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Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim

The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is in the midst of a festival of Steven Sondheim musicals. Company, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George have already been featured. Still to be staged are A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along and Passion. We rebroadcast our interview with composer and lyricist Steven Sondheim. He discusses his work on West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics, and his own musical Sweeney Todd. Sondheim learned his craft from Oscar Hammerstein, who was a neighbor and surrogate father to him. This interview first aired Nov. 10, 1988.


Other segments from the episode on February 12, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 12, 2002: Interview with Stephen Sondheim; Interview with Paul Gemignani; Interview with Stephen Sondheim; Review of the film "Road to perdition."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

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Review: New film "Road to Perdition"

The new movie "Road to Perdition" stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.
It's the second film directed by Sam Mendes. He won an Oscar for directing
the 1999 film "American Beauty." Film critic John Powers has a review of
"Road to Perdition."

JOHN POWERS reporting:

The late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote a famous essay called Trash Art
in the Movies. It argued that quite often trashy movies aren't just
enjoyable, but are actually artful, while movies that make a big point out of
being art are often little more than joyless rubbish. I thought about her
words as I watched the peculiar new movie "Road to Perdition," an Oedipal tale
of the crime business that puts a highbrow spin on a lowbrow story, which may
be another way of saying it feels designed to win Oscars.

It's 1931 in the wintry Midwest, and a bulked-up mustachioed Tom Hanks is
Michael Sullivan, an efficient hit man for a big-shot gangster named John
Rooney. That's Paul Newman. Sullivan's sons don't know what he does for a
living until one night, 12-year-old Mike Jr. sees his father and Rooney's
son, Connor, slaughter a guy. The bloodthirsty Connor's afraid the kid won't
keep his mouth shut, so he tries to kill the whole Sullivan family. But he
only kills Sullivan's wife and other son, and soon the two surviving Sullivans
hit the road, heading to the small town of Perdition, the symbolism of whose
name should penetrate even the thickest of skulls.

While Sullivan seems to avenge his wife's murder, Rooney hires a hit man,
played by Jude Law, to stop him. And even as everyone is stalking everyone
else, Sullivan must learn to love the worshipful Mike Jr., who's adjusting to
his discovery that his old man's a killer. Early on, Sullivan and Rooney
discuss how young Mike is dealing with seeing his dad in murderous action.

(Soundbite of "Road to Perdition")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (As John Rooney): How is Michael? Is he OK?

Mr. TOM HANKS (As Michael Sullivan): I've spoken to him. He understands.

Mr. NEWMAN (As John Rooney): That's tough, seeing that for the first time.
Well, you turned out. You can't protect them forever. If it wasn't this,
it'd be something else. Natural law: sons are put on this Earth to trouble
their fathers.

POWERS: "Road to Perdition" is the second film by Sam Mendes, the British
theater director who won the Oscar for his debut, "American Beauty." I always
wondered if that movie's real creative force was screenwriter Alan Ball, and
Ball has subsequently gone on to create "Six Feet Under," a brilliant TV show
that's far, far better than "American Beauty."

And Mendes, well, here he seems to be feeling the pressure of that Oscar, for
"Road to Perdition" fairly shrieks, `This is serious art. This is a prestige
picture.' Which is very odd, for its plot could easily come from a B movie from
the '40s or '50s. It's got all the elements of pulp: a good hit man
battling two bad ones, questions of loyalty to the gangster code, and a
blatant father-son theme that's always being underscored, the way Newman's
character did just a moment ago. Yet there's not a second when this feels
like a gritty crime movie. Instead, Mendes seems to be self-consciously
trying to elevate an old-fashioned gangster story into something with the
resonance of myth. Trouble is, this has already been done much better by
pictures like "The Godfather" and "Once Upon a Time in America," which dug
into their characters' passions, dreams and betrayals.

Here the characters are too nakedly iconic to be compelling, which leaves
everything up to the cast. Law's performance as a photographer hit man is an
amusing piece of pop kabuki acting, and Newman is cooly authoritative as a
paternal Irishman who will beat his son at one moment, then hug him the next.

But while Tom Hanks deserves credit for trying to shake off his halo, he's not
really convincing as an enforcer. He's often called the new Jimmy Stewart,
but where Stewart wasn't afraid to let madness and hysteria fray the edges of
his gee-whiz amiability, Hanks never conveys Sullivan's ruthless ferocity. He
makes the hit man seem like a lumbering and dutiful plumber, rather than a
killer burning with the need for revenge. Then again, the whole movie lacks
the ferocity and snap that made us like gangster movies in the first place.
Rather like the Coen brothers in "Miller's Crossing," Mendes has painstakingly
aestheticized everything. Every shot is lingeringly well lit. Unpainted barns
and dank streets have never looked more gorgeous. But you wind up feeling as
if you've been force-fed buckets of frosting. And the scenes themselves are
played portentously, like this, because every moment is very, very meaningful.

If Mendes had simply kept things clipping along at the proper speed, the whole
movie would race by in about 65 minutes, and it would be good, trashy fun. As
it is, "Road to Perdition" lumbers along with the slow, heavy steps of a white
elephant walking the road to pretension.

GROSS: John Powers is executive editor and media columnist for LA Weekly.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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