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Sondheim Isn't Quite Out of the 'Woods' : The composer/lyricist hones his present musical even as he plunges into new projects

January 08, 1989|BARBARA ISENBERG

NEW YORK — Cinderella wasn't sure Prince Charming was her Prince Charming. She wanted to mull it over. But she had to do it fast. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was finishing up his score for "Into the Woods," and "when we got to Cinderella's song, the action by that time was so tight and swift, you wanted to know what happened next. You didn't want to stop for a philosophical song about what the experience meant to her."

So Sondheim scrapped the contemplative "Back to the Palace" for the more plot-oriented, funnier "On the Steps of the Palace." Here Cinderella reviews her options while stuck in the muck of the palace's pitch-covered steps. This version, says Sondheim, "keeps the humor going."

"Obviously, I don't change lyrics very much once they're finished, because they're very hard to write, and very hard to arrive at," Sondheim says. "But if it's broke, I keep trying to fix it."

"Woods" is the musical tale of what can happen if you actually get what you think you want. Even after three workshops, six weeks at San Diego's Old Globe Theater and a year on Broadway, Sondheim and librettist James Lapine still have it under scrutiny. They were fiddling with the show even as the national company started rehearsing here in November.

So expect a few changes, Sondheim hints, when "Into the Woods" arrives at the Ahmanson Theater on Wednesday, featuring Cleo Laine as the witch and Charlotte Rae as the mother of Jack (of Beanstalk climbing fame).

The scene is Sondheim's East Side townhouse. The 58-year-old composer may be casually dressed, he may be stretched out comfortably on his sofa, but his talk with Calendar is no informal get-together. He'll respect the reporter's assignment--he agreed to the interview, after all. But if a question isn't specifically asked, it isn't likely to be answered.

The best part of his work, says Sondheim, is coming up with a great lyric or song and then sharing it with his collaborators. And what collaborators--composers such as Leonard Bernstein ( "West Side Story") and Jule Styne ("Gypsy"), playwrights such as Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart ("A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") and directors such as Harold Prince ("Follies," "Company," "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd").

Nowadays the excited calls are to Lapine, the playwright/director with whom he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for their musical "Sunday in the Park With George." Sondheim says that besides the camaraderie and creative stimulation he gets from collaborators, they also provide him with what he calls "real deadlines." By his own admission, he's a procrastinator.

"Woods" co-producer Rocco Landesman has said he "wouldn't be surprised if (Sondheim and Lapine) put in new stuff the week it closes." Sondheim added the witch's song, "Last Midnight," just a week before the show opened on Broadway. During the tryouts at the Old Globe, the show premiered without what has become the show's anthem, "No One Is Alone."

At that point, there was simply a spot in the "Woods" script that said "quartet for Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Baker and Jack." During intermission at a Wednesday evening performance, Sondheim showed up with "No One Is Alone." He played it for the cast after the show that night, and it was part of the score by Friday. The next day Sondheim and Lapine left for New York.

For Sondheim, writing is a disciplined search for inspiration. He has frequently described lyric writing as "an elegant form of puzzle." An avid puzzle and game player, he "composed" crossword puzzles for several months for New York Magazine that have been described as "maddeningly diabolical."

Long before writing a single note or lyric for the "Woods" score, Sondheim prepared for the challenge. He would meet regularly with Lapine, as he had with other collaborators, taking extensive notes on three legal pads--one for characters, one for songs and one for ideas. There's obvious crossover, he explains, as he jots down what the scenes are about, what points to make in a song, and where the plot's going.

Then he gathers up his notes and waits.

"I usually wait until the book writer writes at least a few pages, a couple of scenes, so I know how he hears the characters talking. Once I know what the style of diction is, and what the emotional outlines of the characters are in his mind, I start writing songs. You talk about what characters (are), but until they're on the page, they're not alive."

Sondheim and Lapine started thinking about "Into the Woods" "almost immediately" after "Sunday" opened in 1984. Sondheim had long wanted to create a quest tale along the lines of "The Wizard of Oz," and after deciding they didn't want to either invent a fairy tale or expand an existing one, they combined several fairy tales plus adding one of their own.

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