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Sondheim and Cook Discuss Musical Theater in New York Times-Sponsored Event logo
[l-r] Stephen Holden, Barbara Cook, and Stephen Sondheim
at the CUNY Graduate Center
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
On Saturday, January 10, Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook appeared in a discussion presented as part of the "TimesTalks: Special Edition" series at the CUNY Graduate Center. The sold-out event was moderated by Stephen Holden, a cabaret, film, and theater critic for the New York Times. Here are edited excerpts from the talk on several musical theater-related subjects.


On Cook's affinity for the music and lyrics of Sondheim:

COOK: The thing I love about doing Stephen's work is that the songs are so actable. [To Sondheim:] It's really very hard to go back to even the best songwriters after doing your work, because it's a different thing.

SONDHEIM: Because you are an actress, and there are very few people who can act and sing at the same time. I know that sounds glib, but there are people who can sing and there are people who can act, and they don't always [go together]. I remember -- this may shock some people -- I felt that very strongly when I saw Barbra Streisand do Funny Girl. She acted it wonderfully and then she sang it wonderfully -- and when she was singing, she was singing, and when she was acting, she was acting. You do the two things simultaneously, and I think that's why you enjoy singing.

COOK: I think what happens is people become so concerned with the act of singing...The whole message becomes, "I can sing..."

SONDHEIM: Well then, if I may ask, why are you such a fan of opera? [audience laughter]

COOK: Well...

SONDHEIM: Is it because it's in another language? [more audience laughter]

COOK: I'm a fan of opera because, when it works -- which is not very often -- when it really, really moves me to a place that nothing else does.

SONDHEIM: But when it works, is it because there's acting going on?

COOK: Absolutely. It's because the story takes place. But believe me...that does not always happen.


On what's going on in the musical theater today:

SONDHEIM: I find it hard to relate to. It's partly because there's not an awful lot of new stuff being done -- certainly not on Broadway, in the commercial theater. It's the old cry; I'm not saying anything startling. Young people aren't getting a chance to be heard, and when they do get a chance to be heard, it's once every five years. So they never get a chance to learn. You only get to learn by doing. I remember when Hal Prince and I started out, we complained that we'd only get to do a show, like, every two years, whereas Rodgers and Hart did two a season. Well, now that seems profligate -- one every two years. Wow! Who wouldn't want to get a chance to get a show on every two years?

COOK: I think one of the big differences now is that "the public" is less willing to have a character speak and then sing. I remember I was on the way to do a matinee of something or other -- I think it was She Loves Me or something, it was 1963. I was walking behind two couples and they were talking about what they should see that afternoon. And one of the men said, "Well, I want to see something where when they talk, they should talk and when they sing, they should sing." That really bothered me, as you can imagine. But don't you think that's one of the reasons why Andrew [Lloyd] Webber, for instance, does sung-through things?

SONDHEIM Yeah, that's part of it...[audience laughter] The real reason is that it's easier to write. It's so much easier to write recitative than a song. To write a 32-bar song is like writing a sonnet.

COOK: I think people don't appreciate the magnificence of Oscar Hammerstein's work in structuring a show, structuring a book.

SONDHEIM: Yeah, what people don't understand about Oscar was that he was an experimental writer. Because of the sensibility and that kind of -- for people who don't like his work -- the sentimentality and the sort of simplistic approach to character compared to what happened after he opened all those doors, they tend to miss the fact that he was an experimental writer. And it all had to do with exactly what you're saying, with structure, starting with Show Boat and going right through Oklahoma! And then his one openly experimental show [Allegro] was such a failure that Rodgers didn't want to do any more experimenting.

COOK: You know, when you're walking around inside of those shows -- inside of The Sound of Music and inside of The King and I -- [Hammerstein] gives you this incredible strong path to walk. It's beautiful to be part of.


On the newer styles of musical theater composition:

SONDHEIM: Well, the British school, so to speak, I think has likely -- like influenza -- it's peaked. [Audience laughter and applause] Don't quote me! You know, rock and pop are so much the coin of the day. On the other hand, there's everybody with three names: Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa. And Adam [Guettel]. They have a whole other way of approaching things, and whether the public will ever accept that kind of very serious-minded, concentrated, difficult work is moot.

COOK: Stephen, don't you think that some young composers who are not as talented as you are trying to do the kind of work you do and it just comes out boring?

SONDHEIM: Sometimes it does, but you know, we all -- meaning my generation, Johnny [Kander] and Fred [Ebb], Sheldon [Harnick] and Jerry [Bock] and I -- we were imitating...not imitating, but taking from Oscar. Because I was so impressed with him and wanted to be like him, I kept writing these songs about trees and flowers when what I felt was "I'm a city boy!" And he said, "Write what you feel. You're trying to write what I feel." That seems so simple, but it's something that a lot of young writers don't do because they don't trust themselves.

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