The Right Man for the Job

Six hundred people jammed the Yates Gallery on the fourth floor of the Cultural Center last week to witness an interview with Stephen Sondheim conducted by opera expert and world-class autodidact Phillip Gainsley. They paid $30 each to cram into the ornate old hall, and most of them got a perspective worse than the cheap seats at the Lyric, with much worse sound. But Gainsley quickly had Sondheim talking about the origins of Sweeney Todd, which opened this week in Chicago. Sondheim told how the “silly little” Victorian melodrama became a “real play” when 20th-century British author Christopher Bond provided its serial killer with a motive, and said his own motive in writing the musical version was simply to scare people. “The so-called social message is something that Hal Prince asked me to lace in here and there,” Sondheim added. As for the operatic form? Inspired by Jaws (“those double basses, water on the screen, chong, chong, chong”). “I thought the only way to scare people is to do what they do in the movies–keep the music going all evening long.” He was funny and charming, and the audience hung on every word, straining to see the tiny dot of his face through a thicket of heads across the distance of a football field. I was straining to see his facilitator.

Under Gainsley’s guidance, Sondheim allowed that he writes in spurts now, not as “intensively” as he used to; that he believes creative work goes on in dreams; and that any day he doesn’t have to write lyrics is a joy. He said the entire score for Sweeney Todd is a tribute to film composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and also did the music for Hangover Square–a 1945 thriller “about a composer who, when he heard a certain sound, went out and murdered women.” Sondheim was 15 when he saw this film; it made an indelible impression. When Gainsley observed that “the most frightening part of Sweeney Todd, where an array of customers is coming and getting their throats cut, is also accompanied by the sweetest music,” Sondheim said he was determined to take the audience by surprise. “I thought, I know, I’ll write a really sweet tune and in the middle of it”–drawing his hand across his throat–“someone’ll go cccchhtt, like that. And it works. The audience laughs because it’s such a shocker that in the middle of a ballad you slit somebody’s throat. I love suspense, I love to be scared, I loved scary movies when I was a kid.”

When Gainsley was a kid, growing up in Minneapolis, he loved music and broadcasting. His family was the first one I knew that had a separate phone line for the children, and it became a battleground between Gainsley and his sister Melanie, who was my friend. Long before anyone had voice mail or conference calling, Gainsley was rigging that phone to be answered with cuts from his collection of classical 78s and interrupting Melanie’s conversations with bursts of Mozart. A gifted pesterer, he’d achieved a certain celebrity at the age of eight by convincing a local radio station to give him his own talk show, Kiddie’s Carousel. It ran live on Saturday mornings for a couple of years. After that he began to hone the fine art of educational hanging out, riding his bike to another station, WTCN, to “watch them broadcast.” By high school he was a fixture behind the scenes at the Twin Cities-based Ice Follies (following it to San Francisco one summer), and as a college student he began showing up in the wings at rehearsals of the Metropolitan Opera when they came to town. “Things were different then,” he said after the Sondheim interview. “All you had to do was mind your own business and stay out of the way.” The only time anyone asked the ubiquitous, geeky kid to leave, the Met’s longtime assistant manager, Francis Robinson–who’d never spoken to Gainsley, but noticed his rapt attention–stepped in. “He’s with me,” Robinson said.

There was never any real question about what Gainsley would become, however. After a year at Syracuse University (hanging out at the CBS studios in Manhattan most of the time), he was yanked back home to the University of Minnesota to study political science and law. He practiced law with his father, married and started a family, and continued a passionate relationship with opera from the audience. Eventually it occurred to someone to ask him to give a talk about opera to an alumni group, and in 1976 he was tapped as an occasional panelist for the legendary Texaco Opera Quiz, conducted during intermission on Met broadcasts. The quiz (which he still does) launched other engagements, and now he arranges his law practice around his lecture schedule. Next month he’ll be in Los Angeles talking about Tales of Hoffmann, and in February, just before A Little Night Music opens at the City Opera of New York, he’ll interview Sondheim again, for an audience at the Guggenheim. “I’m not formally trained in anything I do except the law,” he said. “I learned by being backstage, by watching. So many people mentored me. These people were my parents’ age; they were like parents to me. It couldn’t happen today. They’d call security.”

Mostly Homegrown

The League of Chicago Theatres will showcase the city’s stage scene during this year’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to be broadcast locally on Channel Seven (from 9 to 11 AM) and nationally on ABC stations. Each of six companies will perform a two-minute scene from a current or recent production for cameras set up in front of Field’s on State Street. So which of the 130 league member theaters will be beamed into a potential 90 million households? Stage Left (Prairie Lights), Bailiwick (The Christmas Schooner), Noble Fool (Roasting Chestnuts), American Girl Theater, and the producing organization Broadway in Chicago with 42nd Street and Stomp. Two road shows? “We put out a call to our members,” LTC president Marj Halperin says. “There weren’t more than six that could do what needed to be done. I think it’s a great beginning. The message we have is a broad message that Chicago is a theater town.”

No Way Up

Cooking With Elvis, a play by Lee Hall (who wrote the screenplay for Billy Elliot) about a paraplegic Elvis impersonator, opens this week–in the Athenaeum Theatre’s third-floor walk-up studio. Producer Dale Goulding says when he booked the show last spring he was under the impression that the Athenaeum’s planned elevator would be up and running, but construction permits for the project have yet to make it out of City Hall. “This was supposed to be the first accessible show in this space,” Goulding says. “Now, if my mother wanted to see it, she wouldn’t be able to get in.” Cooking With Elvis runs weekends through January 11. Goulding is looking for another place to stage a few accessible performances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.