Have you noticed a skip in the step of your local theater geeks today? It’s because there’s a brand-spanking-new Stephen Sondheim musical in the works.
The living theater god is working with playwright David Ives on, of all things, an adaptation of the work of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, specifically some combination of his films The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Because the former just debuted as an opera (bound for the Met next year), Sondheim spoke at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York, where he announced that his adaptation on The Exterminating Angel would premiere at the Public Theater sometime in 2017. (That’ll show them. Sondheim notoriously dislikes opera).
Here’s the thing, though: This isn’t, strictly speaking, news. Sondheim announced he was working on this project back in 2014, when he had already finished a first draft. Furthermore, the Public gently clarified Sondheim’s recent announcement, saying that while it is totally into this plan, there is not yet an official premiere date for the work.
In fact, back in 2014, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis bluntly said this of the production timeline: “We will do it whenever Steve tells us to.” (Ya darn right!). The estimated premiere date then was the 2016-17 season at the absolute earliest, so what this check-in actually shows us is that we’re more or less on schedule. And that is cause for celebrating!
It’s been several years since Sondheim’s last new work—which was called, in various incarnations, Wise Guys, Bounce, and Road Show. It wound up at the Public and was not, shall we say, his biggest success (though literally everything Sondheim has ever created has dedicated fans who will fight those who say otherwise). Multiple times in reference to this project, I’ve heard fans quote Sondheim himself: “Give us more to see.”
As for subject matter this time around, if avant-garde film seems like an odd source for a musical, Sondheim has done it before. A Little Night Music (one of his best, if you ask me) was based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, and Passion (less successful than the former, more of a cult piece) was based on an Ettore Scola film (Passione d’Amore).
At the end of the day, Stephen Sondheim does what he wants. The man is 86 (may he live until 120), and has done more for the art form of musical theater than anyone else living, and arguably anyone dead. And he’s still working.
If he wants to walk out tomorrow with a script in his hand and give the Public two weeks to cast and direct what he and Ives have written, they’ll do it and they’ll be grateful. If he has somehow put the score on the back of the Declaration of Independence, we will get Nicolas Cage to steal it for us. If he holds some sort of Hunger Games to gain access to his work, there will be blood. So while I understand the Public’s hesitancy to put a show on its calendar that isn’t ready, this is the word of God. It’s time to make it happen.