Montclair Literary Festival Goes Behind the Scenes of The Sopranos

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Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for Rolling Stone and co-author of The Soprano Sessions at Montclair Literary Festival

Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy, Ralphie, Livia and Carm. If you’re from Montclair, especially if you’ve been to Holsten’s, you should know these people.

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for Rolling Stone and co-author of The New York Times bestseller, The Sopranos Sessions, treated fans of the show gathered at the Annex to some choice insights about the Sopranos and its characters. The event, sponsored by the Montclair Literary Festival, was a chat with Dalton Ross, executive editor of Entertainment Weekly and Sepinwall, celebrating the show’s 20th anniversary and the release of Sepinwall’s book.

Sepinwall co-wrote The Sopranos Sessions with Matt Zoeller Sietz, TV critic for New York Magazine and editor-at-large at RogerEbert.com. Both writers covered the legendary show when it first aired from 1999 to 2007.

First on the agenda was an informal audience poll about the final episode shot at the venerable Holsten’s. Most of the crowd didn’t appreciate how show creator David Chase ended the series with such ambiguity.

Dalton Ross, executive editor of Entertainment Weekly and Alan Sepinwall talk Sopranos.

“We were expecting something big at the end, but ended up watching Meadow parallel park,” said Sepinwall. “It was unnerving. People don’t like being left in that space.” Sepinwall explained that his feelings about the ending have evolved since he first saw it. He now sees the episode as a glimpse into Tony’s psyche, how difficult and paranoid it must be to go through a life like Tony’s.

One of the themes of the night was the strength of the show’s characters. “People cared about what happened to them,” said Sepinwall. Another informal poll of the audience showed that out of all those characters, Tony’s mom Livia rates as a favorite. Nancy Marchand, who played the vexing matriarch, earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal. The producers knew she was gravely ill when she auditioned, according to Sepinwall, but Marchand so utterly nailed the character they decided to go with her until the veteran actor (remember Mrs. Pynchon from Lou Grant?) died in 2000.

Sepinwall also spun yarns about the late James Gandolfini, who played Tony and won three Emmys for that role. The actor was intense on the set. One time someone’s cell phone went off while recording and Gandolfini shot the offending attendee a look that could kill. Conversely, Gandolfini suffered from anxiety attacks (like Tony) and one time called the home of Zoeller Sietz to see if he could get out of an interview with the journalist.

The conversation also touched on favorite episodes. One of Sepinwall’s being “College” from season one where Tony takes his daughter Meadow to visit colleges in Maine. In a moment away from his daughter, Tony strangles a snitch (not a college admissions officer) who was in the witness protection program.

Chase and the show’s producers were concerned showing Tony killing someone might diminish the character’s likability among viewers. But it didn’t and Tony went on to be one of TV’s great antiheroes.

The Sopranos Sessions, is a collection of recaps, essays and interviews about the series. It’s a must-read for diehard Sopranos fans.

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