xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Interviewing Stephen Sondheim: an event that changed my life | GUEST COMMENTARY

Baltimore Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, right, chats with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim during a photo shoot in his suite at the Watergate Hotel.
Baltimore Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, right, chats with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim during a photo shoot in his suite at the Watergate Hotel. (Jerry Jackson/Jerry Jackson)

Two decades ago — after four years of correspondence — I won the privilege of interviewing Stephen Sondheim. The groundbreaking composer and lyricist had elevated, enriched and ultimately transformed the Broadway musical. He died Nov. 26 at age 91.

My interview came in 2002, when Washington’s Kennedy Center was about to produce a four-month-long “Sondheim Celebration.” It would feature six new revivals, all of which I’d review for The Sun in my capacity as its theater critic. The shows included “Sweeney Todd,” the macabre revenge story of a wronged, blood-thirsty barber, as well as “Merrily We Roll Along,” an account of three friends told in reverse chronological order — a problem the show never completely solved. The celebration would conclude with an imported Japanese production of “Pacific Overtures,” a historical musical about the opening of Japan to Western trade in the 19th century.

Advertisement

No retrospective could better capture the extraordinary range of subjects musicalized by Sondheim. No interview could have made me more “excited and scared” — a phrase Sondheim coined in his grown-up fairy tale musical, “Into the Woods.”

Holly Selby, The Sun’s arts editor at the time, worked closely with me to craft questions that began with one of Sondheim’s major interests — teaching. My godmother, also a theater critic, called me the day before to calm me down; she said I should treat this like any other interview. Holly told me not to forget to eat on the appointed day.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That day began with the first rehearsal for the Kennedy Center’s “Sweeney Todd.” The interview space was an executive conference room, where gifted Sun photographer Jerry Jackson set up lights. Although Sondheim had agreed to pictures, we had been warned that he was not fond of being photographed (or, for that matter, being interviewed). When he entered the room and saw the lights, he announced that he would not pose for photos. Jerry tactfully assured him that there would be no posed shots, just pictures taken informally during the conversation.

I prefaced my first question by saying: “I know you are a great admirer of teachers. I believe you’ve even called teaching a saintly profession.”

“No,” Sondheim interrupted, as I quaked with the sudden fear that the interview was over. “I said,” he continued, “it’s a sacred profession. I’ve never used ‘saint.’”

Meekly, I thanked him for the correction. And with that, the interview was on! He talked about the enormous influence that legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II — a family friend — had on his life and career; and about working with composer Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics; and about the many shows he did with director Harold Prince, including the one they were working on at the time, a musical about the colorful, turn-of-the-20th-century Mizner brothers: Addison, an architect, and Wilson, a con artist.

Advertisement

After my article appeared in print, Sondheim mailed me a thank-you note so effusive, Holly posted it on one of the walls of The Sun’s Features Department. Sondheim also wrote to Jerry Jackson and told him he liked the photos so much, he wanted to hire Jerry to take new headshots. Sondheim subsequently recommended that, because he hated posing, he’d appreciate it if Jerry would bring me along so we could chat during the photo shoot, which took place in his suite at the Watergate Hotel.

People often talk about events that change their lives, and this interview was one of those for me. No, I didn’t become a musical theater composer (although I later did a lot of teaching). What happened was, a man I didn’t know read the interview, clipped it out of the paper and saved it. A year later, I received a message from this man via an online dating service. I read his profile, noted his favorite authors and interests, and then stopped cold at the line: “I can quote the lyrics to every Stephen Sondheim song.”

I am now married to that man. For my birthday after we were engaged, he took me to New York to attend Symphony Space’s “Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim” presentation. At one point, before the hall was full, he said, “Stephen Sondheim is just a few feet away. You should go talk to him.”

“Do you want to come with me?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “This is yours.” That was the only chance he would ever have to meet Sondheim, but the humility my fiance showed taught me much more about him than his ability to quote lyrics.

In the years since my interview, I have given lectures and taught classes about Stephen Sondheim. Those classes are my way of continuing his legacy. Like artist Georges Seurat — the subject of Sondheim’s musical, “Sunday in the Park with George” — Stephen Sondheim taught us that art is a sacred profession, that it demands intense dedication and that it knows no boundaries.

J. Wynn Rousuck (jrousuck@comcast.net) was The Sun’s theater critic from 1984-2007. She is now the theater critic for WYPR-FM.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement