DON'T Walk and Talk at the Same Time. Sounds like a song title but it ain't. ''That's what the surgeon told me,'' says American music-meister Stephen Sondheim, holding up his wounded right paw. ''I was walking and talking to a friend in London and tripped.'' He stuck out his songwriting hand to break the fall and bingo - surgery that put a ''hardware store inside my wrist'' and caused a two-month delay in work on a new musical, All Together Now. Says Sondheim, with characteristic precision: ''That's three words, not two.''
Yes, at 82 Sondheim is penning a show to add to his phenomenal CV. Hell, where do you start with this guy? He wrote A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum back in the late 1950s and it is now playing down the road at Her Majesty's. Then you have West Side Story, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, on and on. He can write lyrics, he can write music. He's his own Sondheim & Sondheim but denies this is special: ''There was Cole Porter & Porter, Irving Berlin & Berlin.'' He has eight Tony awards under the belt and is one of Broadway's giants but the intriguing thing is, it may never have happened if his father had not walked out on his mother years ago. They moved to a farm in Pennsylvania and composer Oscar Hammerstein was a neighbour and became a kind of foster dad. ''If Hammerstein had been a plumber,'' says Sondheim, ''I would have been a plumber.'' A big loss to music but at least the theatre taps wouldn't drip.
Sondheim is such a big name there is a Stephen Sondheim Society in London and a quarterly Sondheim Review magazine. Not Sondheim's initiative but he admits it is flattering - and it can help rectify wild rumours. For instance, no, he didn't send a note to friends thanking them for giving him a plate but asking: ''Where's my mother's head?'' Granted, he and his mum did not get on (she once sent a note saying his birth was a lifetime low point) but it's a ''not guilty'' re the plate.
So what about musical theatre in the 21st century? His Forum is almost 50 years old and up at the Princess Theatre, South Pacific is running. That was written in 1949. ''Well, there are gigantic hits around,'' he says, ''but I worry about the received media, the passive media, where you don't need to leave home.'' These couch-bound spuds miss out, says Sondheim, because every night at the theatre is unique. A movie? Same today, same tomorrow.
Sondheim loves words, loves playing with words. It tickles his funnybone that ''Stephen Sondheim'' is an anagram for ''He pens demon hits''. And although he delights in the clever use of a well-turned rhyme, he kind-of likes the condensed lingo in the Twitter era. ''It's fun. I know it denies the richness of the language in full, but I wish the two could co-exist. Certainly the perceived wisdom is that the language is deteriorating because of this shorthand. It may be true - but people are still writing books.''
Sondheim arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday and went to see Forum that night. He is going for a second helping, and on Friday will be on stage at Her Maj with Geoffrey Rush for An Afternoon with Stephen Sondheim. He's not quite sure what will happen. ''I think there's to be a bit of music,'' he says. That's a surprise.