SONDHEIM’S BUNUEL MUSICAL - NOT OPERA


Stephen Sondheim said on Saturday evening at the Glimmerglass Festival that his new musical based on two films by Spanish director Luis Bunuel would have its premier at The Public Theater in 2017. The comments came in a conversation conducted by Jennifer Bernstein, daughter of composer Lenard Bernstein, following a performance of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which is being performed as part of Glimmerglass’ summer season.

Playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur) told PLAYBILL in January 2016 he was working on the Bunuel project with Sondheim. The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis said then The Public would do it “whenever Steve tells us to.” It was unclear if Sondheim was referring to the 2017-2018 season, as The Public’s 2016-2107 season, already announced, does not include the Bunuel musical. (Subsequently, The Public issues this statement: “We are happily developing the Buñuel project with Stephen Sondheim and hope to present it in the near future but no set date has been confirmed.”)

The project, said Sondheim, is two acts, the first based on Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), the second, “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). The musical, Sondheim said, is about “trying to find a place to have dinner.” The first deals with interruptions to dinner, the second is about “people who have dinner and can’t leave,” which “is my cheerful view of the world today.”

Sondheim said “we’re in touch with the Bunuel estate … we will have commercial musical rights” referring to The New York Times’ review that morning of Thomas Ades’ opera version of “The Exterminating Angel“ which premiered at the Salzburg Festival last week. Ades, Sondheim said, had “opera rights” to the movie, adding “I will not hear any more about (the opera version) except what I read in The Times today…(the musical version) will be own style, my own voice. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”

Sondheim’s remarks were part of his extended comments about the differences between musicals and operas in response to Bernstein’s thematic questioning about how Sondheim and her father broke down the walls between the two stage genres. West Side Story, like Sweeney Todd, Sondheim declared, is a musical. (“I wrote Sweeney Todd to scare audiences.”) His Bunuel musical and the Ades’ opera version are an “object lesson” in how “operas have opera singers for opera audiences” and musicals are written for musical audiences.

Sondheim alluded that another A Little Night Music is “coming up,” but that he “couldn’t talk about it.” He did allow, however, that the musical, based on Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is an operetta “primarily in its attitude.”

The final question Sondheim responded to, submitted by the audience and pulled from a hat, was -today being National Cheesecake Day, what is your favorite cheesecake? Replied Sondheim. “Let me just say it with a smile - cheese.”

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