Finishing the Hat? Sondheim's Final Musical Heads into Production Without Him
READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Fans of Stephen Sondheim know he was all about process. The iconic songwriter/lyricist was famous for digging into his shows while in previews, often shaping the various shows' dramatic arcs with the right songs at the right moments. When "Follies" was trying out in Boston, he replaced the one-joke "Can That Boy Foxtrot" with the show biz anthem "I'm Still Here." Also in Boston with "A Little Night Music," he took a second act book scene that focused on a male character and made it about the other – the show's protagonist Desiree Armfelt – and added "Send In The Clowns," his most popular song. And when "Sunday in the Park With George" lacked an emotional punch, he provided one by writing "Children and Art" while in previews.
So what happens now that Sondheim is gone – he died two years ago at the age of 91?
That is the dilemma his collaborators on "Here We Are," his final musical that he left unfinished that starts previews this week in New York. Not on Broadway, but in a new 526-seat performance center in Hudson Yards called The Shed. Sondheim had been working on the project for years (which was titled "Square One") with playwright David Ives based on two films by Mexican director Luis Bunuel: "The Exterminating Angel" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." What both films have in common, aside from Bunuel's dark world view, is that they concern dinner parties amongst members of the upper class. In "Angel," they can't leave the room where the dinner takes place; in "Discreet Charm," their dinners are continually disrupted by one thing or another.
Shortly before his death, Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on "Late Night" that there had been a reading of the show that went well and producers planned on bringing it to Broadway the following Spring. But Sondheim's death ended that plan. Nonetheless, his collaborators, who include Ives and director Joe Mantello, decided there was enough material for a professional production. But will it succeed without Sondheim's clear-eye to guide it?
The producers are optimistic, telling the New York Times in a written statement: "What we are putting on stage now is as finished as any production about to play its first preview. It's ready for audiences, and very much the musical Steve envisioned."
They added that Sondheim is responsible for the score and that "as is the case with every musical, the orchestrator and arranger take the composer's melodies and motifs and use them to arrange and orchestrate the instrumental interstitial music."
The production team told the Times that "the three collaborators agreed after the informal reading that took place on Sept. 8, 2021, that Steve's songwriting for both acts was complete."
On the other hand, the book has gone through considerable revisions by Ives and Mantello.
As long as a decade ago Sondheim said that a production was forthcoming after he completed the first draft with Ives. "There was a reading and three workshops before the pandemic – all led by the Public Theater – but no productions," writes the Times. More recently, it appeared the project was abandoned, but in 2021 Mantello arranged another reading (with Nathan Lane and Bernadette Peters) that brought renewed interest to its being completed. Interestingly, the reading featured the script and the lyrics, but no singing.
"It was two acts, and the lyrics were witty and clever, unsurprisingly," Nathan Lane told the Times. Sondheim, he said, "had written an act and the beginning of the second act, and there was some material in the script that was suggesting perhaps he might turn some long monologue into a song – I wasn't privy to those conversations."
Sondheim was famous for procrastination, but it also appeared the material itself puzzled him, and his collaborators came up with a solution. "When Sondheim seemed stymied by the second act, Ives and Mantello suggested that perhaps, once the characters are trapped, they can no longer sing," writes the Times.
The upcoming production is budgeted at a high cost for off-Broadway – somewhere between 7 and 8 million dollars. But is pricey, even by Broadway standards: Prime seats are being priced at $349.
The cast features Francois Battiste, Tracie Bennett, Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Jin Ha, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O'Hare, Steven Pasquale, David Hyde Pierce, and Jeremy Shamos.
But without Sondheim's guiding hand, will "Here We Are" be a fully viable musical or a piece that only suggests what could have been.
"Steve going on Colbert and saying 'we're going to do a show' and then being around for rehearsals and previews and developing and rewriting as always is one thing," David Benedict, a writer who is also at work on a Sondheim biography, told the Times. "It's a very different proposition when the composer-lyricist isn't with you."