Earlier this week, the Guardian ran an extract from Sondheim’s second collection of lyrics, “Look, I Made A Hat” on his feelings about critics and the personal impact of reviews.
With the wisdom of a lifetime spent in the theatre, he wrote, “After a rotten review, you don’t remember the good ones. The only pleasure you have is to reiterate, both to yourself and to anyone who’ll listen, the bad ones, which you can quote in exquisite detail. Moreover, you have to come to terms with the truth that no matter how doggedly you try to deceive yourself to the contrary, if you’re going to believe your good reviews, you’re going to have to believe the less good ones as well, unless you’re deeply self-delusional”.
He rather wonderfully goes on to declare, “I’ve worked with a few of the deluded, and there’s a part of me that envies their blindness.” He cites Richard Rodgers as one of the blind ones, who was so sensitive to the bad ones that after Do I Hear A Waltz? opened, which Sondheim wrote lyrics to Rodgers’s music, the latter’s wife and his assistant “would cut out any sentences in the reviews unfavourable to his music and then read him the bowdlerised version. This didn’t do Arthur Laurents (book writer), John Dexter (director) or me any good, since Rodgers, as the producer, would then blame us for being the architects of the show’s problems. After all, he scolded us, the critics made it clear that we were the villains. His ego remained unscathed.”
But there was one passage that particularly caught my attention, and that was how he feels about awards. “Awards come in two flavours: competitive (Tonys, Oscars, Grammys) and honorary (degrees, medals, lifetime achievements)…. For the awardee, the most depressing is the lifetime achievement, which signifies one more nail in your coffin. It denotes the slippage from respect into veneration. (A retrospective is almost as dismaying but, if you like your own work, a retrospective at least comes with an element of pleasurable pride.) In my blacker moments, I think of it as the Thanks-a-Lot-and-Out-With-the-Garbage award.”
Uh-oh. The drama section of the Critics’ Circle, of which I am chairman, recently put forward Sondheim as our candidate for the Circle’s annual award for Services to the arts, which is then voted on by all sections of the circle, not just the drama one, alongside the candidates proposed by the other sections. Sondheim had just been declared the winner, and I e-mailed him with some trepidation on Tuesday to pass on the news. In fact, the Critics’ Circle President Tom Sutcliffe had already told him, and he replied saying how delighted he was, before adding, “I hope none of the Circle regrets having bestowed the award on me after reading the excerpts from my book.”
This has been a bumper week, as I’ve already noted, for subsidised theatres transferring their work to bigger West End stages, with One Man Two Guvnors moving to the Adelphi and Matilda the Cambridge from the National and RSC respectively. And that’s just the start of what will, I’m sure, be ongoing global lives for both shows: already One Man Two Guvnors has been announced to open on Broadway in April.
It will be part of a spring onslaught of British-originated shows there that also include a slightly revised version of Michael Grandage’s 2006 West End staging of Evita, with Elena Roger reprising her amazing performance in the title role at the Marriott Marquis Theatre in March, Ghost heading to the Lunt-Fontanne to open officially in April, and Tracie Bennett reprising her Olivier nominated performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, also opening officially in April.
As it happens, the tirelessly hard-working Bennett - who first became attached to this show in its earliest incarnation at the now defunct New End Theatre in Hampstead in 2001, when it was called Last Song of the Nightingale — is currently back on the road in a tour of the West End production, which I saw again on Wednesday afternoon in Richmond.
When I interviewed her last year about the show, she told me of the complete commitment she brings to every performance: “You have to care, don’t you, otherwise what’s the point? If I was a carpenter, I’d want to make a good chair; you have to care about wood otherwise it is shoddy. And I never want to be shoddy.”
She was also frank about not expecting to conquer Hollywood anytime soon, even though she has a Green Card that would allow her to work in America whenever she wanted: “I’m not stupid - I’m not young, I’m not beautiful, I’m not a film star.” In any case, she goes on, “I have never been a celebrity seeking publicity”, she says. “I just like to work. My energy is huge. But I also look after myself: I sleep, I eat, I steam. I’ve prepared myself mentally and physically for this - I’m not going to let it beat me. I can’t say I’ve not worked hard because I have, so I’m not going to have false modesty about that. I’ve worked like a bitch and it’s something I take very seriously because I respect audiences — I do it for them. I don’t do it in my bathroom for my own ego. I’ve had a lot of hardships, as we all have, so I know what it is like to want to forget them for two hours. So I take responsibility for not being tired and for being the best I can be every night.”
One of the many poignant features of End of the Rainbow is the fact that it revisits Garland as she hesitantly makes one of her final appearances at London’s Talk of the Town, cutting short her first set to flee back to her hotel in the interval from which she has to be coaxed back with the promise of pills, which ironically would eventually kill her. Apart from making me think of Michael Jackson, it also made me think of the London Hippodrome itself, which was the site of the Talk of the Town, and is soon to revisit part of that past when it is re-launched next year as the Hippodrome Casino.
That will include, according to the venue’s website, a 200-seater cabaret venue, which was presumably necessary for the casino to provide to meet its change of use requirement of what used to be a live performance venue, not a gaming establishment. I know some of the people involved in helping them to programme it, so I am hopeful that it will indeed help plug the gap left by the closure of Pizza on the Park (though the Pheasantry in the King’s Road in Chelsea is making great strides at doing the same).
Finally, one of the most striking moments, at least from a theatrical point of view, in the Tricycle’s new production The Riots that replays the summer riots and their aftermath was MP Diane Abbott’s comment, “The funny thing was that it was all kind of coordinated and done with texts and instant messenger, and one thing that [was] flying around in Hackney on Monday afternoon was ‘Don’t touch the Empire, don’t touch the Empire’. Because the Hackney Empire, even though it has been partially closed and has had its problems as a theatre venue, it has done years and years of programmes with young people - music programmes, theatre programmes, drama programmes - with young black people. So although they were outside of the Hackney Empire for many hours in the afternoon, because there was a JD Sports two doors up and a betting shop almost across the road they didn’t touch the Empire. Which shows that if you can give these young people some sort of ownership and some sort of point of engagement with society, you will begin to find a solution.”
And it’s really wonderful that it is a theatre that provides a possible answer. I hope that government hear it, and get the message, ‘Don’t touch the arts.’ It can be one of society’s lifelines.