The last Stephen Sondheim musical, Here We Are, will open tonight, Thursday Sept 28, in Manhattan at the Shed, nonprofit cultural center on the Far West Side, almost two years after the musician’s death on Nov 26, 2021. Sondheim was then 91 and, according to the New York Times, didn’t think this last score of his would ever be completed.
The show’s producing team, also according to the New York Times, explained than Sondheim had more or less completed the first act and that they came up with a second act “light on songs””, but “there isn’t a note in this score that wasn’t born out of Steve’s compositions, as it will abundantly clear to audiences”. Starting with the public in the 526-seat theater tonight, “What we are putting on stage is as finished as any production about to play its first preview”.
Don’t composers always change their creations before they crystallize into a time-honored version? One wonders whether the producing team fished from other Sondheim’s musicals. His successes included Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, but the New York-born artist was also a celebrated lyricist, starting his career with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Interestingly, this last creation was born of a cinematic experience: it conflates two of Luis Buñuel’s better known surrealist movies, The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture) with all the charge of criticism against the bourgeoise and sexual morality that the Spanish-Mexican director brought to his work (Buñuel left Spain in 1940 to escape General Franco’s dictatorship).
So, in the first act a group of people tries to find a place to have dinner (partly the plot of the 1972 movie) and in the second they do have dinner but cannot get out of the room, as in the 1962 movie. Sondheim had been working on it for a long time, finishing the first draft as early as 2014.
Here We Are should be an interesting experience. Ethically, the problem of concluding the work of a late artist tormented and inspired many musicians. When Giacomo Puccini passed away in 1924, he had almost completed the score of his last – arguably his greatest – opera, Turandot. However, the two final scenes were unfinished, and we know the composer, sick with cancer, had struggled with the last duet between the Unknown Prince, Calaf, and Turandot the glacial Princess. Only sparse musical sheets remained.
At the time, Franco Alfano accepted the grievous, thankless task to craft an ending under the supervision of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, but on the night of the premiere, in La Scala in Milan, Toscanini interrupted the performance after the last finished piece, the death of the slave Liù. Alfano’s finale has been much discussed since, and other composers tried their hand at concluding Turandot, including Luciano Berio. Every opera lover wondered nostalgically, in time, what Puccini’s duet would have sounded like.
The libretto for Here We Are was revised after Sondheim’s death by writer David Ives and director Joe Mantello. According to Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, this musical is “a jewel”, small and incomplete but “absolutely delightful”.