Watch: Sondheim's Rare and Delightful Appearance with Stephen Colbert

Saturday November 27, 2021
Originally published on November 27, 2021

Stephen Sondheim on 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert'
Stephen Sondheim on 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert'  (Source:YouTube)

When Stephen Sondheim appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" last September 16, it was something of an occasion for his devoted fans. He had been on something on the down low for the past few years. This past April the New York Times wrote that his long-gestating musical collaboration, based on two films by Luis Buñuel, would likely never make it to the stage. Called "Buñuel," it was slated to play the Public Theater, where it had a 2016 workshop; but a spokeswoman for the Public said in April that Sondheim had informed the theater in 2020 that he was no longer developing the musical.

Whether or not the new musical is complete or not is up in the air, as he explained to Colbert." it may be on again and headed to Broadway next year. Asked if he was still writing, the 91-year-old said, "I've been working on a show for a couple of years with playwright named David Ives, and it's, it's called 'Square One.' And we had a reading of it last week, and we were encouraged. So, we're going to go ahead with it, and with any luck we'll get it on next season."

"It should also be noted that Nathan Lane, on his Today appearance yesterday, (September 15) revealed that he had just done a reading of a new Sondheim musical with Bernadette Peters, so... putting it together...," noted Playbill.


Colbert, an unabashed Sondheim fan, introduced him appropriately as the "greatest composer and lyricist in the history of the American Theatre," and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

In the seven-minute conversation, Colbert and Sondheim covered a lot of ground, talking about his famous mentorship with Oscar Hammerstein II, with Colbert showing a photo of the beaming 16-year old standing with the man who taught him the value of authenticity. "Majorly, he taught me to write for myself, because I wrote songs that imitated him. He said, 'No. Write what you feel.' "

Colbert brought out the recently published book by Sondheim's collaborator, James Lapine, called "Putting It Together," for which Colbert wrote a deeply personal quote for the book jacket. "When I was 19 I read the lyrics of 'Putting It Together' to my mother to say that this is what I wanted to do with my life," he read. "Even though I had no idea of what this might be. I couldn't sing like Mandy Patinkin. I couldn't compose like Sondheim. I couldn't write and direct like James Lapine, but like Seurat's hat, that play was a window from this world to that. And I will always be grateful to you for laying out the desire and the beauty of the act of creation itself, regardless of where that may take you."

A tearful Sondheim responded, "When I read that, I was touched. And I'm touched again."

Sondheim also spoke enthusiastically of two pandemic-delayed projects. One was the transfer from London of "Company," directed by Marianne Elliott, with Tony winner Katrina Lenk as Bobbie and two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone as Joanne, that returns in November. It had a week of previews before the pandemic ceased Broadway performances.

"I saw it in London. And also, we had a week of previews here before the pandemic closed everything down. So there, it's a wonderful production, highly recommended. And I don't usually tout my own stuff but I urge everybody here to see it," Sondheim said. "It's really one of most entertaining evenings I've ever had in the theater, it's just great. This lady Marianne Elliott, who directed, is just remarkable."

The other delayed project is "West Side Story," the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner adaptation of the 1957 musical that brought Sondheim to Broadway as a lyricist to Leonard Bernstein's music.

"Oh, it's terrific. Again, touting my own work. No, it's a really terrific. Everybody go. You'll really have a good time. And for those of you who know the show, there are going to be some real surprises because Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, has done some really imaginative and surprising things with the way the songs are used in the story, and the whole thing has real sparkle to it and real energy, and it feels fresh. It's just, it's really first grade, and the movie musicals are hard to do, and this one, Spielberg really, really nailed it."

A new trailer for the film was released this week. Watch it below: