Arts

What Did Stephen Sondheim Really Think of ‘Rent’?

Stephen Sondheim appears as a kind of oracle in the movie adaptation of the Jonathan Larson rock monologue “Tick, Tick … Boom!” The film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, doubles as an artful tribute to Larson, best known as the creator of “Rent.” Onscreen, lesser minds are eager to dismiss the self-proclaimed “future of American musicals,” but Sondheim salutes the younger man’s talent and potential. The depiction is based in fact: The master craftsman of American theater, who died last month at 91, did support Larson’s work, financially and creatively.

But when I interviewed Sondheim in 1996, a few months after Larson’s sudden death, his view was complicated.

“I think it is a work in progress,” he said of “Rent,” the Broadway sensation that won Larson a Pulitzer and a Tony. “He wanted to put in everything and the kitchen sink, and he did. I think it suffers from that.”

In “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Miranda pays tribute to the two theater greats who inspired him to make “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” As the first writer to go through Larson’s papers after his death, part of my research for the “Rent” book I wrote with Katherine Silberger, I was moved to tears to see his complexity and compassion so creatively honored.

It inspired me to revisit my interview with Sondheim. I had spoken with Sondheim on the phone. He generously wanted to honor his sometime protégé for the book that would tell Larson’s story, but he was not overly sentimental. He had been disappointed in the stage version of“Tick, Tick … Boom!,” which at one point was known as “Boho Days” and which chronicled Larson’s efforts to write a show called “Superbia,” originally based on George Orwell’s “1984.”

With “Rent,” Larson was getting back on track, Sondheim said. “He was coming back into his own again. Some songs had a confidence and center to them.”

Larson had his own complicated relationship to his mentor. One of his goals was to lead the charge of a new generation of playwrights who would provide an alternative to the Sondheims of the world. “It’s the 1990s, it’s time for a change,” he told a friend.

Here is the entire interview with Sondheim, portions of which appeared in the book “Rent”:

STEPHEN SONDHEIM I met him at a show called “Superbia.” I don’t remember what brought us together. My guess is he wrote me a letter and asked to meet. I meet a lot of young composers: if they write a letter and the work interests me at all, I will always meet with them. He worked on “Superbia” for a long time while I knew him, which I think was right after the first draft. I thought the show was interesting and that what he was trying to do was interesting. What was wrong with it had to do with the story and how the story was told. Some of the songs were accomplishing things which the story wasn’t. It got less interesting as it went along because there was not enough tension and focus in the way the story was told.

What did you think of the compositional work?

I thought some of the songs were good and others not. The opening number had some originality to it, whereas the others didn’t. He was still finding a voice and I think he still is. But he had a voice and that was the important thing.

There is a story about him wanting to be an actor.

Oh, that was constant with him. Whenever he would get discouraged with his writing, that was his riff. I don’t think there was ever any doubt in his mind that he wanted to write primarily. Shakespeare started as an actor.

What kind of role did you play in him getting that first grant for “Superbia”?

Well, I’m chairman of the committee that gives the grant. I didn’t know him well enough to recuse myself. My relationship with Jonathan was entirely about his work. We had a few personal discussions, but I wasn’t championing a friend, I was championing a person whose work I liked. Everybody on the committee liked it too.

Did you see “Boho Days” or “Tick, Tick … Boom”?

I saw a tape of “Tick, Tick … Boom” and heard a tape of “Boho Days.”

Did you feel the work [on “Tick” or “Boho”] was progressing, and did you identify with the material?

Curiously enough I didn’t feel it was progressing and we talked about that. I felt there was more originality in “Superbia.” I worried that he was getting desperate to be accepted and it was starting to show in the work.

In what way?

It was getting more like everybody else who was afraid of being original.

What did you think of the content of the piece in terms of the frustrations of composing and not being produced?

Well, everybody does that. Standard operating procedure. Everybody works for years without getting a hearing unless they’re very lucky. One thing I would say is that he was clinging to “Superbia” too long. I was glad when he started working on the other things. I think his approach to the piece made it insoluble. It got a little better each time but it wasn’t solving the basic problem about the story.

I heard you also told him the same thing about “Rent.”

I think it is a work in progress. Story focus is it. He wanted to put in everything and the kitchen sink, and he did. I think it suffers from that.

And you told him he should move on, he’d been working on it too long.

Absolutely. Once a piece has reached a certain stage in development, if you can’t get on it, you should move on and that piece can be picked up later. You need to wait until you have a director in, or a producer interested.

Yet you gave him a second grant?

Yes. It may have been, my memory is blurred, it may have been that I was cautioning him not to fall into the same rut. I was worried about it.

His collaborators were concerned about focusing the story on “Rent.” Do you think it improved?

Somewhat.

Do you think it was harder for him?

No. I know people who have had a harder time than he. At one point I sent three songs from “Rent” to David Geffen, at Jonathan’s request I think, and he got turned down within a week. He said it fell between two stools. Partly showbiz and partly pop.

Is this time a harder time to get things produced than when you were starting?

No, it’s easier. Providing you don’t want to do it on Broadway, it’s easier with Off Broadway. There was no Off Broadway when I grew up. No producer will take a chance on an unknown unless it has been pretested at Off Broadway or at a regional theater. So it’s much easier with the proliferation of regional and Off Broadway.

Do you remember a conversation you had about Jonathan being asked to do another rewrite?

I said you have to learn how to collaborate. He learned. He called me back a few days later and said, You were right. I am willing to collaborate.

Did you see the workshop production?

Yes.

Did you have any idea it would be such a success?

No. I didn’t know that Jonathan would die, that made it a myth.

The last time I’d spoken to him was in December. He felt pleased about the way he was growing up. He felt that way any author does in the middle of rehearsal. It’s terrible, it’s wonderful. I’m ashamed of it, isn’t it great?

Did you feel that “Rent” was a progression from “Boho Days”? Did you feel he was getting back on track?

Yes. He was coming back into his own again. Some songs had a confidence and center to them. The song with the two lovers was a swell piece of composition. I liked “Santa Fe” a lot. The whole score had somebody responding to a story, it was obviously a story he cared about.

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