Legendary American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim believes that a “dumbing down” of theatre in his native US is now spreading to the UK (See The Goss, 28 Oct 2004).

Speaking last night in his first public talk for a decade at the National Theatre - where his early musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is currently playing to sell-out business - Sondheim said that, particularly in relation to musical theatre, “The public in New York is not that interested in anything they haven’t seen before. I’m afraid that’s happening here, too.”

The reason for the “dumbing down” to a programme of largely revivals or compilations of familiar material from popular music or movies is, according to Sondheim, that theatregoing has become “too expensive” and audiences can no longer afford to “take a chance” on whether they’ll have a good time or not.

As for the development of the musical genre, Sondheim says that the “good news” is that there’s a lot of emerging talent in both London and New York. Unfortunately, new writers and their shows are hampered by the “bad news” that “there’s no place to put them on in London and no money to put them on in New York…that’s the problem.”

In the NT Platform, chaired by Whatsonstage.com contributing editor Mark Shenton (pictured with Sondheim), the composer spoke about his disappointment that his latest musical, Bounce, did not transfer to Broadway as expected. The John Weidman collaboration premiered summer 2003 in Chicago but opened that autumn to largely poor national reviews in Washington DC.

Speaking last night, Sondheim explained that Bounce had been in development for nine years, during which time myriad directors, including Briton Sam Mendes, had been involved and “had a different take on it” - “it may have been a case of too many cooks.” He and Weidman now plan to rework the show in spring 2005; however, they’re doubtful that a British production will happen (See The Goss, 30 Jun 2003). The musical comedy is set during the California Gold Rush and concerns real-life brothers and speculators Addison and Wilson Mizner. According to Sondheim, “It’s a very American story. I’m not sure the British could relate to it.”

He also revealed that, about a year and a half ago, the National had been in negotiations to revive his 1971 piece Follies at the NT Olivier. “I’m sorry that didn’t happen. I would love to see it in this theatre,” said Sondheim to cheers of “Hear! Hear!” from the audience.

In addition to Edward Hall’s production of Forum, which finishes its sell-out run as part of the Travelex £10 season at the NT Olivier on 2 November 2004, Sondheim planned to attend the West End revival of Sweeney Todd, first seen at Berkshire’s Watermill Theatre and now playing at the New Ambassadors, during his current UK visit. The production, performed by nine actor-musicians, is the smallest ever of the 1979 musical thriller about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street which, Sondheim says, he wrote as “my Valentine to London because I love London.”

- by Terri Paddock