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PODCAST – Zach Sang: Just The Interviews

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Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91, NY Times reports
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux

Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91, NY Times reports

Stephen Sondheim, the renowned composer of “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and other essential works of musical theater, died early Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, according to the New York Times. He was 91.

He died suddenly, the Times reported, citing his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas. Sondheim had just celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner and friends the day before, Pappas told the Times.

Rick Miramontez, who is a publicist for Sondheim’s current Broadway production “Company,” confirmed the death to the Washington Post.

As lyricist, songwriter, conceptual artist and creative force, Sondheim was perhaps without par in the modern American theater. His works encompassed astonishing range: the updated “Romeo and Juliet” romance of “West Side Story” (for which he wrote the lyrics), the travails of a modern group of friends and lovers in “Company,” even the woes of presidential murderers (and attempted murderers) in “Assassins.”

Over the course of his career, he won an Oscar, a Pulitzer, eight Grammy Awards, eight Tony Awards, a Kennedy Center honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan’s Theater District is named for him.

His song lyrics, in particular, were the gold standard of the theater art, whether defiant (“Rose’s Turn”), sad (“Send in the Clowns”), ominous (“Children Will Listen”) or simply clever (“Ah, but Underneath”).

They were sometimes tricky — filled with clever rhymes and challenging meters, perhaps natural for a man who once described himself as “a mathematician by nature.” But they rarely failed to get to the heart of a character.

“What’s funny about Steve’s songs is you think, ‘Oh, this is about something,’ and then you start working on it, and you go, ‘No, it’s about SOMETHING,'” actress Bernadette Peters, one of Sondheim’s leading interpreters, told ABC News in 2010. “It goes even deeper than you imagined.”

Sondheim was particularly good at expressing romantic longing and loss. Songs such as “Send in the Clowns” (from “A Little Night Music”), “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) and “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) are heartbreaking in their emotion.

“For many theater lovers, there are musicals, then there are Sondheim musicals,” wrote Garry Nunn in the Guardian. “The latter is a category of its own because with Sondheim, every single word, every rhyme has been labored over to the point that it’s mellifluous and articulate (if a little garrulous).”

Indeed, though his work was sometimes criticized as glib, Sondheim said the joy of the theater was touching audiences.

“I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences,” he told NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2010. “Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I’d be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.”

Beginnings

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York, the son of a well-off dress manufacturer and his wife, a designer. His parents divorced when Sondheim was an adolescent, and he moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.

Thanks to the tutelage of a friend’s father — lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the famed theatrical team Rodgers and Hammerstein — Sondheim, already a musical prodigy, received a master class in play writing.

“He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical,” Sondheim told the Paris Review in 1997. “I soaked it all up, and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon.”

Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a fellowship for his music that allowed him to continue study. After a short stint in Los Angeles — where he wrote scripts for the TV show “Topper,” thanks to a lead from Hammerstein — he returned to New York and embarked on a career in the theater.

His first success, at age 27, was as lyricist to “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical’s famous songs include “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.” Though Sondheim later called the lyrics “embarrassing,” the show was a massive hit, running for almost 1,000 performances.

Next came 1959’s “Gypsy,” the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose, for which Sondheim worked with composer Jule Styne, and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

A long dry spell followed, finally snapped in 1970 with “Company,” which ran for more than a year and took home a Tony for best musical. It also marked the beginning of Sondheim’s 11-year collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince, which included such hits as “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).

“A Little Night Music” produced what is perhaps Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns.”

A bold body of work

As Sondheim matured, no idea seemed too far-fetched for his pen and intellect.

“Company” and “Follies” were notable for their almost plotless presentations; “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the 19th-century American entry into Japan, was performed kabuki-style. “Sweeney Todd” was a romp about a murderous barber who has his victims made into meat pies.

In the ’80s and ’90s, he wrote a musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Into the Woods” (1987), probably his most-performed work, was a recasting of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) was an unlikely tale about presidential assassins past and present.

His last new work was 2008’s “Road Show,” about a pair of social-climbing brothers. It never made it to Broadway.

Though his early works, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” were made into movies, his post-1970 work generally resisted the transition.

PBS and Showtime filmed “Sunday in the Park” for television, a version later released with Sondheim’s commentary. “Sweeney Todd” was made into a 2007 Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods,” with a cast including Meryl Streep and future late-night host James Corden, was filmed in 2014.

A new adaptation of “West Side Story” is due out next month from director Steven Spielberg.

Sondheim earned his Oscar for a song he wrote for 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” “Sooner or Later.” A New Yorker to his core, he didn’t attend the ceremony.

The theater, however, was another matter. A 2010 review for his 80th birthday, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” earned rapturous reviews and a reconsideration of his long career. The composer, a reticent man when not waxing rhapsodically about his Clement Wood rhyming dictionary or praising his collaborators, was typically modest about the reaction.

A virtual concert celebrating Sondheim’s 90th birthday and body of work was organized last year amid the global pandemic. The concert, which raised money for Artists Striving to End Poverty, featured appearances and performances from Broadway heavyweights like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.

“It’s been a little too much in the public spotlight,” he told “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross. “But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It’s terrific to know that people like your stuff.”

Tributes

Some of the many people who’ve performed Sondheim’s work or been moved by it flooded social media with tributes following news of his death.

“Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice,” actor Josh Gad wrote. “Thank you Mr. Sondheim for your Demon Barber, some Night Music, a Sunday in the Park, Company, fun at a Forum, a trip Into the Woods and telling us a West Side Story. RIP.”

Actor Aaron Tviet said: “Thank you for everything Mr Sondheim. Speechless. We are so lucky to have what you’ve given the world.”

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Seth Meyers reveals he’s now a father of three
NBC/ "Late Night with Seth Meyers"

Seth Meyers reveals he’s now a father of three

Seth Meyers is a dad again!

The late-night host has welcomed his third child, a daughter, with his wife Alexi Ashe.

But the best part is that he managed to keep it a secret for the past two months, Meyers revealed on Thursday’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” that he and his wife welcomed their newborn daughter, Adelaide, in September.

The couple share sons Ashe, 5, and Axel, 3. They stuck with another A name for their baby girl, naming her after Meyers’ maternal grandmother.

Meyers didn’t share details surrounding his daughter’s birth, his family does have a history of exciting deliveries.

In 2018 the “Late Night” host said that their son, Axel, was born in the lobby of their New York apartment building because they couldn’t make it to the hospital in time. He also revealed that their older son was nearly born in an Uber.

Mazel, to the happy couple.

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TV OT: ‘Licorice Pizza,’ ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ and ‘The Waltons’ serve up nostalgia over Thanksgiving

TV OT: ‘Licorice Pizza,’ ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ and ‘The Waltons’ serve up nostalgia over Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving weekend is theoretically all about family. Yet in terms of entertainment options — to consume with them or as a means of escaping them — the prevailing theme is heavily tilted toward nostalgia, with projects rooted in the 1960s, ’70s and ’90s.

Music plays a sizable role in all this, not surprisingly, with director Peter Jackson’s multi-part documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” making its debut on Disney+, a few days after a film devoted to another ’60s act, the Beach Boys, hit theaters and on demand with the touching “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road.”

There are also strong musical undercurrents to the movies “Licorice Pizza,” an unorthodox look at Southern California’s San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, from directing auteur Paul Thomas Anderson; and “House of Gucci,” a salacious true-crime tale about the fight over the fashion empire that spans a period from the late ’70s (disco dominate the soundtrack) to the mid-’90s.

Finally, the weekend features a pair of made-for-TV movie reboots and revivals, with the CW’s “The Waltons’ Homecoming” — based on the 1970s TV show set in the 1930s — and USA’s “Nash Bridges,” reuniting Don Johnson and Cheech Marin two decades after the cop show cracked its last case on CBS.

That’s obviously a relatively small part of the holiday viewing feast, which includes the customary deluge of Christmas-themed movies (which seems to start earlier every year) and other nostalgic items like Disney+’s “Home Sweet Home Alone,” which strands another unlucky kid more than 30 years after the original exercise in bad parenting.

Here are a few meatier thoughts on some of these titles. And whatever you choose to watch before, during or after Thanksgiving, Bon Appetit.

“Licorice Pizza” (theaters, Nov. 26)

In a way, “Licorice Pizza” is the embodiment of nostalgia without sentiment, capturing a time and place in the 1970s when Nixon was on TV, Vin Scully called Dodger games on radio, gas lines formed because of shortages, and a boss could brazenly slap the behind of his female employee without fear of repercussions.

At its core, the movie is a peculiar love story, one involving Gary (Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s about to turn 16, and the older Alana (Alana Haim, of the rock band), who finds direction in an otherwise unfocused life thanks to Gary’s get-rich-quick schemes, which include peddling water beds.

A few actual ’70s characters find their way into the pair’s Hollywood-heavy plot, with Bradley Cooper portraying producer Jon Peters as a wildly flamboyant lunatic who actually purchases one of the beds. Sean Penn also turns up as an actor (the name is changed, but only slightly) full of strange stories, although it’s not entirely clear that he can separate reality from his movies.

“Licorice Pizza” really doesn’t have much of a plot, playing like a series of loosely connected episodes, in a way that becomes more obvious during the second half. Nor does it really address some of the nagging questions about Alana, whose periodic tantrums are among the film’s only poorly written scenes.

Those disclaimers aside, for the most part Anderson (who has directed a number of Haim videos since his last film, “Phantom Thread”) has delivered another highly entertaining movie, capturing a very particular time but also the enduring and universal nature of relationships developing in the most unexpected ways.

The title, incidentally, comes from a chain of record stores that were popular in the ’70s but no longer exist — a fitting symbol of the desire to give this bygone era another spin.

“The Beatles: Get Back” (Nov. 25, Disney+)

Director Peter Jackson essentially lets loose “The Lord of the Rings” approach on the Beatles, in a three-part documentary that runs nearly eight hours. With access to previously unseen footage shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the filmmaker takes a (very) deep dive into the Fab Four’s creative process as they worked on the landmark 1970 album “Let It Be.”

It’s a stunningly intimate labor of love, offering a fascinating glimpse of the group’s interpersonal dynamics — and creative tensions — in what feel like unguarded moments despite the camera’s presence. The only drawback is the exhaustive length, which in some respects requires wading through the material that operates in a lesser key, though there’s an obvious method to that madness.

While Jackson is clearly content to let the Beatles do the talking, a bit more curating certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Still, for any student of musical history, “Get Back” presents the kind of fly-on-the-wall access and insight into why the band subsequently broke up that’s pretty irresistible, even if it’s perhaps better consumed in smaller bites as opposed to one great gulp.

Then again, that’s not bad advice for this weekend in general.

As a footnote, Jackson’s ode to the Beatles comes on the heels of “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” an extraordinary look back on the Beach Boys mastermind’s life and career that features all the right voices lauding him, including Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.

“He had an orchestra in his head,” John marvels. “The Beatles had [producer] George Martin to do it for them, but Brian did it himself.”

Not every musical mainstay warrants this kind of expansive treatment, but as Wilson himself wrote, wouldn’t it be nice?

“The Waltons’ Homecoming” (Nov. 28, 8 p.m. ET, CW)

Fifty years after the movie that launched the original series, Richard Thomas returns to introduce and narrate this very earnest (what else?) return to Waltons Mountain, again in TV movie form. The story hinges on whether dad will make it home for Christmas. The new cast features “Scandal’s” Bellamy Young as Olivia, with Logan Shroyer (“This is Us”) as John Boy. And yes, everyone says “goodnight.” (It’s from Warner Bros. Television, like CNN, part of WarnerMedia.)

“Nash Bridges” (Nov. 27, 9 p.m. ET, USA)

Nash and Joe are back in a movie-length adventure, with a lot of younger colleagues who tease the former about being a dinosaur and the occasional old-man gripe about things like using directional apps during a car chase.

In perhaps the most inspired wrinkle, Marin’s character has found success running a cannabis dispensary, which is certainly on brand with his Cheech & Chong comedic routes.

“Aren’t you glad you came back for this one?” Nash asks him. Whether fans will be glad remains to be seen, but the whole thing is breezy in a way that could easily go up in smoke.

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Malawi defends decision to ask Mike Tyson to be its cannabis ambassador
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Malawi defends decision to ask Mike Tyson to be its cannabis ambassador

The government of Malawi has defended its decision to invite the former heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson to become the country’s official cannabis ambassador following a backlash over his conviction for rape in the 1990s.

Malawi legalized the growing and processing of cannabis for medicinal purposes last year, although it stopped short of decriminalizing recreational use.

This week, Malawi’s agriculture minister Lobin Low sent a letter to Tyson — who has been involved in the cannabis industry in the US through various ventures — inviting him to become the face of the country’s cannabis industry in a bid to attract investors and create more opportunities for tourism.

The ministry did not say whether Tyson, who became the youngest heavyweight champion in history in 1986, had accepted its offer.

CNN has contacted Tyson’s representatives and the US Cannabis Association, which the ministry said was involved in the deal, for comment.

The move has raised controversy, with Malawian think tank the Centre for Public Accountability (CPA) accusing the government of ignoring Tyson’s past convictions.

The 55-year-old boxer was jailed in 1992 after being convicted of raping Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America contestant, in a hotel room. He was released in 1995.

Kondwani Munthali, acting director of the CPA, said in a statement sent to CNN Friday that appointing a convicted rapist would be “wrong,” adding: “Yes he paid his debt three years he was in jail, but we are saying to be the face of a nation is something beyond reformatory. We would want (a) less controversial character than Tyson.”

However, Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Gracian Lungu dismissed the criticism in a statement to CNN Friday, saying: “Malawi as a nation believes that Mr. Tyson is a right and reformed person as he was released on parole.”

Lungu added that “the moral appeal by some quarters, to continue holding Mr. Tyson to a wall of moral incapacity doesn’t hold water.”

Minister of gender, Patricia Kaliati, echoed Lungu’s sentiments.

She told CNN Friday that she did not see there being a problem with the government’s choice of ambassador as Tyson is a prominent businessman with a good knowledge of the cannabis business.

“It’s about business, (and) economic business of cannabis,” Kaliati said, adding: “We look for the prominent people, the decision makers who can say a thing which can be recognized internationally.”

She said that his role would be focused on business and “he’s not going to be working with the minister of gender on issues to do with women and children.”

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‘The Beatles: Get Back’ may surprise even hardcore fans
The Beatles: Get Back - A Sneak Peek from Peter Jackson

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ may surprise even hardcore fans

There are a few surprises in “The Beatles: Get Back.”

One that grabbed Stephen Colbert was how pianist Billy Preston came to be known as “the fifth Beatle.”

During an interview on his late show that aired on Thanksgiving, Colbert talked with Peter Jackson, who directed the newly released Beatles docuseries.

They discussed how Preston came to hop on the keys with the iconic band, made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

“He wasn’t even supposed to be on the album,” Colbert said. “He was just a friend of George’s who stopped by.”

“The album” is 1970’s “Let It Be.” The new docuseries builds on audio and film from the 1970 “Let It Be” documentary.

“The Beatles: Get Back” explores Harrison quitting the band and McCartney assuming more of a leadership role as John Lennon focused on his marriage and work with Yoko Ono.

Jackson talked to the Washington Post about working on the project.

“I tried to make a very honest movie,” he said.

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