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The task? Finish Stephen Sondheim's last musical. No pressure.

When Stephen Sondheim died in 2021 at age 91, he left behind a partly-finished show called <em>Here We Are</em>. His collaborators say Sondheim loved a puzzle — and he left them all the pieces.
Emilio Madrid
/
Here We Are
When Stephen Sondheim died in 2021 at age 91, he left behind a partly-finished show called Here We Are. His collaborators say Sondheim loved a puzzle — and he left them all the pieces.

When the great American musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September 2021 to say he was working on a show with playwright David Ives, the theater world started buzzing.

"We had a reading of it last week and we were encouraged," he told Colbert. "So, we're going to go ahead with it. And with any luck, we'll get it on next season."

Two months later, the 91-year-old composer/lyricist died. And so, too, it seemed, did the project, which had about a half a dozen songs for the first act and almost nothing for the second.

But Sondheim's partners, Ives and director Joe Mantello, kept pushing for a production. Now, audiences are been flocking to the New York performance space The Shed to see the show, titled Here We Are.

"Looking at the audience every single night, looking at their faces as we sing, you realize that no one has heard this," said actor Denis O'Hare, who plays several characters in the musical. "There is no album, there is no recording. They have no idea what's coming. They sit there, you know, blank, waiting to be filled."

In the beginning

Ives began working with Sondheim in 2010 on a different project, but when that fell by the wayside, Sondheim mentioned an idea of combining two surrealistic movies by Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñel into a full-length musical – the first act would be based on The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, where six friends go in search of a meal and get stymied along the way; the second act would be based on The Exterminating Angel, where the same group would have a meal, but be inexplicably unable to leave the room where they've gathered.

The first act is light, the second act is dark.

"I think part of what appealed to Steve about these was that they don't, on the surface, seem to sing," said Ives. "And I think that's part of what interested him, was that it was going to be a challenge."

Sondheim's collaborators wanted to bring to the stage the musical the late composer/lyricist would have wanted to see.
Emilio Madrid / Here We Are
/
Here We Are
Sondheim's collaborators wanted to bring to the stage the musical the late composer/lyricist would have wanted to see.

They started working together, writing scripts and music and workshopping productions. Mantello joined the duo after he went to a reading of the show in 2016. He said he fell in love with it when he heard the first song, and then went back to watch the films.

"I remember Steve said to me once, we were working on something and we got stuck. And he said, 'Well, what did you think when you saw the films? What was your response to them?' And I said, 'I thought, who the blank thought this would be a good idea for a musical?' And that really was my response," Mantello said, laughing.

Yet ultimately, Mantello decided Sondheim was right.

Still, while the dark, strange subject matter appealed to Sondheim, he had real problems writing the songs.

"He was a master procrastinator," said Ives, the playwright. "And he also was aware of his age. You have to consider the fact that he was in his 80s working on a musical about going into a room that you can't get out of. And I think that subconsciously it must have preyed upon him."

Mantello added, "Some of it was just he had the highest standards from himself, and he was very, very rigorous. And he would say, 'I don't want to repeat myself.'"

But what were they going to do? There were no songs for the second act.

It was Mantello who came up with the solution – the second act shouldn't have music, since the characters are literally stuck.

"I said to him, 'I think you're done, if you choose to be done," Mantello said. "I can make an intellectual case as to why they should stop singing. Doesn't mean that everyone's going to find that satisfying. But there is a real reason for it. There's an idea behind it. It is intentional.'"

Sondheim agreed to give it a try – that was the version of the show he was talking about on Colbert. But a major part of the creative process is writing and rewriting songs during rehearsals and previews, and Sondheim's death meant that kind of collaboration was impossible.

Mantello and Ives say they missed having him in the room. But Mantello said everyone involved with Here We Are has felt an enormous responsibility to deliver the work as Sondheim left it.

"You know, I think that Steve, his love of puzzles was so well known, and I think he left us a puzzle, but he gave us all the pieces," Mantello said. "And it's been thrilling and satisfying. And sometimes David and I have felt lonely. We've missed his presence, but he left us all the pieces."

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.