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Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

The ghostly showgirls of Follies, Wayne McGregors spellbinding Raven Girl and the madcap world of The Cat in the Hat have all been realised by the designer, who looks back at five of her key shows

Our job is to design something thats incomplete without performance. Vicki Mortimer makes it sound simple, but that belies the architectural sophistication and bone-deep emotional impact of her designs for theatre, dance and opera. Besides a long association with director Katie Mitchell most recently on When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett she has developed memorable collaborations with Nicholas Hytner, Wayne McGregor and Dominic Cooke.

We are problem solvers, she says. The imaginative depth of her pragmatic choices is always evident, especially now that many of her productions are filmed for cinema broadcast. Detailed decisions suddenly have a validity that I wasnt always able to argue for when I started working. It has validated something I was already looking for:an attention to the exact nature of things.



Mortimer won an Olivier award for best costume design for her work on Stephen Sondheims 1971 musical, set at the reunion of a Broadway follies show. It was directed at the National Theatre by Dominic Cooke in 2017 and has now returned.


  • Early costume references for Mortimers work

I needed to understand what the follies as a genre meant in the American imagination, and then what had happened in the US between 1941 (when the fictional Weismann Follies ended) and 1971, when the reunion takes place. Who were these women before and after? Its really goosepimply, because the depth of their stories suddenly takes hold.

The prewar follies were a celebration of the American girl, an aspirational image of how fabulous women can be. Each former showgirl is shadowed by the ghost of her younger self. The show is about lost youth and also about a lost America, and how you have to live with the choices you make.




  • Backstage at Follies, costumes, headdresses and costume drawings by Mortimer

The ghost showgirls go back to around 1918 and on to 1941. Youve also got the 1970s party guests, and the characters in 1940s daywear. Theres a huge historical range of costumes.

I tried to retain some vestigial connection between the young women and what their older 1970s counterparts wore to the party, perhaps a shape or surface. Essentially important was to ask why has this woman come to the party? How does she want to present herself? For some, its simple, for others there are much more complicated reasons. Heidi, the oldest of the Follies guests, has come because she knows shes going to die soon.


  • Models for the Follies set design

Working with Dominic was sublime, because every visual choice was completely embedded in the characters.

Ive enjoyed returning to the production, because there is something about the chemical reaction of an audience that alters what is in your eye. Ive sat with audiences and had real lightbulb moments.


Raven Girl

Wayne McGregors ballet, based on Audrey Niffeneggers illustrated tale, premiered at the Royal Ballet in London in 2013.

Audrey had this idea of a girl born to a raven mother and postman father, and the predicament of her identity as she grows up. Audreys drawings are like held moments in the narrative. We projected some of those moments on a gauze as emotional content like the nest or the touching drawing of the outlines of both the bird and child.


  • Wayne McGregors Raven Girl, with Sarah Lamb

The design had to be something entirely of its own, and we landed on the idea of a cliff at the edge of the landscape. We felt we needed something really substantial, monumental, from which to initiate the choreographic vocabulary, the dynamic motion. We were looking for specific reference. Pembrokeshire is part of my childhood. The landscape there came under great geological pressure, so you get these great archways of compressed strata. Matt Hellyer, an amazing design colleague, had been on a tour of the Welsh coastline not long before and came up with a photo hed taken at Skrinkle bay.


  • Rocks at Skrinkle Haven, Pembrokeshire

Its a reminder that you draw on research from the internet and books, but also from your visual memory bank and conversation.



  • The set build for Raven Girl by the Royal Opera House head scenic artist Emma Troubridge and designer Catherine Smith


  • A rehearsal for Raven Girl. Mortimers sets and costumes are inspired by Niffeneggers own faux-naif aquatints for the Raven Girl storybook


  • Raven Girl in rehearsal

We had lots of conversations about how to describe flight. We considered having a bank of big fans on stage to create the sense of birds in motion, but we didnt have room. Wayne was very interested in ideas of flocking and murmuration. He looked at single and multiple bodies in flight.


  • Costume designs for Raven Girl


  • Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl

It felt important not to achieve the most beautiful wings which is where we diverge from the book but to bring up their mechanised nature. My drawings suggested spokes of an umbrella: I wanted the feathers to feel separate from the arms, so that you could see they were connected by a steel structure. Wayne felt certain that the wing solution should feel disruptive and uncomfortable, that what we wish for is not necessarily what brings us happiness. Its fairytale territory.



Mortimer won the International Opera award for design for Alban Bergs 1925 opera, directed in Chicago by David McVicar in 2015.

The composition of Wozzeck was interrupted by the first world war. The idea was already in Bergs mind he was conscripted into the German army in 1914, experienced the trenches, and wrote it on leave in 1917 and 1918. His wartime experience massively informed how he saw the story, as well his approach to the composition itself. That was Davids starting point.

They are one of the greatest combos in the history of musicals. The Pulitzer-winning pair behind Into the Woods talk about bumpy first nights, how to read audience coughs and why shows today are too loud

Stephen Sondheim once gave James Lapine, his friend and longtime collaborator, a useful if inadvertent piece of advice. The two first worked together in the mid-1980s on Sunday in the Park With George, and a revival of their second musical, Into the Woods, is transferring from the US to London this summer. They are very different, says Lapine, when we meet in a rehearsal space near Times Square in New York. Although in life, Sondheim is the dark soul and Im the light one, when it comes to work, Lapine characterises himself as the gloomier of the two. I just think everything will flop, he says, while Sondheim once shocked him by saying: You know, I think everything I do is going to be a huge success. I said really? Why? He saidbecause its so interesting to me, I assume it will be interesting to others.

The lesson of this is to confine ones anxieties to the project at hand. When I see Sondheim a day later at his home in New York, he confirms that Into the Woods was not written as a critique of the contemporary world, nor with an eye on the box office nor the potential longevity of its appeal. I was just thinking about telling these fairytales, he says. I had no sense of anything but showbiz.

The 2013 movie adaptation of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, renewed interest in the musical, which weaves together classic Grimm Brothers fairytales, before complicating each story and rolling it on. The revival, by the Fiasco theatre company, is what Lapine calls a ground-up production, driven by the ethos of lets get in a room and play and against what has become the unwieldy mega-musical of Broadway.

Sondheim has only praise for the group, which is not always the case with revivals. Legally, a theatre company is prohibited from changing a single word of the text without running it by the author, but quite often they say to hell with that, and they do it anyway, he says, and cites the example of a production of Merrily We Roll Along, staged at a university in Long Island in which the entire timeline of the musical was reversed. They only had a weeks worth of performances but we stopped it, says Sondheim, who diagnoses the problem as one of directors showing off. This is, he says, particularly true of student directors. They take it upon themselves to distort in order to draw attention to themselves.

The new ground-up production of Into the Woods, at Londons Menier Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

If this sounds a little stern, it is. Lapine and Sondheim have, through long experience, learned that the effects of even minor tweaks on a show can catastrophically or, miraculously affect its impact. The question, for the creators, is when to tweak and when to leave be, a decision made by interpreting tiny fluctuations in the response of an audience.

Before it ever got to that stage, the two men would meet once a week to go over the work in progress and, Lapine says jokingly, for him to make sure [Sondheims] working. Im sort of the go-getter. Ill throw anything on a piece of paper, I dont give a shit. And hes like … everythings so meticulous. Its hard for him to let go of things. Were a good combo that way.

No, not at all, says Sondheim, when appraised of this assessment. No, no, no, no. The point is, writing a scene is one thing; writing a song is another. Writing a song you are restricted; you have certain rhythms and meters and rhymes. You cant just go (he makes a retching sound) whereas you can write a scene that should be two pages long and is eight pages, and just vomit on the page and then you cut back and edit and go to your collaborator. But thats not the same thing.

Watch the trailer for the film adaptation of Into the Woods

Sunday in the Park was their first collaboration and it was, Lapine believes, a mark in his favour that he wasnt a huge Sondheim devotee before they met. Id only seen one show he had done. I knew of him of course, but I wasnt a fan. That was kind of good. I think in retrospect he must have liked that it wasnt somebody whod seen everything hed done and was so impressed with him.

For the most part, he says, writing a musical with someone else is so much silly fun. Stimulating, and hes so funny, and we enjoy each others company. And theres real excitement to it. It never feels like work. How would conflict be resolved? Easily. He always said whoever cares most, wins. Weve never had an argument. Never. The nice thing about the theatre is you can always change it. With a movie, once its there, youre stuck with it.

Depending on the collaborator, Sondheim sees each of his shows as inhabiting a unique and entirely different colour. George Furth was very urban and contemporary. John Weidman was very political. James is a poet. Theyre writers of distinction. They have their own whatever-it-is.

The hard part is what Lapine calls the birthing process and many of the musicals had a bumpy first run. In 1994, he and Sondheim wrote a musical called Passion, to which the reaction, says Lapine, was just so hostile that we had to change it. We knew we hadnt solved the fundamental problem. Its one thing if people dont like it, and you like it. Its another when theyre not getting it. Then you have to solve it. And then if they dont like it, its fine.

Oh, now you like it Sunday in the Park With George, inspired by the painter Georges Seurat. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

This, Lapine says, was the case in 1984 when Sunday in the Park opened. The audience, he says, didnt know what they were seeing; it wasnt what they wanted. Then the night after the review came out in the New York Times, we got a standing ovation. And it made me go, Ew. Like, oh, now you like it?!

Sondheim says: Its not as simple as that. The New York Times wrote a favourable review and it may have affected the audience, but it certainly didnt change it from everybody booing to everybody standing on their feet. This only happened over time. For Sondheim, the most important principle is to start at the very beginning of the show and say: does the audience understand whats going on in this scene? Do they understand what the musicals going to be? The point is when you fix something for the better, it affects everything that follows. I mean everything. I mean an hour and a half later, youll suddenly get a laugh on a line you never got a laugh on.

Are focus groups ever useful? Sondheim makes a face like Dracula being struck by a beam of sunlight. Focus groups are the death of all entertainment. Some forms of entertainment depend on that kind of death. Instead of a focus group, he says, you listen to the audience. You can tell from silences, from restlessness, sometimes from coughing. Sometimes from the quality of the applause. The key is not to rush into a response. Its a great mistake just to go home and rewrite. Or just fire an actor. To zero in on whats wrong immediately is always wrong. You gotta let it play.

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim in 2014. Photograph: Vera Anderson/WireImage

One of the biggest rewrites he did was in 1962 on the musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, which bombed in its out-of-town tryouts. Then he changed the opening number from a sweet romantic song, which set up the wrong expectations in the audience, to something more raucous that announced the burlesque show to come and it opened to a rapturous reception in New York.

Hamilton aside, the current health of Broadway musicals relies heavily on stage adaptations of blockbuster movies, something regarded critically by both men. Most musicals are real crowd pleasers, says Lapine.They just want to fuck the audience. Sondheim sees the effect on Broadway musicals of pop music where the idea is to sing loud. Thats what its about. Make loud songs. And so musicals are now very loud. Over an evening, that can get tiresome.

Does he think they pander to the audience, that theyre market driven? I suppose. Im not sure that the people who write and produce the musicals know the difference.

Sondheims art is a question of specificity. Story is all. I dont think the theatre is about converting people to new ideas, he says. I think its about confirming ideas you have by dramatising them and making them human. As opposed to novels which, as Tolstoy proves, can teach you things. At its most basic level, its about how you combine song and dance and libretto to make a whole. Thats what its about; its an exercise in style.

Its making a puzzle for yourself to solve, says Lapine and, as Sondheim says, in the spirit that has defined his career there is only one way to do that. You have to try to be free, and try not to worry about what people think.

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