Stephen Sondheim adapts Luis Bunuel for his first new musical since 1999

After an 18-year gap, award-winning American composer and lyricist’s next production will open in New York in 2017

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 11:48am

Stephen Sondheim, 86, has demonstrated once again that he is a showman to the core. Speaking to a paying audience at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, between matinee and evening performances of his Sweeney Todd recently, he let drop the projected opening date of his next musical, which has been under discussion for several years: it will open in 2017 at the Public Theatre in New York.

The Public Theatre has confirmed the project is in development, but says that no set date has been given for its performance.

The performance date may be news, but the subject is well known. Written with the playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur), the piece is based on two films by Luis Bunuel: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). The first is about a group of people trying to have dinner together, and the second is about people having dinner together who for some reason can’t leave.

It will be Sondheim’s first new musical since Road Show in 1999.

Sondheim brings up the premiere in the context of a public discussion with Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter) about the difference between musicals and operas. The composer Thomas Ades has just premiered an opera based on The Exterminating Angel, which has been warmly received by some critics at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. The work, Sondheim says, is coming to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2017. Sondheim encourages the Glimmerglass audience to attend both works.

“It will be an interesting comparison,” he says, noting that Ades’ opera, based on a single film, runs for 2½ hours (according to him), while the same film represents only half of his own upcoming work.

In the course of the discussion, he delivers a number of pithy and sometimes familiar observations about writing for the stage. “You don’t take a topic and write about it,” he says; setting out to write, for instance, a piece “about” homosexuality is in his opinion a recipe for failure. “The topic arises out of whatever story you tell,” he says. As for Sweeney Todd’s subject: he wrote it, he says, simply “to scare an audience”.