With a résumé that includes West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods, Company, and many others, lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim probably has more to say about musical theater than any human being currently living. He shared some of that knowledge when he took to the stage of London’s National Theatre for an informal and revealing 42-minute interview and Q&A session with director Rufus Norris. Despite his decades of success and innumerable accolades, the sweater-clad Sondheim remains charmingly humble and unpretentious about what he does. Topics include the composer’s troubled childhood with an abusive mother (“My father left her. I can’t blame him.”), his apprenticeship under Oscar Hammerstein II, and his experiences writing for stars like Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury. He also says that, if he weren’t writing musicals, “maybe I’d be a geologist” and that, when he’s at home, he likes to listen to “concert music that I’ve never heard before.” He admits that “unfamiliar music” is a great source of ideas to steal for one’s own projects.
One of the most interesting passages in the video occurs right near the end, when an audience member asks Sondheim about film adaptations of his work. Knowing his remarks will be controversial to some, he admits that he’s not a great fan of the Oscar-winning 1961 film of West Side Story directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Why? Sondheim explains:
I don’t think West Side Story’s a good movie at all because it’s not a movie. It’s a photograph of a stage. When I see a gang of juvenile delinquents dancing down a real street, Broadway, in color coordinated sneakers, with color coordinated wash on the line behind them, I’m not scared.
Which film adaptation did meet with Sondheim’s approval? Tim Burton’s 2007 film of Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp in the title role. Sondheim acknowledges that the Burton movie is not universally beloved, but he says that it’s superior to West Side Story because it was truly re-conceived as a movie rather than being simply a transplanted stage show.