When he's not busy being one of the most astute critics of today's political culture for The New York Times, Frank Rich is part of an occasional Q&A road show where he interviews Stephen Sondheim for appreciative audiences.
The two are coming to Houston October 25 for An Evening With Stephen Sondheim (Note to Rich: You need a better agent for your billing).
Rich, the former theater critic of the Times, leads Sondheim -- with the help of audience questions -- through a wide-ranging conversation about the composer's shows, his thoughts on theater, and anything else that comes up.
We talked to Rich about the event.
Frank Rich -- Basically this started when Steve got an invitation in Portland, Oregon, where he'd never been, in the spring of `08, and they wanted him to come speak and he doesn't want to give a speech. And I had interviewed him for the Times magazine and once on stage....Other people were interested and we turned it over to a lecture agent who I've used in recent years. It's a matter of who's interested, and around very complicated schedules for both of us, so we can only do it sporadically and this is the first one we've done in a while. We're doing one other city back-to-back with it, Seattle, but it's not part of a tour beyond that.
Hair Balls -- Its kinda odd, your coming here, because Houston for a Sondheim fan is so bad -- it can be years and years between productions and even then it's always Forum or Sweeney Todd, it seems.
FR -- Oh, that's interesting. That I didn't know about. It sort of surprises me actually, given the fairly active theater scene in Houston. But you know, a couple of times we've done this in places where there's very little theatrical production, period. One of the most interesting examples of this, some months ago, was the University of Akron in Ohio which is the last place -- and it was absolutely one of the most interesting evenings in terms of the audience questions and the interest in it. He's got an enormous following whether the shows are produced or not. And as he'd be the first to point out, he's never been one of the most commercial writers even in New York....Shows like the original Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George lost money. So he has a kind of following that can't be measured in the number of productions or commercial success.
FR -- And that's something we'll probably talk about onstage. The conversation we have is very improvised in what comes up -- and it's interesting too, in what people do. For instance, it's not surprising that people do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which might in fact be his biggest commercial hit, period. It is surprising that right up there is Sweeney Todd, which you would not think is a crowd-pleaser, but which seems to be done everywhere including, increasingly, at schools.
HB -- Before the movie, even?
FR -- Oh, yeah, well before the movie. And look, there are whole shows of his that have huge cults that way exceed their moderate commercial success on Browadway. Into the Woods is a classic example of that. It's amazing how many times students stop him, and I mean like high school students or college students, and say, "I was in Into the Woods." You know, "I played the wolf" or "I played Little Red Ridinghood" or whatever.
HB -- When you're up there, how do you keep it fresh? I assume there are some anecdotes that have to be told just because people expect them.
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FR -- Not really. What I try to do is just mix it up. I mean, when there are long lags between when we do them, usually stuff has happened, and it's not hard. There are usually certain shows that people want to hear about but it's amazing, the interesting thing about him, speaking as a journalist and an interviewer, is that he is incredibly candid and fair-minded and will take almost any question and examine it, and if it's something he hasn't heard before, all the better. And so you never know what's coming out of his mouth half the time...The one question he resolutely won't answer is "Who do you think is the best of the young crop of new musical-theater writers?" He thinks, correctly, he'll always forget two or three people he might have mentioned after the fact and he doesn't want to insult people who are coming up. On the other hand, he's extemely candid about songwriters from his generation and his mentors.
HB -- Does someone always ask if he listens to any rap music?
FR -- Probably. It's a question that always comes up, or I ask it. But I'd rather have him answer it than try to paraphrase him.
An Evening With Stephen Sondheim is at Jones Hall October 25 at 7:30. For ticket information, click here.