Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. An era ended last Friday with the death of the brilliant composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He was 91. It's hard to overestimate his influence on American musical theater. He started his Broadway career writing lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and went on to write music and lyrics for such shows as "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion."
He was the child of classic Broadway. His mentor and father figure was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. But Sondheim opened the door to something new on Broadway. Some of his songs had inventive structures that didn't adhere to familiar song forms and were built on harmonies resembling the classical avant-garde. Some of his musicals, like "Sweeney Todd," were sung through like operas, although Sondheim was adamantly opposed to calling them operas. If the groundbreaking nature of his work sounds familiar now, it's in part because so many composers have emulated him. Sondheim won Tonys, an Oscar, Grammys and a Pulitzer and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. But some of his great works were flops when they opened, including one of my favorites, "Merrily We Roll Along."
If you're a regular FRESH AIR listener, you probably know that I, along with many others on our FRESH AIR team, love his music, so we've prepared a three-day tribute to Sondheim. It will include two long interviews with him and interviews with people who worked with him, like James Lapine, who wrote the books for three Sondheim musicals; and Stephen Colbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who performed in Sondheim shows.
I was fortunate in having interviewed Sondheim several times. Yet when people ask me who I was most nervous to interview, I usually say Sondheim because he's my musical hero, but I always got the impression he didn't like being interviewed. If he didn't approve of the way I phrased the question or if a word I used struck him as imprecise or inaccurate, he let me know. The first time I interviewed him in 1988, he came to our Philadelphia radio studio because he was giving a lecture as part of a series at the University of Pennsylvania. Apparently, he thought the interview would be about that university series. So when he found out the interview was going to be about his music, he wanted to leave - literally.
I did my best to explain what his music meant to me and how I hated to make him uncomfortable. But he was that day's interviewee. And if he left, we would not have a show. He stayed, but I think he remained uncomfortable. I was sorry-grateful. Soon after, he sent a note apologizing along with what I think of as the best consolation prize ever - a cassette recording of his famous appearance at New York's 92nd Street Y Lyrics & Lyricists series, a recording that wasn't available to the public.
After he died, I listened back to that interview we did. And despite his reticence, his comments about his music were fascinating. Hearing him talk about his music was always illuminating. So let's begin our tribute with the first of two interviews I recorded with him in 2010, the year the music world celebrated his 80th birthday. We started with the opening song from the first show for which he wrote the words and music, "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum." It opened in 1962 and starred Zero Mostel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEDY TONIGHT")
ZERO MOSTEL: (As Pseudolus) Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight. Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone, a comedy tonight. Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns - bring on the lovers, liars and clowns. Old situations, new complications, nothing portentous or polite. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Stephen Sondheim, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Are you surprised to find yourself in the position as like the elder genius, since it seems like you spent so much time as, like, the really young, brilliant guy? You know what I mean?
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: No, I think of myself as 18 years old, so, you know, I'm only surprised when I look in the mirror now. As far as I'm concerned, I'm 18 and very promising.
GROSS: (Laughter) In the Roundabout Theatre production of "Sondheim On Sondheim," you say that people assume that a lot of your songs are really autobiographical. But they're not, with the exception of "Opening Doors" from your 1981 show "Merrily We Roll Along." And I saw a revival of the show a few years ago. It didn't last long, sadly, on Broadway, but I saw a revival by the York Theatre Company.
GROSS: It was wonderful. I love this show, and I love the songs from the show. So I want to play "Opening Doors," and then I want to talk a little bit about it. And...
GROSS: ...Do you want to describe where the song fits into the story?
SONDHEIM: It - the song takes place over a period of two years in the lives of the three leading players, who are in their late 20s. And two of them are songwriters, a lyricist and a composer. And their best friend is a woman who is - a young woman who is a budding novelist. And it's the three of them trying to break into - well, the two guys into show business, and she's trying to finish writing a book.
GROSS: So this song is at the point where they're kind of hoping to become real - you know, a real...
SONDHEIM: That's right.
GROSS: ...Composer, a real lyricist and a real novelist.
SONDHEIM: They're opening doors.
GROSS: They're opening doors.
SONDHEIM: They're knocking on doors. They're knocking on doors.
GROSS: And we're going to hear this sung by the original cast recording, sung by Jim Walton, Lonny Price and the part of the producer who interjects in the middle here will be sung by Jason Alexander, who played George on "Seinfeld." So...
GROSS: ...Here we go from Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOOR")
JIM WALTON: (As Frank, singing) Bum-bum ba-da-da-da-da. Bum-bum-bum, ba-ba, ba-ba.
(As Frank) How's it coming?
LONNY PRICE: (As Charley) Good, you?
WALTON: (As Frank) Done.
PRICE: (As Charley) One minute.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
WALTON: (As Frank) Hamburg Heaven. Mary...
PRICE: (As Charley) Say hello.
ANN MORRISON: (As Mary) I think I got a job.
WALTON: (As Frank) Where? What's that?
MORRISON: (As Mary, unintelligible).
WALTON: (As Frank) What about the book? Did you give the publisher the book? Good.
MORRISON: (As Mary) No.
WALTON: (As Frank) Mary.
PRICE: (As Charley) Finished
WALTON: (As Frank) Let me call you back.
PRICE: (As Charley) This is just a draft.
WALTON: (As Frank) Right.
PRICE: (As Charley) Probably it stinks.
WALTON: (As Frank) Right.
PRICE: (As Charley) I haven't had the time to do a polish.
WALTON: (As Frank) Will you sing?
PRICE: (As Charley) Right.
(As Charley, singing) Who wants to live in New York? Who wants the worry, the noise, the dirt, the heat? Who wants the garbage cans clanging in the street? Suddenly, I do. They're always popping their cork.
(As Charley) I hate that line.
(As Charley, singing) The cops, the cabbies, the salesgirls up at Saks - you got to have a real taste for maniacs. Suddenly, I do.
JASON ALEXANDER: (As Joe, singing) That's great. That's swell. The other stuff is, well, 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 go bum-bum-bum-di-dum. You need a tune to go bum-bum-bum-di-dum. Give me a melody. Why can't you throw 'em a crumb? What's wrong with letting 'em tap their toes a bit? I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit. Give me some melody. Oh sure, I know, it's not that kind of show, but can't you have a score That's sort of in-between? Look, play a little more, I'll show you what I mean.
PRICE: (As Charley, singing) Who wants to live in New York. I always hated the dirt, the heat, the noise. But ever since I met you, I...
ALEXANDER: (As Joe, singing) Listen, boys. Maybe it's me. But that's just not a hummable melody. Write more. Work hard. Leave your name with the girl. Less avant-garde. Leave your name with the girl. Just write a plain old melody-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee...
GROSS: That's "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along" by my guest, Stephen Sondheim, who said this is his really autobiographical song. So is the part autobiographical where the producer complains that it's not a song you can hum, give me a melody (laughter)?
SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh sure, sure. But it's autobiographical in the general sense. It's - you know, first of all, I didn't have a collaborator. I mean, it's not specifically autobiographical. I wrote my own lyrics, my own music. The girl is merely an amalgam of people like - particularly, I was very close to Mary Rodgers, Dick Rodgers' daughter, who - she became a composer as well as a novelist, as a matter of fact. And, of course, Hal Prince, who was a producer and then eventually a director. We were all very close to each other. It's not specifically based on us, but it's on the ambience of our lives and the speed and the excitement and the disappointment and the triumph, et cetera.
GROSS: Now, the producer sings, I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit, he's saying sarcastically. Now, you studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. When you studied with him, was your ambition Broadway or was it more (unintelligible) music?
SONDHEIM: Oh, no, I always wanted to write songs. Well, he's a songwriter manque. I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that's what I learned from him. But we would spend - we had four-hour sessions once a week. And we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by, oh, Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, the classic songs of the American theater and American movies.
And Milton also, on the - he wrote songs. Most of the time, he wrote these extremely forward-looking pieces. He was writing electronic music before anybody ever knew that electronic music existed. And - but he had this - one foot in - in fact, he's a jazz fan. He's - and he's also got the kind of memory - if you play him a jazz record from 1932, he'll tell you who's playing what instrument. He's remarkable that way.
But what we did was, we spent an hour, you know, on, you know, songs and then three hours on Beethoven and Bach. And it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But, no, I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of an insight you got from Babbitt studying, say, a Jerome Kern song?
SONDHEIM: Yeah. Well - but I'd have to do it with a piano.
GROSS: Oh, sure. OK.
SONDHEIM: It's - we - one of the things we analyzed in detail - one of the songs was "All The Things You Are," which has a remarkable harmonic structure in it, which, among other things, consists of the fact that the tonic chord isn't played until the end of the song. And it goes from a circle of fifths and then breaks the circle of fifths with a tritone, which echoes itself not only in the melody but also in the bass and defines both the key that the song is written in and the key to which it's going, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I've actually reproduced that hour-long analysis he gave me to students I had at Oxford when I taught at Oxford. It's lodged in my mind because it is a way of approaching, when you are trying to hold a song together, how you hold it together harmonically and still make it fresh. Kern was a master at that.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April 2010. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "OPENING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April 2010, the year of his 80th birthday.
Now, an example of a song that I think is maybe influenced by your experience with new music, your experience with Milton Babbitt, is part of "Sweeney Todd." And I'm thinking of the "Epiphany," especially toward the end, like when Sweeney sings full of joy. The chords are so dark there. There is no joy (laughter).
SONDHEIM: Well, that's the idea.
GROSS: It is the joy of anger and revenge.
SONDHEIM: That's the idea.
GROSS: And it's so discordant. I mean, I just love that section. Are there things that you learned in composition that helped you write that kind of Broadway music?
SONDHEIM: No more than that helped me write "A Little Night Music" or "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum." The principles are exactly the same. The expressivity is different. Incidentally, I stumbled on that word because what you mean is dissonant. Discordant means mistakes. Dissonant means...
GROSS: Oh, I didn't mean that (laughter).
SONDHEIM: That's all right, though. So - but, yes, it's dissonant because what's going on in Sweeney's head is dissonant that would be (ph).
In fact, I originally didn't bring the number to a hand, but had it end on a - sort of on a dissonant chord with kind of violent harmonics, meaning very, very high, shrill sounds. And Hal Prince said, you know, Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song. You've got to give him a hand. So I put a big chord on the end, and that big chord still strikes me as wrong. And 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 to get a hand from the audience and those who want to do what I wanted to do, which was to let the thing dribble out into the next scene.
GROSS: But, you know, the way it is on the cast recording, it sounds like there's a consonant and a dissonant chord kind of battling each other (laughter).
SONDHEIM: That's correct. And that's exactly what I - and that is very unsettling, and that is exactly the kind of thing that kills a hand. That's precisely what I mean. You're absolutely right. There's a consonant chord and a dissonant chord going on at the same time, one right after the other.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear this end of the "Epiphany." And this is the moment where Sweeney Todd, the barber, learns that the judge that sent him away to prison on a life sentence on trumped-up charges had later raped Sweeney's wife and taken Sweeney's daughter as his ward. And Sweeney, at this point, just finding out about this, he's decided to use his razors to take revenge against the judge and the work he refers to in the song is the work of revenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EPIPHANY")
LEN CARIOU: (Singing, as Sweeney Todd) All right. You, sir, how about a shave? Come and visit your good friend, Sweeney. You, sir, too, sir? Welcome to the grave. I will have vengeance. I will have salvation. Who, sir? You, sir? No one's in the chair. Come on. Come on. Sweeney's waiting. I want you, bleeders. You, sir, anybody - gentlemen, now don't be shy. Not one man, no, nor ten men, nor a hundred can assuage me. I will have you! (Laughter). And I will get him back, even as he gloats. In the meantime, I'll practice on less honorable throats. And my Lucy lies in ashes. And I'll never see my girl again. But the work waits. I'm alive at last. And I'm full of joy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's Len Cariou singing in the original cast recording of "Sweeney Todd." My guest is Stephen Sondheim. Now, that last note in the song that Len Cariou sings - joy - full of joy - did you think hard about what that note should be? - 'cause it's not the note that - you expect a kind of resolution at the end there - a musical resolution. And that...
SONDHEIM: Well, if...
GROSS: ...Note does not - yeah, go ahead.
SONDHEIM: If you're not going to have a harmonic resolution, there's no such thing as a melodic resolution. I mean, resolutions are harmonic. They're not melodic. You can put any note with a consonant chord. And even if it happens to be a dissonant note, it's going to feel resolved because you'll feel - you know, as you do with a tonic chord - you'll feel it. You're home again - that you've gotten back to home plate. So that note that you call unexpected, I don't think I could put any note there that you would think would be expected because the chord itself doesn't support any note.
GROSS: That's good.
SONDHEIM: Did I make my...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah...
SONDHEIM: ...What I'm saying?
GROSS: That's great. Thank you for - I didn't think of it...
GROSS: ...That way. Thank you very much (laughter).
GROSS: I should say that that song is sung very well by Tom Wopat in "Sondheim On Sondheim."
SONDHEIM: Yes - very scary.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann influence on "Sweeney Todd."
SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's it. You know, when you talked about Milton Babbitt's influence - much less Milton Babbitt's influence than Bernard Herrmann. When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called "Hangover Square," which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written. And it's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. And it particularly impressed me. But all of Bernard Herrmann's music impressed me. So actually, the score of "Sweeney Todd" is an homage to him. It's - I remember I played the score for the actor Tony Perkins, who knows movie scores the way I knew movie scores - or knew movie scores the way I did. And I (laughter) wasn't 24 bars into the opening number when he said, oh, Bernard Herrmann. So it was very clear that what I was doing was channeling Herrmann.
GROSS: So let's get back to "Merrily We Roll Along" a second. It was a flop. It didn't - how many performances?
SONDHEIM: Oh, wait a minute. That's - anyway - quite - so sorry - it was 16.
GROSS: Sixteen - yeah.
SONDHEIM: Sorry, sorry, sorry.
GROSS: It kills me 'cause it's - it was such a good show.
SONDHEIM: It was.
GROSS: And it's been revived several times. So people...
SONDHEIM: Well, ah...
SONDHEIM: But George and I worked on it - George Furth, who wrote the book, and I - after the Broadway show, which was partly our fault, but also partly - fault of the production. The idea of the show was to go - as the listeners may not know - go backwards in time from a very successful group of 40 year olds or 45 year olds and take them back to their very youthful days before they compromised their principles. It goes backwards in time.
It's based on a George Kaufman-Moss Hart play. And Hal Prince's idea as producer and director was to cast it with young people, meaning 17 to 22, which is the ages they end up at at the end of the show. They would start as middle-aged or early middle-aged people and gradually become younger. And the trouble with casting 17 to 22 year olds is that most of them had no experience at all and were talented but not professional. And here we were on a Broadway stage, charging Broadway prices. If that show had been done off-Broadway, I think the reception would have been extremely different - done - same, with the same cast and all that. It wouldn't have received quite the beating it did receive. But also, there was a problem with the storytelling in the first half hour. The hero is a very unlikable man at the beginning. And then you gradually see how this guy became such a - I can't use the word on public radio...
SONDHEIM: ...But such a betrayer and such a - compromised all his principles and his talent. By going backwards in time, you gradually strip away - it's like the reverse of "The Picture Of Dorian Gray." The portrait gradually becomes purer and purer and purer. And then finally - matter of fact, long before finally - you start really to like him towards the end of the first act. And then you get to like him a lot in the second act. But that first 40 minutes - we rewrote it. And we then tinkered with it over a period of years. And by the time we got to the York Theatre production, we had the play we wanted.
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April 2010. He died Friday at the age of 91. After a short break, we'll hear him talk about being sent to a military academy when he was 10 after his parents divorced, writing lyrics for "West Side Story," his favorite rhyming dictionary and more.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD FRIENDS")
MALCOLM GETS: (As Frank, singing) Hey, old friend. Are you OK, old friend? What to do you say, old friend? Are we or are we unique? Time goes by...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today is the first day of our three-day tribute to the brilliant composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He died Friday at the age of 91. Today, we're featuring the interview I recorded with him in April, 2010, just a couple of weeks after his 80th birthday. Sondheim's Broadway musicals include "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Into The Woods." He got his start on Broadway writing the lyrics for "West Side Story." The music was composed by Leonard Bernstein. Here's a song from the original cast recording performed by Larry Kert.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S COMING")
LARRY KERT: (As Tony, singing) Could be. Who knows? There's something due any day. I will know right away, soon as it shows. It may come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows? It's only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach, under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, going to come true, coming to me. 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 going to be great. With a click, with a shock - phone will jingle. Door will knock.
GROSS: Let's get back to this idea of opening doors. What were some of the first doors you knocked on before actually getting to Broadway and writing lyrics for "West Side Story?"
SONDHEIM: Well, I played for an awful lot of people. I remember once playing for a guy named Cy Feuer, who was one of the producers of "Guys And Dolls." He'd also been a musician and was 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?
SONDHEIM: I mean, you know, he wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music is what it was. And he might've been right, but I don't think he was. And I played for a number of producers and directors and, generally, was dismissed. It was - you know, I snuck in through the back door. I snuck in through "West Side Story," where, you know, there were the big guys there - Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents and Jerry Robbins. So it was their problem to get the show on. And believe me - it was not an easy show to get on.
GROSS: Did you learn anything working with Bernstein and watching him work?
SONDHEIM: Oh, sure, a great deal. Yes. Mainly, I learned something about courage. I learned - Lenny was never afraid to make big mistakes. He was never afraid to fall off the top rung of the ladder. And I learned by implication that the worst thing you can do is fall off a low rung. If you're going to make a mistake, make a huge one.
GROSS: Now, you've talked about George Gershwin and Harold Arlen as great influences on you. And they were both very influenced by jazz. Did you listen to much jazz or pop when you were in your formative years?
SONDHEIM: Nope. Nope, I didn't. And I'm not very influenced by jazz. First of all, the whole idea of jazz is improvisation and instrumentalists. And because I'm only a piano player and have never played in a band, I don't have a feeling for that. Also, I think by nature, I'm too conservative. I'm just - I only improvise at the piano when I'm writing a song. But I never improvise for anybody else or in front of anybody else or at a party or anything like that. And I don't think I would be good at it. I'm much too constrained.
It's partly my training. I was - my first music teacher, which - who was a professor at Williams College, was a very, very kind of Mary Poppins kind of teacher, with - you know, he laid down the rules. And that appealed to me a lot, the idea of rules of how you write music that say what music consists of, that it's not just sitting and waiting for an inspiration, but that you take a melodic idea that you have that might be an inspiration, but then you develop it. And you work with it and work it out. You don't just fiddle around at the piano to do it. And that appealed to me a lot. But that's very conscious composition. And that's also what I studied with Milton Babbitt. And that is the reverse of jazz.
In fact, it's always struck me so odd that Milton, who is so knowledgeable about composition and composes according to a set of rules, some of which he makes up himself, is also such a jazz fan. I could never put those two things together. At any rate, no, I was not influenced by jazz. I was influenced by Gershwin's and Kern's and Arlen's songs, and particularly by their use of harmony.
GROSS: Was there any pop music that did make a big impression on you when you were young?
SONDHEIM: Well, you see, I wasn't exposed to a lot of pop music, you know? I didn't - there were not a lot of records in the house. And I was - you know, when I listened to radio, it wasn't to music; it was to comedy shows and melodramas. So my exposure to songs was almost exclusively movies and theater. And so I grew up on theater and movie songs, not on pop songs. And I was not somebody who liked to go to dances, so I didn't get to, you know, hear the big bands very often, except, again, when they were in movies. And so the answer is, no, I didn't hear much pop music.
GROSS: Now another question about your formative years. You went to a Quaker school. But you also went to the New York Military Academy. And...
SONDHEIM: Yeah. That was earlier.
GROSS: I can't imagine you being a cadet. And I know there's also an emphasis on athletics at the school. I went on the website and it said, all cadets must participate in sports throughout the year. So what was it like for you to be...
SONDHEIM: Well, first of all, I went when I was 10 years old.
GROSS: Oh, OK. (Laughter) Yeah.
SONDHEIM: Ten and 11 years old, only those two years. So you know, I think you may have the wrong picture of me. And it was also because my parents had just divorced. And military school was always considered a place to send kids of divorced parents. A lot of my classmates were kids of divorced parents. And it was a lifesaver because your life becomes chaotic, suddenly, when your parents split up. And military school is bringing order to chaos. You have to be at a certain place at a certain time. You have to polish the buttons on the uniform. You have to parade here. You have to take orders there. And it was wonderful. You - there's a sense of structure. And I think, psychologically, it must have saved my life.
GROSS: You know, that actually really fits into what you were talking about wanting rules and structure in music.
SONDHEIM: Yeah. Order out of chaos. Order out of chaos. That's why I like crossword puzzles - order out of chaos.
GROSS: Right. Right. Right.
SONDHEIM: I think that's what art's about anyway. I think that's why people make art.
GROSS: To create order in...
SONDHEIM: To - out of chaos. Yeah.
GROSS: ...In a world that's chaotic? (Laughter).
SONDHEIM: The whole - the world has always been chaotic. Life is unpredictable. It is - there is no form. And making forms gives you solidity. I think that's why people paint paintings and take photographs and write music and tell stories and - that have beginning, middles and ends, even when the middle is at the beginning and the beginning is at the end.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April of 2010, just a couple of weeks after his 80th birthday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April of 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So let's get to some more music. There's a song I want to play from something that you wrote for television, and it's called "Evening Primrose." And this was...
SONDHEIM: That's the name of the show...
GROSS: That's the name of the show.
SONDHEIM: ...Just for the listener. For the listener, that's not the name of the song.
GROSS: No, no, no, no. It's not the name of the song.
SONDHEIM: No, I - no, no. Your sentence made it seem as if - yeah.
GROSS: Thank you for listening that carefully. (Laughter) OK.
SONDHEIM: That's what I do for a living.
GROSS: It sure is.
So the show is called "Evening Primrose," and it was a musical for an ABC series called "Stage 67," and it starred Anthony Perkins, who's a wonderful singer. I mean, he'd been in some musicals before, including Frank Loesser's...
GROSS: ..."Greenwillow," yeah, where - and he also had some pop jazz recordings that he made that...
GROSS: ...Are quite good. And this was made six years after "Psycho," just to put it into context. So before we actually talk more about it, let's hear one of the songs.
And this is a song that's also done in the revue "Sondheim On Sondheim." It's a beautiful song called "Take Me To The World." In the show, Anthony Perkins plays a poet who finds the world, you know, kind of cold and mean. And so he goes to a department store and decides to hide out there. I mean, after all, they have everything that you'd need. There's, like, a bedroom department and a kitchen department. There's clothes. And while hiding out there, he meets this whole community of people who actually live there and come out at night when the employees go home. And he falls in love with this beautiful young girl who's trapped there because the people won't let her leave. And she's dying to go out and see the world. He's, at the same time, disillusioned with the world. So I'm going to play the duet part that they sing, in which first he sings about how disillusioned he is with the world, and then he agrees to show her the world.
And the female singer we'll hear - is her name Charmian Carr? Am I...
SONDHEIM: That's correct.
GROSS: ...Pronouncing that correctly?
SONDHEIM: That's correct.
GROSS: OK. So this is Stephen Sondheim's song "Take Me To The World."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVENING PRIMROSE")
ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Charles, singing) Do you want the world? Why, then, you shall have the world. Ask me for the world. Again, you shall have the world. A world of skies that's bursting with surprise to open up your eyes for joy.
CHARMIAN CARR AND ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Ella and Charles, singing) We shall see the world come true. We shall have the world. I won't be afraid with you. We shall have the world. You'll hold my hand and know you're not alone.
PERKINS: (As Charles, singing) You shall have the world to keep. Such a lovely world, you'll weep.
CARR AND PERKINS: (As Ella and Charles, singing) We shall have the world forever, for our own.
GROSS: That was "Take Me To The World" by my guest, Stephen Sondheim, from his musical "Evening Primrose," which I should say there's a - I have a bootleg copy of this, but there's a real, genuine legit DVD that's coming out, so - which I highly recommend.
SONDHEIM: Any minute.
GROSS: Yeah. So who is Charmian Carr who we just heard?
SONDHEIM: Charmian Carr is, just for listeners who may not know, might be interested to know that she was - she played Liesl in the movie of "Sound Of Music." And I think she did one thing after that, and then I think she retired from the business - (laughter) got sane and got married.
GROSS: Oh. Well, can we talk a little bit about your process of songwriting? I know the first thing that comes for you is the story. You only write songs in the context of character and story. But I know this is probably the most often asked question of any songwriter, and they hate to answer it 'cause it's so corny. But really, when you're writing music and lyrics yourself, which comes first for you?
SONDHEIM: There's no first. Sometimes you get a melodic idea. I sometimes like to, by myself, improvise the piano, sometimes with a script propped up because I always write after the librettist has started to write a scene or two. I always wait to - so that I can divine and imitate the style that the writer is using, both in terms of dialogue and approach and getting to know the characters as he is forming them. And we have talked about the, you know, the scenes and the song for weeks before. But until something's on paper, I have nothing to imitate. And so I sometimes, if looking for a kind of musical atmosphere for the piece, particularly when I'm first beginning to write the piece, I will improvise or think of various melodic ideas and sometimes - often - harmonic ideas, chord sequences and things like that. So I'm collecting a little kind of - the materials for a scrapbook.
At the same time, I'm also jotting down any lyric ideas I have - titles or just subject matters or things like that. And then I usually try to start from the first song. And if I have a lyric line or a phrase that seems useful or fruitful, I'll maybe expand on it a little bit. But I try to - I may do the same thing with the music. I may have a musical idea and expand on it a little bit. But I never go very far without bringing the other one in because you can easily, as you can imagine, paint yourself into a corner if you write a whole tune or even half a tune and have no idea what you're going to say with it. You're going to be hard-pressed to find words that sit on the music easily and do and accomplish exactly what you want them to do and accomplish. So the thing to do is to do them together or in tandem, but not one and then the other. It's one and then the other - the one and the other - same time.
GROSS: When you're writing at the piano, are you recording what you're playing or are you just, like...
GROSS: ...Notating it?
SONDHEIM: No, no, no, no. Just notating. There's - the process of putting something down on paper is very important, I think, in keeping the stuff alive in your head. Just - you have to make - even if you're just improvising, you have to make little decisions just to put it down on paper. You can improvise a phrase, and as you're putting it down to play it again, you may think, wait a minute, that A-flat - now, that's - now, that doesn't sound right. And you change things as you go along, even though you're just sketching.
It's precisely what an artist does when he - a painter does or somebody who draws - when he sketches. When you look at, you know, the sketch pads of anybody - you know, Michelangelo or Leonardo - and see how they experiment with, you know, a horse's head or a hand or something like that. That's precisely the analogy. You're putting, you know, a finger on the - or a hand on the music paper before you put - try to work out a whole body.
SONDHEIM: Now, you - when you're working with rhyme, what's your process for figuring out options for rhyming words?
GROSS: Oh, well, what - you use a rhyming dictionary, is what you do. And the important thing is to get the thought first, 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 if you're - you know, you say, all right, I got a - all right, I've got this line that ends with day, and I want to say she loves him. So how will I - and then you go through the rhyming dictionary. And to say - rhyming dictionaries are useful for rhymes like day. They're not useful for trick rhymes. You - those you just think up, you know? But there are 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.
And I use a particular rhyming dictionary called the Clement Wood, which - the advantage of which is that all the rhymes are listed vertically instead of horizontally. So your eye sweeps up and down the page until a word catches it. The problem with - for me, anyway - with rhyming dictionaries that list things horizontally is that your eye tends - because you start to get impatient - to skip over the words. But when your eye goes up and down a page, you don't skip over as much.
And then suddenly a word will pop out and you know, bay. And you say, oh, yes, of course. Well, of course, they're on Biscayne Bay. Maybe that'll be useful. So you write down bay as a useful rhyme. And you make a list of rhymes that are, in some way, relevant to what you're trying to say and then you use them.
GROSS: The more you write, do you feel like you've used up rhymes?
SONDHEIM: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Like, you can't use a rhyme you've already used so the choices are narrower.
SONDHEIM: Well, that's certainly - now, that's certainly true of any kind of trick or...
GROSS: Give me an example of the kind of trick rhyme you're talking about.
SONDHEIM: Oh, goodness. I don't know. Soul-stirring and bolstering in "Follies," you know? If you use that once, you don't use it again. Loddy doddy (ph) and nobody. You don't use that more than once. Or if you do, you're a fool.
SONDHEIM: And I probably have used it more than once, but I don't think so. So that's what I mean. Whereas, yeah, of course, you're always going to end up rhyming day and may and say over and over and over and over again, you know, from song to song, show to show because they're useful and they're words that have many meanings and many connotations. And so that's what I mean.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April 2010. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in April 2010, the year of his 80th birthday.
In the show, "Sondheim on Sondheim," the song "Finishing The Hat" from "Sunday In The Park With George" is one of the songs that's performed. And about that song, you say that it's about what it's like to come out of the process of making art, to be done with something and then reenter the world. And I just wonder what it's like for you. When you finish with a project and you're out of that art that you've been making and your - both feet are back in the real world, is the real world, like, a comfortable or an uncomfortable place for you?
SONDHEIM: That's not quite the analogy. That's not really exactly what the song's about. The song's about the actual creation. It's about the creative moment. It's about when you are painting a painting or when you are - even sometimes when you're writing a letter, you get so intensely involved in what you're doing that you look up and suddenly it's an hour later. And you didn't know that an hour had passed. And it's always a shock.
That song came out of an incident in my life where I sat down to invent a game for a friend. And I started inventing it 8 o'clock in the evening. And I looked up from my pad at - and the sun - because the sun was coming up. And I'd been concentrating for eight hours. And I know, obviously, I must have gotten up to get something to drink or to go to the bathroom or something. But I have no memory of anything except that. And it's trancing out. And that happens to everybody who either creates for public art or professional art. Or, as I say, you can get involved in writing a letter. It's about that and getting back in the world. It's not about making a show, which is, after all, a series of those in-and-out moments. So it's the intensity of that moment - even if it's just two minutes, but the intensity. And then, with a shock, you look around, and you're back in the real world. It's not - it's neither an anti-climax nor a disappointment. It's just a plain old, ordinary shock. It's like you've been swimming underwater for a long time. You come up for air, take - and then you go back underwater again.
GROSS: I want to end with a song. And I'm going to give you the choice of which one we're going to do.
GROSS: OK? One is a kind of famous one, "Losing My Mind" from "Follies," sung by Dorothy Collins. And the other is a song from your most recent show, "Road Show" - formally known as "Bounce," formally known as "Wise Guys." And the song is "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." So which would you prefer?
SONDHEIM: Well, it's hard to pick. I think I prefer "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" because it's less familiar to the listeners to this program than "Losing My Mind," which has had a life outside of "Follies," much as it would be wonderful to hear Dorothy Collins sing it again. But I think I'd vote for "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened."
GROSS: Would you put it in context for us? Tell us where it comes in in the show...
GROSS: ...And something about the writing of the song.
SONDHEIM: Yeah. Well, in the first version of it, which was in the version of the show called "Bounce," it was between one of - the two leading characters are brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner. And Wilson was heterosexual. And Addison was homosexual. And in the first version, it's Wilson singing to his lady friend, who he eventually is going to marry. And the second one, in "Road Show," we cut that character out because it seemed that the story really is about - if there's any love story in it, it's between the two brothers. And so this is a song now sung by Addison, the homosexual brother, to his young lover and vice versa. It's a duet between the two guys.
GROSS: Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much for talking with us. Sure. And happy 80th - happy belated 80th birthday.
SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAS HAPPENED")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) First, there's cocktails at the Cosden's.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Oh, Jesus.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) Hon, we've got fish to fry.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Why don't you do this one without me, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) Then there's dinner at the Dodge's, the reception at the Roosevelt's...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) I think I'm going to die.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) And every party filled with millionaires who want to build the biggest villa since the days of ancient Rome. So what do you say we just stay home?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) You are the best thing that ever has happened to me, you are. OK then, one of the best things that's happened to me, you are. They say we all find love. I never bought it. I never thought it would happen to me. Who could foresee? You are the god-damnedest thing that has happened to me ever. When did I have this much happiness happen to me? Never. I can't believe my luck. And all I can do is be the best thing that's happened to you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) So what do you say we just stay home? What do you say we just go out on the boat and get smashed and make love on the beach, and stare up at the moon?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Hollie.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) You might just be the best thing that has happened to me...
GROSS: The interview we just heard with Stephen Sondheim was recorded in April, 2010, just a couple of weeks after his 80th birthday. He died Friday at the age of 91. This was the first of our three-day tribute to Sondheim. Tomorrow, we'll feature the interview I recorded with him a few months later after the publication of his book "Finishing The Hat," collecting his lyrics from 1954 to '81 and telling the stories behind them. The third day of our tribute will feature interviews with people who worked with Sondheim, including James Lapine, who wrote the books for the musical "Sunday In The Park with George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion" - and Stephen Colbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who each performed in Sondheim musicals. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HELLVIN TRIO'S "OLD FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.