On October 27, 2009, I had the thrilling experience of interviewing Stephen Sondheim for 90 minutes on the stage of Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre in front of 900 adoring fans–of Sondheim’s, not mine. Still, such a huge wave of love broke over the stage that a little of it inevitably splashed onto me. What a feeling!
Sondheim was here as a fundraiser for APPLAUSE! Musicals in Concert, whose artistic director, Scott Ashton Swan, had invited me to do the interview. I’ve done quite a few high-profile one-on-ones–John Ralston Saul, Neil LaBute, Kim Cattrall–but I felt anxious about Sondheim. It would be like interviewing Shakespeare–the Shakespeare of modern musical theatre–but I knew little about him and not enough about his music or the shows he had written. And what shows! West Side Story (the greatest musical ever, in my pantheon) and Gypsy (lyrics only); music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and more. The guy’s a superstar, one of the 20th century’s finest artists.
So I spent a week in full Sondheim immersion, reading his biography and four other books about his work, and listening to the soundtracks of all his shows. Finally, I felt prepared. But I had also read and heard things that suggested he might be grumpy, egotistical, thin-skinned. And he’s 79 years old, so how sharp could he be? How much would he remember? How long could he sit?
Turned out none of my fears were warranted. Sondheim is brilliant, witty and articulate, with a virtual photographic memory for details. I helped a little by setting him up with questions about his life and work that, from my reading, seemed to be often-told stories. And he’d knock them out of the park with perfectly timed punchlines.
He’s also remarkably gracious, personable and modest. (“Call me Steve.”) And unbelievably vigorous. Our gig was his fourth in four nights in different cities: San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Vancouver. And he traveled alone–no retinue, no handlers, no assistant. What a guy.
This was Sondheim’s first trip to Vancouver and very likely his last. Those of us at the Vogue that night—me especially–were fortunate to be in the presence of true greatness.