The 91-year-old composer told the Public Theater last year that he was no longer working on a show based on the films of Luis Buñuel.
By Sarah Bahr
One big lingering question for theater fans following the news that the prolific producer Scott Rudin will “step back” from his stage projects: What will happen to his shows in development, notably the Stephen Sondheim musical “Buñuel,” which at last report was slated to be produced Off Broadway at the Public Theater?
Rudin, who is facing a reckoning over decades-long accusations of bullying, had been a commercial producer attached to the musical.
But the Public now says: It isn’t happening.
In the wake of reports about Rudin, the Public on April 22 put out a statement saying it had not worked with him in years. Responding to a follow-up question, Laura Rigby, a spokeswoman for the Public, said last week that Sondheim had informed the theater last year that he was no longer developing the musical. (The Public clarified that its cancellation had nothing to do with Rudin.)
Sondheim, who turned 91 at the end of March, did not respond to emailed questions about the project’s status.
The work, which was based on the films of the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, promised to be one of the last chances for theatergoers to see a new stage musical by musical theater’s most venerated composer. Sondheim had been developing it for the last decade or so with the playwright David Ives (“Venus in Fur”), who also did not respond to email requests for comment.
Sondheim had previously said that the show would comprise two acts, the first based on the filmmaker’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), and the second on “The Exterminating Angel” (1962).
The musical, he said, was about “trying to find a place to have dinner.”
He offered more detail during a 2014 appearance at The New Yorker Festival, explaining that the first act involved a group of people trying to find a place to dine, while the second focused on people who finally did just that — and were trapped afterward in hellish circumstances.
The project would have been the composer’s first major musical in more than a decade. His last was “Road Show,” a 2008 collaboration with John Weidman about two brothers constantly looking to strike it rich, which was presented at the Public.
“Buñuel” had a mini workshop at the Public in November 2016, with a cast that included Michael Cerveris, Heidi Blickenstaff and Sierra Boggess, with a hoped-for opening date of late 2017. The New York Post reported at the time that Joe Mantello, who directed “Wicked” and the 2004 Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” was set to direct.
Cerveris said in an email last week that the first act was essentially complete at the time of the workshop, and the second was “sketched out, but still awaiting much of the music.” He said a later music workshop was planned, but it was canceled so Sondheim could use the time to continue writing.
Then, he said, the trail essentially went cold. He said he was sorry to hear of what looks to be the show’s demise.
“It was an appropriately surreal, unnerving and often hilarious piece,” he said. “And Steve was, as ever, experimenting with some fascinating, complex musical structures which David’s sensibilities seemed to suit really well, I thought.”
Sondheim is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize (in 1985, for “Sunday in the Park With George”) and eight Tony Awards (including one for lifetime achievement), more than any other composer. A film remake of “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the lyrics, is due out at the end of the year. And whenever New York theaters fully reopen, the Classic Stage Company plans to revive “Assassins.”
Cerveris said that, despite hearing nothing of “Buñuel” for several years, he had still been hoping for another Sondheim show.
“The marriage with Buñuel felt pretty right for the times, and the world has only gotten darker and weirder since then,” he said. “I’d have loved to see it come to be. But then, I will always want more Sondheim in the world.”