'On Sondheim': The Musical-Theater Legend At 80

Originally published on December 6, 2013 3:05 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on April 21, 2010.

Stephen Sondheim's 80th-birthday presents started piling up early last month. The New York Philharmonic held a two-day concert hosted by David Hyde Pierce and featuring tributes to the Broadway legend from Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin.

The Roundabout Theater Company renamed one of its Broadway houses, the Henry Miller's Theatre on West 43rd Street, in Sondheim's honor and held a benefit at Studio 54 that included an early performance of the new Broadway production Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical portrait of Sondheim's life complete with archival interview footage. (James Lapine, who collaborated with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park With George and Passion, directed the show, which features Vanessa Williams, Barbara Cook and Tom Wopat singing new arrangements of Sondheim classics.)

So what does Sondheim think of the recent celebrations in honor of his birthday?

"It's been a little too much in the public spotlight," he tells Terry Gross. "But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It's terrific to know that people like your stuff."

Sondheim's "stuff" includes the lyrics for classics like West Side Story and Gypsy, not to mention the music and lyrics for — among others — Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods, Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

He's been honored with eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar (for the music in 1990's Dick Tracy). The New York Times calls him the "greatest and perhaps best-known artist in American musical theater."


Upon graduating from Williams College in 1950, Sondheim received one of his first awards, the Hutchinson Prize for Composition. The award gave Sondheim the opportunity to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

"I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that's what I learned from him," Sondheim says. "We had four-hour sessions once a week and we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson — the classic songs of the American theater and American movies. ... But what we did was — we did an hour on songs and three hours on Beethoven and Bach, and it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music."

Though Babbitt influenced Sondheim's compositional techniques, he says it was the film composer Bernard Herrmann — most famous for his musical work on the Hitchcock films Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo — who heavily influenced the score of Sweeney Todd.

"When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written," Sondheim says. "It's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. It particularly impressed me — but all of Bernard Herrmann's music particularly impressed me, so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him."

One of the most famous compositions in Sweeney Todd is "Epiphany" — the terrifyingly mad ballad sung by the title character (a homicidal barber) after he learns that the judge who unjustly sent him to prison had later raped his wife and adopted his daughter. Sweeney has decided to take his revenge — via his razors — against the judge. The chords at the end of the song are extremely dissonant, particularly when Todd sings the last line, "I'm alive at last / And I'm full of joy!"

Sondheim says he wrote the music to mimic the madness that's taking place in Sweeney's head — and that he originally resisted writing a conclusion that would move an audience to applaud.

"In fact, I ... had it end on a sort of dissonant chord with kind of violent harmonics — meaning very high, shrill sounds," he says. "And Hal Prince said, 'Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song. You have to give him a hand.' So I put a big chord on the end, and that big chord still strikes me as wrong. So even in the printed copy — that is, the piano/vocal score that's published — I put two endings in. Those who want to give it a big nice consonant chord at the end and get a hand from the audience — and those who do what I wanted to do, which was to let the thing dribble out into the next scene."

Opening Doors

Before Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, he played his music for a lot of producers and directors, trying to break into theater. He got a lot of blank looks.

"I remember playing once for Cy Feuer, the producer of Guys and Dolls," Sondheim says. "He also was the head of the music department at Universal, and I remember he criticized me for having too many B-flats in a melody. I remember he said that, and I thought 'Gee whiz, what is he talking about?' He wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music, is what it was. And he might have been right, but I don't think he was."

After West Side Story, Sondheim was hired to write the lyrics for Gypsy — which led to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics.

When he writes, Sondheim says, he doesn't necessarily always write the lyrics first or the music first; the process depends on what pops into his head.

"I will improvise or think of various melodic ideas and sometimes chord sequences. ... At the same time, I'm also jotting down any lyric," he says. "Then I try to start from the first song, and if I have a lyric line or a phrase, I'll expand a bit. ... I may have a musical idea and expand on it, but I never go far without bringing the other one in, because you can paint yourself into a corner if you write a whole tune or even half a tune with no idea what you're going to say in it — because you're then going to be hard-pressed to find words that fit inside the music easily and accomplish exactly what you want them to accomplish."

During this musical sketching process, Sondheim doesn't record himself — he just makes notations on what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.

"The process of putting something down on paper is very important in keeping the stuff alive in your head," he says. "You can improvise and think, 'Wait, that A-flat doesn't sound right,' and you change things as you go along, even though you're just sketching."

And when he needs to create a rhyme, Sondheim says, it's crucial to know what he wants to say beforehand.

"To know what you want to say and then how you want to phrase what you want to say — and then as the music develops, you'll start to improvise a rhyme scheme or to sense a rhyme scheme. And then you'll say 'All right, I've got this line that ends with "day" and I want to say "She loves him,' " and then you go through the rhyming dictionary. But there's so many rhymes for 'day.' and you want something that will somehow encompass or pinpoint what you want to say — there's a rhyme right there — about this situation. ... You make a list of rhymes that are in some way relevant, and then you use them."

There are certain rhymes Sondheim says he would never use again — soul-stirring and bolstering from Follies, for instance — but other rhymes get used day in and day out from song to song, show to show — because they're extremely useful.

"They're words that have many meanings and many connotations so that's what I mean," Sondheim says.

And words, he says, are why he's in theater in the first place.

"I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested in communication with audiences," he says. "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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's show, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.


STEPHEN SONDHEIM: An awful lot of people have gone historically to musicals to forget their troubles, come on get happy. I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in making people unhappy, but I'm not interested in not looking at life because then I don't know why I want to write it otherwise.

BIANCULLI: On Monday, HBO presents the premiere of "Six by Sondheim," a new TV special that's part biography, part music appreciation lesson and part performance piece. It's all about the life and music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, in which he explains, among many other things, how and why he became a musical theater composer and lyricist and the inspirations for some of his most familiar songs.

If you're new to the works of Stephen Sondheim, this TV special should entice you. If you're already a fan, it should delight you. To note the arrival of this excellent new TV program about Stephen Sondheim, we're devoting today's show to Terry's 2010 conversation with him. But before this interview, I'd like to take a few moments to preview HBO's "Six By Sondheim."

It's a superbly compiled work overseen by two of the people most intimately familiar with the composer himself. It's directed by executive producer James Lapine, who collaborated with Sondheim by writing the books for and directing Broadway's "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods" and "Passion." And Lapine's fellow executive producer is Frank Rich, who reviewed many of Sondhiem's show in his days as a New York Times theater critic and who more recently has toured with Sondheim on the lecture circuit, asking questions of him and eliciting stories.

Parts of "Six by Sondheim" echo and are indebted to the 2010 Roundabout Theatre production "Sondheim on Sondheim." That was a multimedia presentation, which had a company of singers performing, while Sondheim on giant screens commented in recorded interview segments about his life and work.

That production was written by James Lapine, as well, and "Six by Sondheim" relies on the same strong spine. In "Six by Sondheim," the composer and lyricist tells his own story and explains his own songs. He's a tour guide through his own past, with specific emphasis on a half-dozen songs, which explains the title "Six by Sondheim."

The first song given this treatment in Monday's HBO special is "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story" with lyrics by Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim explains why the song was added during out of town tryouts in Washington as he hear Larry Kert, the show's young star, singing it in a vintage TV appearance from 1957.


SONDHEIM: We wrote it during rehearsals because the boy playing Tony, named Larry Kert, wasn't registering in his first scene with the kind of weight that made you want to follow his adventures through the show. And I suggested that we write a song that has real drive to it. A paradigmatic one would be (singing) hallelujah, hallelujah - the kind of thing that Judy Garland made her reputation from, a driving, fast-beat song.


JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) The Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, we're going to the promised land...

SONDHEIM: And that's exactly what we did. And Larry did it on opening night in Washington and stopped the show.


LARRY KERT: (Singing) It's only just out of reach, down the...

SONDHEIM: He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and it gave him confidence. It was his first major musical. Of all the people in the cast, he had to be the one to carry that strength forward. And that number gave him that strength.


KERT: (Singing) Could it be? Yes it could. Something's coming, something good if I can wait. Something's coming I don't know what it is, but it is...

BIANCULLI: There's a lot more there than just and then I wrote. And in addition to some fabulous archival performances, such as Dean Jones nailing the emotional "Being Alive" finale to "Company," "Six by Sondheim" includes several new performances staged and filmed for the documentary itself.

The approaches are daringly different and are beautiful Audra McDonald sings "Send in the Clowns" accompanied only by acoustic guitar. "I'm Still Here," the show stopper from "Follies" usually sung by an aging diva, is performed here by a young male singer, Jarvis Cocker of the rock band Pulp.

While most of the regret and remembrance and resonance are reflected in the faces of the women listening to him sing. And a new performance of "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along" includes a delightfully ironic guest appearance by Sondheim himself.


SONDHEIM: (Singing) It isn't every day I hear a score this strong, but fellas if I may, there's only one thing wrong. There's not a tune you can hum. There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-de-dum. You need a tune to go bum-bum-de-dum. Give me some melody. Why can't you throw in a crumb?

BIANCULLI: At one point in "Six by Sondheim," the composer describes teaching as a sacred profession, and in the rest of the TV special, he proves he means it. A clip showing him explaining lyric writing to master-class students is a privilege to eavesdrop on, and the many TV interview clips through the decades trace Sondheim's dedication at both expanding the dimensions of musical theater and explaining it so that others can follow.

As a high schooler on my first trip to New York on my first evening in the audience of a Broadway show, I was lucky enough to see Larry Kert and Elaine Stritch in "Company." I followed and loved the work of Stephen Sondheim ever since. The appearance and the excellence of Monday's "Six by Sondheim" on HBO is one of those things that justify why I've spent my career as a TV critic.

Sooner or later, I keep saying everything I really care about will show up on television and allow me to talk about it. "Six By Sondheim" has allowed me to do just that, and my only complaint about the program is more of a request. It cries out for a sequel. I already am hungry for six more by Sondheim, and that's just for starters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.