typing about fighting: “you push me. I push back.”)
“At one point I thought, ‘It’s a perfect thing for the score. It’s ‘Company’.’ We have all had these lives and it’s very hard to write that one character really. For this, I think the point is that a woman could play the lead on a full rehearsal period, as a journeyman. This is a great battle between the standards and the tradition. In the gay community there are such camp roles like Rupert.”
Stephen Sondheim talking about his gender-swapped role of Rupert in Company.
Sondheim wants to be associated with about 10 features at any one time. “I know. I should keep going.” I point out that he could pick one off the top of his head. “Well, if I can do something I’ve never done before that I can get excited about, that’s always a nice thing.”
What are some of the moments he missed out on because he went too fast through a number? “I want to do a ballet once. I’m good with everybody, but I’m not terribly good with drama and I hate numbers. I still don’t understand the idea of having a ballet number, and it’s never worked for me. If I get a woman who’s a killer, I’ll try something.”
I ask whether there’s been a moment in his career where he couldn’t move. “I miss more things than you can imagine. I want things that are between a positive and a negative. I prefer not to move forward. In that sense, I am very grey, I must say. But this has not stopped me from working.”
If you want to hear more, Sondheim will be a guest at the Hammersmith Apollo tomorrow.