Photo by Megan Fitzgerald
For lovers of musical theater—and isn’t that everyone?—SPA’s “The Notables” series will have you swooning this month when the New York Times’ Frank Rich takes the stage for a candid conversation with the legendary Stephen Sondheim. The gay composer and lyricist is one of the last great lions of the Great White Way and winner of everything from multiple Grammys to a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a rare public-speaking gig for Sondheim, whom Rich, an Op-Ed columnist and former theater critic at the New York Times, has known since the 1970s.
Their friendship started three decades ago when Rich, an undergraduate at Harvard, reviewed Sondheim’s Follies for the Harvard Crimson.
“Somehow my review got his attention,” remembers Rich. “He wrote me a letter and that led to us having drinks. For someone like that to reach out to a student, it really gives a young writer a lot of confidence.” Despite the age difference and different sexual orientations, they both shared a love of theater.
When Rich was theater critic for the Times, he didn’t talk to Sondheim for ethical reasons. “My reviews of him were all over the board,” Rich says. “I liked Sunday in the Park with George; Assassins, not so much.” And while Rich doesn’t have one favorite Sondheim work, it’s Gypsy that was an important part of his childhood.
“Long before I heard the name Sondheim, I was falling in love with theater listening to the sound track of Gypsy.” As a child of divorce, Rich was mesmerized by the tale of Rose, a single stage mother raising two children. Luckily for his readers, Rich had no desire to be in the theater, just to write about it—which he did at the Times for more than a decade before switching to the Op-Ed page, where today he writes about everything from culture to politics. That switch allowed him to get back in touch with Sondheim and, eventually, led to their onstage conversation tour, which comes to Houston on Oct. 25 for the benefit of AIDS Foundation Houston.
The two will talk about Sondheim’s career, including his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Tim Burton; predecessors such as his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II; the differences between film and theater; his own creative process, speaking specifically on works ranging from Gypsy and West Side Story to such later classics as Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd; and the state of American musical theater.
“I think it’s a lot better than when I was a drama critic,” Rich says. “It can never be the Golden Age it was when the pop music of the day was show tunes, before rock music drove Broadway off the top of the charts.” But he does see it as healthy, saying that, to everyone’s surprise, theater has proved to be doing very well during the economic downturn.
“Now we have Disney spectacles and musicals based on movies and old TV shows, but we also have Spring Awakening and Next to Normal,” he points out. “Suddenly there’s new groups doing original work. I’m modestly hopeful.”
He’s also hopeful about the future of journalism and the role of critics. In this age of instant information, Internet, and excess blogs, Rich still believes that people will look for an authority when it comes to laying down their hard-earned dollars.
“Who are you going to listen to?” he asks. “Something tells me that over time the public will find what it needs. I think there will still be major critics—whether they work for a major newspaper in New York or Houston I’m not sure. But people will look for a voice of authority, whether in print or on the Internet. The big question is, who is going to pay for it?
“I think newspapers will survive, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. Even in the pre-Internet days, while it was great to have the platform of the Times because that meant people would check you out, they could still reject what you had to say.”
One thing you don’t want to reject is this rare opportunity to see Rich and Sondheim talk theater in person.
Society for the Performing Arts presents An Evening with Stephen Sondheim: An onstage conversation with host Frank Rich on Sunday, October 25, 7:30 pm, in Jones Hall. For information and tickets, visit spahouston.org.
Marene Gustin wrote about the 30th annual ArtHouston in the July issue of OutSmart.