Last week I went to see an evening billed as "Frank Rich in Conversation with Stephen Sondheim." I had been quite excited about this event--Frank Rich is one of the sharpest and funniest and most dramatic of New York Times columnists, befitting his theater-critic background, and his political criticism is some of the most vibrant and enjoyable there is (read him!), and Stephen Sondheim is, you know, Sondheim, gay musical-theater genius of our time.
However, a more apt title would have been something like Stephen Sondheim Reminisces At Length While Frank Rich Nods and Glances Silently at His Binder of Questions. I think Frank said two or three things all night while Sondheim merrily rolled along about Lenny (Bernstein), Jerry (Robbins), Dick (Rodgers), Julie (Styne) and Arthur (Lawrence.) (Do they call him "Steve"?)
I sat with notebook at the ready, as I always do at these things--I get a lot of ideas about writing from listening to non-writers (I give students copies of Diane Arbus's brilliant lecture excerpts published in her Aperture monograph.) I jotted down a few things* but not as many as I would have hoped. Sondheim's trip was more than reminiscent than revelatory. I gazed at Frank Rich, that good sport, and silently begged for banter, some probing back-and-forth. But no.
After more than an hour, Sondheim wound down and the floor was opened to questions and answers. At this point, most of the room cleared hastily and noisily, while the true believers scurried down from the balconies and out of the dark corners to the microphone stands like mice to the biggest cheese of their lives.
Which brings me at last to the first point of this post: QUESTIONS.
More specifically The Oft-Excruciating Rite of Post-Reading Q&A.
You can count on certain question archetypes to rear their heads every time. Key is that none of these are actually primarily questions, but rather vehicles to verbally reach out and fondle the Master and/or Oneself.
1. The Praise Question:
Fawning, ebullient praise, praise, praise followed by a tiny trembling question with an obvious answer. Usually starts with, "I just have to say."
2. The Hyperspecific Check-This-Out-I-Know-Your-Shit-Better-Than-Anyone-Else-Here Question:
"What do you think of John Waffelshnimper's 1989 orchestration of Company in terms of blah lah and dah?", etc.
3. The We're-Connected-You-And-I Question:
Name-drops some mutual acquaintance and explains how they are really just a handshake apart from being family. Usually delivered in smugly cozy it's-just-the-two-of-us-here tone. Question is an afterthought.
4. The But-Enough-About-You Question:
"Questioner" begins with a litany of own accomplishments and credentials; often includes overlooked artistic heroics, or service to community and/or humanity. Finishes with expectant pause for appreciative murmurs of validation or smattering of applause. Thus established as equally interesting and worthy of attention as the evening's star, proceeds nobly forth to converse with said star as peer and colleague. We the lucky audience are left to marvel that we have not one but two great minds in the room with us.
If you think of any others I have missed please tip me off.
Dignified genius J.M. Coetzee refuses to have Q&As, and I respect him even more for it.
On another tack altogether, my friend and neighbor Nicole J. Georges reveals herself as the lesbian Dan Savage with her hilarious advice blog, Ask Nicole. Do it, just ask her something. Nicole is witty and wise and her guest consultants have included Michelle Tea and the senior citizens she leads in zine-making workshops. (Yes, she has elderlies making zines of their lives. Fabulous.)
• "From Lenny, I learned that if you're gonna fall off the ladder, fall off a high one. It's embarrassing to fall off a low one." Aim for "the big ideas."
• From Jerome Robbins: "Jerry would ask me, 'What is he doing?' And I would explain... And then he would say, 'What is he doing?' And I would explain again. And then he would say, 'Yeah, but what is he doing?'" Sondheim was talking about staging a number in your head, not just writing lyrics and music, so that the director has a blueprint from which he or she can invent. For writing, it also works, in two ways--what is the character doing, physically, in the moment (especially in dialogue passages), and what are they really doing, subtext-wise. Since as we all know, what people purport to be doing often masks their true intent.
• It's the 50th anniversary of West Side Story (!), so that dominated the "conversation." Sondheim said he originally wrote the line "Fuck you, Joe," which would have been the first cuss word used on the musical stage (trivia: first four -letter word on stage is in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Big Daddy says "bullshit.") However, the Fuck You Joe was squashed, because if put on a record, the record could not be shipped over state lines. (Obscenity laws.)
• Elaine Stritch, expert drinker, walking up to the bar post-rehearsal, 2 a.m.: "Just give me a bottle of vodka and floor plan."