Q&A: Stephen Sondheim on Follies starring Imelda Staunton

WHERE: National Theatre

WHEN: 22/8

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was in his 20s when he wrote the words for Gypsy in 1959 and is here tonight at the National Theatre for the first preview of the revival of his hit Follies starring Imelda Staunton.

  • Read on for reasons including all the gossip from the National production starring Imelda Staunton

An audience member asks how this production came about: ‘The National just wanted to do it – it’s as simple as that,’ says Sondheim.

‘I haven’t seen it yet. It’s a complicated show. I saw bits of it this afternoon. It was supposed to be a dress rehearsal but it was a partial one.’

Dominic Cooke (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National) directs this revival and Sondheim is asked how he feels about the creatives he collaborates with.

‘It’s mostly the directors you have to be careful of. Many directors, particularly with musicals, are more interested in serving themselves than the texts.’

He talks of recent Olivier Award winner John Tiffany who wanted to reimagine Sondheim’s classic Company as an all-male and gay version. ‘We had a reading of it but it just didn’t work. It wasn’t written that way.’

Director Marianne Elliott recently revived Angels In America at the National and Sondheim says she’s keen to re-do Company with main character Bobby as a woman and perhaps a same-sex couple involved. ‘She has a point she wants to make about some women of today feeling the same way as some men felt about themselves in the 70s.

‘To me that’s exciting. It’s not going to kill Company or Marianne although I can’t speak for myself,’ he jokes.

Asked about the creation of Follies, Sondheim says he and author James Goldman had a mutual friend. Goldman was keen to tell the story of a reunion of chorus girls, haunted by their ghosts of their pasts and running the risk of them ruining their present.

It won seven Tonys on its Broadway bow in 1971 but Sondheim remembers it differently: ‘We thought no-one would produce this plotless musical where people just get more drunk and sing.’

He describes the score’s pastiche songs (including Losing My Mind) as the only ones in the show where the characters are telling the truth. ‘They’re all love letters to the styles of songs I grew up with. Gershwin’s probably still trying to sue me for Losing My Mind and so he should.’

Asked about advice for younger creatives, he says: ‘Write what interests you and, if you write it well, people will be interested.’

  • Picture via YouTube courtesy National Theatre. Tickets for other events like these here
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