David Ives On Collaborating With Sondheim On His Final Work, ‘Here We Are’

"I’ve got this idea for a musical, and I wondered if you wanted to work on it with me,” Sondheim said to David Ives. Thus began the collaboration that resulted the adaptation of two Luis Buñuel films.

David Ives (l) and director Joe Mantello during rehearsals for Here We Are. Emilio Madrid

Stephen Sondheim was a self-confessed “world-class procrastinator,” and he left behind evidence in the form of an unfinished show, Here We Are, that might have otherwise opened in his lifetime. Here We Are—which ends its 17-week run Jan. 21 at The Shed’s Griffin Theater—draws from two films by master surrealist Luis Buñuel: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, both stinging satires of the corrupt upper-crust. But, says David Ives, who wrote the book for Here We Are, Sondheim didn’t have Buñuel in mind when the two first began working together. 

That would have been around December of 2009. Ives—one of the most prolific and comical playwrights around (Venus in Fur, Lives of the Saints, Babel’s in Arms)—remembers meeting with Sondheim at the Manhattan townhouse in Turtle Bay. “I knew him the way one knows people in the theater, so we were casually acquainted to begin with,” Ives tells Observer. “Then, one day, out of the blue, he asked me if I wanted to come over for a drink and said that he wanted to talk to me about something—but that it wasn’t important. I said, ‘Sure.’ I had never been to his house, so we set a date.” 

The two drank and chatted until Ives asked what unimportant things Sondheim wanted to talk about. “And he said, ‘Did I say it wasn’t important?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ve got this idea for a musical, and I wondered if you wanted to work on it with me.’”

The company of Here We Are. Emilio Madrid

It turns out what Sondheim had in mind was an original idea of his own. “He called it All Together Now,” Ives recalls. “It was a show that would take a single moment in the lives of two people and investigate it musically. It was a very complicated idea. We worked on it for about four years. Then, for various reasons too complex to go into, we let it go. He had already proposed to me the idea of turning these two Buñuel movies into a show. I thought that was a great idea. The same month we ended All Together Now, we started working on the Buñuel.”

Why did Sondheim tap Ives to collaborate instead of his regular collaborators? “I know he liked my short plays—particularly All in the Timing and Sure Thing,” Ives says. “There is a certain vague similarity between what happens in Sure Thing and what was to happen in All Together Now: you take a single moment, and you explore it. I believe that’s why he originally asked me for that. Then, after collaborating for four years, we got to know each other pretty well and stuck with it.”

Once they set aside All Together Now and set to thinking about the Buñuel project, Sondheim and Ives watched the two movies repeatedly. “I went over to his house, and we talked about them endlessly for weeks. I took a lot of notes. I synopsized the movies. I probably saw The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 12 or 15 times and The Exterminating Angel more than that, maybe 20 times. I went back to them quite a bit, especially at the beginning and then toward the end, so see if there was anything that I had missed.

“The way Sondheim and I worked—I was over at his house a lot, about once a week early on. We’d talk about the show, and I‘d write up the notes from our meeting and send them to him. Then we’d talk on the phone about the notes and I’d come back the next week and we would continue that process. A lot of it, at the beginning, was up close and personal in his study.

“Even when he slowed down, it was fun—partly because I was hanging out in a room with Sondheim. That, automatically, was fun. It was like going over to Mozart’s house. Mozart says, ‘I had this idea. Let me play you this,’ and he plays it and sings what he has come up with. We got to become good friends over the course of all of this. That made it more than a collaboration.”

Stephen Sondheim at the 2019 American Songbook Gala at Alice Tully Hall on June 19, 2019 in New York City. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Ives describes Sondheim as “one of the most down-to-earth people”: ” It’s ironic that he has become kind of a demigod because he was just this man in a sweatshirt and old pants. There was nothing august about him. He was funny, he was generous, he was very quick. And he could laugh faster—and he could cry faster—than anybody I know. He was a great Margaret Sullavan fan and could do a brilliant Margaret Sullavan imitation at the drop of a hat.”

Three years into the project, a director appeared—Joe Mantello, with a direction for the show.  “Joe is a great director,” says Ives. “Every show he does, what you’re seeing is Joe Mantello because he creates a world for each of his shows—Three Tall Women, Wicked, Assassins . . .”

Sondheim bailed first, informing his lawyer that he was off of the project. In his 90s and facing death himself, he was confronting a roomful of characters also facing death. Daunting, what?

“Why are these people singing?” were his parting words. His collaborators began to agree. Three years after Sondheim’s death, Montello realized they had gone as far as they could go, that their show was indeed finished. Hence, the title of arrival: Here We Are. There you are.

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David Ives On Collaborating With Sondheim On His Final Work, ‘Here We Are’