Stephen Sondheim: A little light throat-slashing

It’s official: Stephen Sondheim is the all-time greatest writer of musicals. Okay, this is from a straw poll of only two people, but the pair in question, performer/director Nancye Hayes and director Stuart Maunder, are musical theatre royalty. Dare to suggest that Sondheim was the only creator of musicals to hold a candle to such playwrights as Tennessee Williams in terms of complex characterisations, and there’s more furious agreement, as there is that, with his rhymes a match for Byron or Pope, his work was not just at the pinnacle of theatre, but of writing, period.

And then there’s his music.

Stuart Maunder and Ben Mingay. Photo supplied.

This year seems to be Sydney’s unofficial Stephen Sondheim Year, with three of his shows being staged: Into the Woods at Belvoir in April, the Maunder-directed Sweeney Todd about to open at the Opera House, and A Little Night Music, starring Hayes, arriving at the theatre bearing her name in October – 50 years after premiering on Broadway.

Maunder, among our most acclaimed directors of both musicals and opera, describes Sweeney Todd – the gothic tale of a barber with a taste for unusually close shaves, and of Mrs Lovett, a pie-maker with a taste for baking his victims – as a “bizarre hybrid”. “It has conquered the operatic stages of the world as well as the theatre stages,” he says. “Sondheim famously called the piece a thriller because it’s an opera if it’s in an opera house, and it’s a play if it’s in a playhouse. So in a way he’s created his own genre.”

This may not have been so obvious when Maunder once directed a children’s production of the show (which seems rather close to having kiddies do Silence of the Lambs), but now with Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett and Ben Mingay as Todd, he finds a complexity in the relationship between the leads that he thinks many productions have obscured. “There’s a real – if strange – love story there that needs to be teased out,” he says.

For Maunder, the only musical by Sondheim – “the 20th-century’s great songwriter” – to rival Sweeney is A Little Night Music, which he’s directed four times (including twice with Hayes playing Madame Armfeldt). He especially admires how the sophisticated interrelationships allow directors to come at the show from different angles depending on their own age.

“It’s an incredibly truthful, beautiful piece of work,” he says, “It’s just so honest when these two people, Desiree and Fredrik, come together at the end, and they sit on a bed, and she sings Send in the Clowns… It’s that problem that we all face of finding different people at different times in our lives, and making choices that end up being disastrous for us.”

He also enthuses about Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s explosively imaginative piece about the creative process, and Into the Woods, which he calls “the hardest show in the world to direct”, because it has so many principals. “They’re masterful in their conception,” he says, “and you alter these pieces at your peril, because they are so beautifully honed.”

Nancy Hayes. Photo supplied.

Nancye Hayes’s performances have been honed across countless productions, including starring in more Australian premieres of major musicals than she can count. Maunder first worked with her when she played what he calls “the most acerbic, charming, funny Mrs Higgins” in his Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. Since then, they’ve collaborated on Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George, and he has boundless admiration for her “ability to go straight to the truth of a moment”.

Hayes says that choosing a favourite Sondheim show is as hard as “naming your favourite child”, but that playing Mrs Lovett in Sweeney is a strong contender. She first encountered Sondheim in the flesh when he came here with director Hal Prince and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner in 1977 for a theatre forum at the Conservatorium. “He said he was working on a musical based on a play he’d seen in London about the demon barber of Fleet Street,” she recounts. “He was actually starting work on that!”

Then she saw the original Broadway production of Sweeney (with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou), “and it just blew me away,” she says. “It was late 1979, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and ring someone to tell them how extraordinary it was, but it was the middle of the night in Australia, and it was very frustrating!”

In October Hayes plays Madame Armfeldt again, this time with Dean Bryant directing, and she’s looking forward to the new take he’ll have on Night Music, given the theatre’s constraints. As Madame Armfeldt she sings the fabulous Liaisons, crammed with the wry observations of a woman who’s seen it all, including that we mere mortals muddle sex with desire. Hayes especially loves the lines: “Take my daughter, I taught her, I tried my best to point the way. I even named her Desiree.”

She says that performing Sondheim’s work is not easy, “but it’s enormously rewarding, if you get it right – for both yourself and an audience.” For Hayes, getting it right these days also includes overcoming nerves. “I think the more you do, the worse it gets,” she observes. “There’s so much more you expect of yourself, because you feel it’s expected of you. When you’re young, and you’re just loving every second of it, it carries you through.”

Then there’s the added pressure of playing in a theatre named after her. “Yes, it is a bit daunting,” she admits. But ultimately she still relishes being part of a company, and each performance being a fresh chance to give her best.

When she became friends with Hal Prince, they’d dine together if she was in New York, sometimes joined by Sondheim. “A shy man,” she recalls. “He probably preferred to be back working on something.”

Sweeney Todd: Drama Theatre from July 22; A Little Night Music: Hayes Theatre from October 13.