Well, that was surprisingly fast! Three weeks after we first learned that the venerable Stephen Sondheim was working on a new musical, we’ve now learned that there was a super hush-hush reading of his new musical—its working title is Bunuel—at The Public Theater in New York, under the auspices of its artistic director, Oskar Eustis.
According to New York Post theater columnist and gossip-about-town Michael Riedel, despite the secrecy, the reading was a star-studded affair, featuring top-tier Broadway talent like Norm Lewis, Shuler Hensley, Sierra Boggess, Nancy Opel, Mark Kudisch, and superdirector Joe Mantello, who is the kind of guy who gets offered pretty much anything in his wheelhouse, which is pretty much everything. Certainly, the first new Sondheim show in almost two decades cemented his attendance.
The music was said to be “gorgeous.” The book, by David Ives, is almost certainly experimental and nonlinear—in Riedel’s “translation,” for whatever lumpen proletariat he thinks is reading his column in the Post, this means “it moves backwards and forwards in time…and is a bit tricky to follow on the page”—and sure to be sophisticated and interesting. (My favorite of Sondheim’s book writers will forever be the great Hugh Wheeler, but he’s not coming back to life and so, in the words of Sunday in the Park With George—which is written, of course, by the almost equally great if slightly less slyly funny James Lapine—we have to move on.)
The subject matter is based on the avant-garde classics The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel (hence, the Bunuel). This signals that Sondheim is returning to his roots—shows like Follies and Company, which mercilessly yet compassionately expose and explore the quietly broken-hearted and often-boozy foibles of the educated upper and upper middle classes (people, in other words, who traditionally make up Sondheim’s most passionate audiences). And like Sondheim’s best works, Bunuel will surely be tempered with the wisdom and perspective of advanced age.
There’s only one catch: Only the first act is finished. So the show is great, brilliant even, and proof that a well once feared to have at last run dry still has a few final drops at the bottom; but it’s still just half a show. Sondheim will be 87 years old in March. Still, he’s a sprightly octogenarian who still regularly attends theater (like every other elderly Jew in Manhattan, one might say, but even so), and there’s no reason to worry. Besides, even half a new Sondheim show is better than none at all. I just hope I live long enough to see it.