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Stephen Sondheim is cool now

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When Stephen Sondheim died in 2021, he was widely regarded as brilliant but an acquired taste. The creator of such musicals as "Into The Woods" and "Sweeney Todd" was beloved by critics and fans, but his shows often lost money because regular theatergoers didn't know what to make of them. Critic Bob Mondello says that in the short time since his death, audiences have figured Sondheim out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A HIT!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's a hit. It's a hit.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The hottest ticket on Broadway at the moment, judging from what people are willing to pay for it, is Stephen Sondheim's notoriously troubled musical that goes backwards, "Merrily We Roll Along."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A HIT!")

REG ROGERS: (As Joe, singing) It your spirits ever need improving, you can drop in any night for free.

MONDELLO: Its original Broadway run was a flop, and it has never entirely worked before this, but it's currently playing to standing room crowds and standing ovations. The hottest ticket off Broadway is "Here We Are," the musical Sondheim was still working on when he died. Also playing to capacity crowds, his penny dreadful horror tale "Sweeney Todd."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF SWEENEY TODD (OPENING)")

JOSH GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

MONDELLO: And on the road, there's a gender-switched revival of "Company" that was the last show the composer-lyricist saw before he died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING ALIVE")

KATRINA LENK: (As Bobbie, singing) Somebody crowd me with love.

MONDELLO: All of these revivals were less successful in their original runs in the 1970s and '80s. As I've caught them, I can't help thinking how pleased Sondheim would be - pleased and a bit surprised, no doubt - and wishing I could hear him talk about them, especially the new show "Here We Are." And then I discovered I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I think the idea is to do it in the spring of '18.

MONDELLO: D.T. Max interviewed Sondheim several times in 2017 and '18 for a New Yorker profile that turned into the book "Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim." Sondheim was working at the time on what would become "Here We Are," or at least on its first half, based on the surrealist Bunuel comedy "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie," about three couples searching everywhere for a place to eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: There is a complete score, but I want to add and tweak. Second act, there's a complete draft of the book, and I've just begun the score.

MONDELLO: Max had recorded his in-person interviews on his cellphone. And while the sound quality isn't all you'd wish, the conversations are. For instance, this about how a producer's stray remark decades ago planted the seed for "Here We Are."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: It stems from a remark Hal Prince made in a cab once. He said, you know what - we were looking out at night, coming back from the theater or something. And he said, you know what the dominant form of entertainment is? Eating out. 'Cause all the restaurants were lit up, and that's what people were doing. They weren't going to the theater. They were eating. And I didn't immediately think, ooh, that would make a musical. But somehow, on seeing "Discreet Charm"...

MONDELLO: What he put to music and his usual witty lyrics was the frustration of diners perpetually being told they will not be getting food or even coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Don't tell me about you have no mocha.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We have no mocha.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Just a decaf latte.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're also out of latte.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We do expect a little latte later, but we haven't got a lot of latte now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: I'm still feeling my way because it isn't the kind of tight story that something like "Sweeney" or "Merrily" is. There are six main characters, and they interact. But there's very little plot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right, the tea.

MONDELLO: There's plenty of plot in his other shows - almost too much sometimes. Back in the 1980s, audiences got confused by the time going backwards thing in "Merrily We Roll Along" and couldn't keep the characters straight. The original production tried to clear up who was who with T-shirts saying things like Best Pal. The current production has a better trick. It cast "Harry Potter's" Daniel Radcliffe as the best pal. Easy to keep him straight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOORS")

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: (As Charley, singing) They're always popping their cork. I'll fix that line.

MONDELLO: He's playing a budding writer of musicals in the 1950s and '60s, exactly what Sondheim was back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: It relates to my life. It's not about my life, but it relates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOORS")

LINDSAY MENDEZ: (As Mary, singing) You're not serious.

RADCLIFFE: (As Charley, singing) Nobody's ready.

JONATHAN GROFF: (As Frank, singing) Apparently somebody canceled a booking.

MONDELLO: The composer said that remembering the frantic got-to-put-on-a-show craziness gets him every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: I always cry at the climax of "Opening Doors." We'll worry about it on Sunday always makes me cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOORS")

LINDSAY MENDEZ, DANIEL RADCLIFFE AND JONATHAN GROFF: (As Mary, Charley and Frank, singing) We'll worry about it on Sunday. We're opening doors, singing, here we are.

MONDELLO: Singing here we are. And here we are, four decades later, with his latest show called "Here We Are," feeling like a sort of victory lap. The man who wrote a song and a book called "Finishing The Hat" never finished that second act, but his legacy is secure at this point. He talks in "Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim" about feeling low energy and old-fashioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDHEIM: The kind of music I write has nothing to do with pop music since mid-'50s.

MONDELLO: Reminded that he's widely regarded as a genius who altered an art form, he deflects, citing Stravinsky, Gershwin, Picasso and saying he doesn't belong in their company. But he may have been the only person who thought that. And anyway, it's not up to him. Posterity gets to decide who belongs in the genius pantheon. And with stars and directors clamoring to do his shows and audiences embracing them as never before, the early verdict is clear - Stephen Sondheim's work, all of it, is a...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A HIT!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's a hit. It's a hit. It's a palpable hit.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A HIT!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) If it only even runs a minute, at least it's a wedge. It's the theater, and we're really in it, not just on the edge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.