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

The New York Times calls Stephen Sondheim the "greatest and perhaps best-known artist in American musical theater." Sondheim composed the music and lyrics for, among others, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company. He joins Fresh Air to discuss his career in musical theater.

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

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Stephen Sondheim, the greatest Broadway composer-lyricist of our time and one
of the best and most musically innovative ever, turned 80 last month. We're
thrilled to join in the ongoing celebration and feature an interview with him
today.

His birthday is being celebrated through the year with revivals of his shows
and reviews of his songs. Coming up Monday, New York City Center will honor him
with a gala celebration, featuring stars who have performed in his musicals,
including Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy and Michael
Cerveris.

Tomorrow night, the Roundabout Theater production's "Sondheim on Sondheim"
opens at Studio 54 in Manhattan. It features songs from his shows, performed by
Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams and others, as well as video clips of
archival and recent interviews with Sondheim himself.

Sondheim got his start on Broadway as the lyricist for "West Side Story" and
"Gypsy." Then he went on to write words and music for such shows as "Anyone Can
Whistle," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday
In the Park With George," "Into the Woods," "Assassins," "Passion" and "Road
Show."

Let's start with the opening song from the first show for which he – let's
start with the first song from the first show for which he wrote words and
music, "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum," which opened in 1962.
Here's Zero Mostel.

(Soundbite of song, "Comedy Tonight")

Mr. ZERO MOSTEL (Actor): (As Pseudolus) (Singing) 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 out the lovers, liars and
crowns. Old situations, new complications, nothing portentous or polite,
tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

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?

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Lyricist, Composer): 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In the Roundabout Theater 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 this show a few years ago. It
didn't last long, sadly, on Broadway, but I saw a revival by the York Theater
Company.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes.

GROSS: It was wonderful. I loved the 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Okay.

GROSS: And do you want to describe where the song fits into the story?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes, it's about – 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 is song is at the point where they're kind of hoping to become
real, you know, a real composer, a real lyricist and a real novelist.

Mr. SONDHEIM: They're opening doors.

GROSS: They're opening doors. And we're going to hear this sung by, in 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 here we go, from Stephen Sondheim's
"Merrily We Roll Along."

(Soundbite of song, "Opening Doors")

Mr. JIM WALTON (Actor): (As Frank Shepherd) How's it coming?

Mr. LONNY PRICE (Actor): (As Charley) Good, you?

Mr. WALTON: (As Frank) (Singing) Good.

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) One minute.

Mr. WALTON: (As Frank) (Singing) (Unintelligible), Mary...

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) Say hello.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Mary) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WALTON: (As Frank) (Singing) Where? What's that?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Mary) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WALTON: (As Frank) (Singing) What about the book? Did you get the
(unintelligible) the book?

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WALTON: (As Frank) (Singing) Let me call you back.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Mary) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. PRICE (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 the cork — I hate that line — the cops, the cabbies, the
salesgirls up at Saks, you gotta have a real taste for maniacs. Suddenly I do.

Mr. JASON ALEXANDER (Actor): (As Joe) (Singing) That's great. That's swell. The
other stuff as 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 can hum. There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can 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:

Mr. 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...

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As Joe) (Singing) Listen, boys, maybe it's me, but that's just
not a hum-umam-umam-umamable 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 melodee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee - dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee...

GROSS: The "Opening Door" 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, sure, 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 and my own music, and
the girl is merely an amalgam of people like – particularly I was very close to
Mary Rogers, Dick Rogers' daughter. 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.

And 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...

Mr. 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 de Sylva,
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 fact, he is, because he's still alive, he's a jazz fan. 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, well, but I'd have to do it with a piano.

GROSS: Oh, sure, okay.

Mr. SONDHEIM: 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. And it's – it's as 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: Now, Babbitt wrote atonal music, among other things. And he wrote a now-
famous essay called "Who Cares if You Listen?" that was published in High
Fidelity in 1958, in which he suggested that composers should withdraw from the
public world to a world of private performance and electronic media and
eliminate the public and social aspects of composition. Now, did that sense of
principle, that a certain kind of music should just be uncompromising, kind of
give you permission, in a way, to be uncompromising on Broadway when you felt
like you needed to be?

Mr. SONDHEIM: I don't think I've ever been uncompromising in that sense. I've
always been uncompromising in terms of – I don't change something simply
because somebody says oh, I can't hum that.

GROSS: Exactly, right.

Mr. SONDHEIM: But no, but I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested
in communication with audiences. Otherwise I would be in concert music. I would
be in another kind of profession. No, I love the theater as much as I love
music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and exciting them or
making them laugh or making them cry or just making them feel is paramount to
me.

The whole business of hummability, of course, has to do with familiarity. If
you hear a tune enough times, you'll hum it. You know, you can – the first time
I heard the Berg violin concerto, I thought what is this noise? And the third
time I heard it, I thought oh, that's interesting. And the fifth time I heard
it, I was humming along with it.

And I remember being at the intermission of "A Little Night Music" when it
first came out and hearing somebody say oh, that "Weekend in the Country" is –
that's such a catchy tune. Well, you know, very few people accuse me of writing
catchy tunes, and of course it was a catchy tune. She just heard 11 choruses of
it, and so of course she could hum it.

I've often said familiarity breeds content. The problem with so much music,
particularly in those days, was that you went into the theater humming it. You
know, if you hum something on first hearing it, it might be because it is so
immediately memorable, but more likely, it's because it reminds you of
something else.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim, who turned 80 last month. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. When we left off, we were talking about
studying with composer Milton Babbitt. 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. It is the joy of anger and revenge.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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 discord, what you mean is
dissonant. Discordant means mistakes.

GROSS: Oh, oh, I didn't mean that.

Mr. SONDHEIM: That's all right. So but yes, it's dissonant because what's going
on in Sweeney's head is dissonant. I would be – 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 high, shrill sounds.

And Hal Prince said, you know, 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. 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.

Mr. 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: Okay, 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, "The Epiphany")

Mr. LEN CARIOU (Actor): (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, no not ten men, nor a hundred can assuage me. I will have you.
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.

GROSS: That's Len Cariou, singing in the original cast recording of "Sweeney
Todd." My guest is Stephen Sondheim, and there's a Sondheim, a wonderful
Sondheim review by the Roundabout Theater Company currently at Studio 54 in New
York.

Now, that last note in the song that Len Carious sings, joy, full of joy, did
you think about hard about what that note should be because it's not the note
that you – you expect a kind of resolution at the end there, a musical
resolution, and that note does not – yeah, go ahead.

Mr. 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 feel,
you know, as you do with a tonic chord. You'll feel that 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's great. Thank you for – I didn't think of it that way.
Thank you very much. I should say that that song is sung very well by Tom Wopat
in "Sondheim on Sondheim."

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes, very scary.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann
influence.

Mr. 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. And 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 was – I 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.

And for the listeners who don't know, Bernard Herrmann did a great many of
Alfred Hitchcock's movies, including, of course, "Psycho."

GROSS: Yeah, in the chords in that famous part of the "Psycho" score are very,
like, dissonant violin.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, yes, and it's not so much the chords, it's the violin
effect.

GROSS: You mean, like, the screechy...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly what I mean.

GROSS: So let's get back to "Merrily We Roll Along" a second. It was a flop. It
didn't – how many performances?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Nine. Oh, wait a minute. That's "Anyone Can Whistle." I'm sorry,
it was 16.

GROSS: Sixteen, yeah.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sorry, sorry, sorry.

GROSS: It kills me because it was such a good show, and it's been revived
several times. So people...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, ah, 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 the 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 the
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 – but such a
betrayer and such a – compromised all his principles and his talent. And 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, as a 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 New York
Theater production, we had the play we wanted.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Stephen Sondheim. He turned 80
last month and his birthday is being celebrated through the year with revivals
of his shows and reviews of his songs. Monday, New York City Center honors him
with a gala. Tomorrow, the Roundabout Theater production "Sondheim on Sondheim"
opens at Studio 54 in Manhattan.

Sondheim 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 production performed by Larry Kert. The song is also featured in "Sondheim
on Sondheim."

(Soundbite of song, "Something's Coming")

Mr. LARRY KERT (Actor, singer, and dancer): (Singing) Could be. Who knows?
There's something due any day; I will know right away, soon as it shows. It may
come cannon balling 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, gonna 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 gonna be great.

With a click. With a shock. Phone'll jingle, door'll 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?"

Mr. 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 had 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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 backdoor. 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh sure, a great deal. Yes. Mainly, I learned - 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. No, 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. 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 can 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?

Mr. 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.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. SONDHEIM: 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...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, that was earlier.

GROSS: I can't imagine you being a cadet. And I know there is 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...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, first of all, I went when I was 10 years old and...

GROSS: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SONDHEIM: ...at 10 and 11 years old, only those two years. So, yeah, 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. There's a sense of structure and I think,
psychologically, it must've save my life.

GROSS: You know that actually really fits into what you were talking about,
about wanting rules and structure in music.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Order out of chaos. Order out of chaos. That's why
I like crossword puzzles. Order out of chaos.

GROSS: Right. Right. Right.

Mr. SONDHEIM: I think that's what art's about anyway. I think that's why people
make art.

GROSS: To create order in...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Out of chaos.

GROSS: ...a world that's chaotic.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: The world has always been chaotic. Life is unpredictable. 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 beginnings, middles and ends, even when the middle is at the
beginning and the beginning is at the end.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim and he turned 80 this year. There are many
celebrations for his 80th birthday. One of them is "Sondheim on Sondheim," a
production of the Roundabout Company, that's a review of Sondheim songs at
Studio 54 in New York. That's running until, is it mid-June?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes.

GROSS: Okay. 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...

Mr. SONDHEIM: That's the name of the show.

GROSS: That's the name of the show.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Just the listener - for the listener. That's not the name of the
song.

GROSS: No. No. No. That's not the name of the song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SONDHEIM: No. I know. No. But your sentence made it seem as if. Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you for listening that carefully.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: You. Okay.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. 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...

Mr. SONDHEIM: "Green Willow."

GROSS: "Green Willow." Yeah. Where - and he also had some pop jazz recordings
that he made that are...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Correct.

GROSS: ...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 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 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 is dying to go out and see the world. He's, at the same time,
disillusioned with the world.

So I'm going to play 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...

Mr. SONDHEIM: That's correct.

GROSS: ...pronouncing that correctly.

Mr. SONDHEIM: That's correct.

GROSS: Okay. So, this is Stephen Sondheim's song "Take Me to the World."

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me to the World")

Mr. ANTHONY PERKINS (Actor, singer): (As Charles Snell) (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.

Mr. PERKINS (As Charles Snell) and Ms. CHARMIAN CARR (Actor, singer): (Ella
Harkins) (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. You shall have the world to keep. Such a lovely world you’ll
weep. We shall have the world forever for our own.

GROSS: That was "Take Me to the World" by my quest 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 up, so which I
highly recommend.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Any minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. So who is Charmian Carr who we just heard?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Charmian Carr is just, for listeners who may not know, might be
intrested to know, she played Liesl in "The Sound of Music." And I think she
did one thing after that and then I think she retired from the business, got
sane and got married.

GROSS: Oh. Well, can we talk a little about your process of songwriting? I know
the first thing that comes to 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 because it’s so
corny, but really, when you’re writing music and lyrics yourself, which comes
first for you?

Mr. SONDHEIM: There's no fist. 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 get 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 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. And 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 a little bit.

But I try to - I may do the same thing with the music. I may have musical idea
and expand on 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 together or in tandem, but not
one and then the other. It's one then the other, one then the other, the same
time.

GROSS: When you’re writing at the piano are you recording what you’re playing
or are you just like...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Never. Never.

GROSS: ...notating it?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. No. No. No. Just notating.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Notating. 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 and playing it again, you may think wait a minute, that A-flat, no that's,
no 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's - a painter does or somebody who
draws. When he sketches when you look at, you know, the sketch pads of anybody,
you know, Michael Angelo 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 the, try to work out a whole body.

GROSS: Now, when you’re working with rhyme, what's your process for figuring
out options for rhyming words?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, what, you use rhyming dictionaries 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, 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 I say rhyming dictionaries are
useful for rhymes like day. They're not useful for trick rhymes.

Those you just think up, you know. But there's so many rhymes for day and 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 the 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'll say, oh yes, of course. Well, of course, they're on
Biscayne Bay. Maybe that'll be useful. So you write that 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Like you can't use a rhyme you’ve already used so - the choices are
narrower?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, that no. 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh goodness. I don’t know. Soul-stirring and bolstering in
"Follies," you know, if you use that once you don’t use that again. Loddy(ph)
doddy(ph) and nobody. You don’t use that more than once or if you do you’re
fool. And I've probably have used them more than once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: 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.

My guest is Stephen Sondheim. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim and this year he turned 80. There's been
celebrations, really, around the world...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...on his 80th birthday and one of those celebrations is the new revue
"Sondheim on Sondheim," which is a production of the Roundabout Theater Company
in New York.

I've heard you singing on recordings that have been released of you singing.
And you said about your own singing, that you wish you were more on pitch
and...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh yeah. Yes. I never studied singing and I should have. I do not
have a God-given voice of any elegance or - it’s musical, but it’s not a voice
to sing with. And however, I can sing on pitch if I concentrate on it. But
often when I'm, all those things that you heard me sing and play were never
meant for the public to hear. They were unrehearsed except in so far as I was –
they were almost always just private recordings for friends or they were from
auditions that I would give when I would have to go to producer's officers or
to backers to raise money.

And so, they were presented in public, but they're being presented by the
composer at the piano, so the certain roughness has charm for listeners.
They're certain songwriters who have great voices, Sheldon Harnick, Fred Ebb,
the lyricist, a wonderful voice.

GROSS: Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Harold Arlen. Well, Johnny Mercer, certainly, made a career - and
Alan Lerner. So a lot of people have really good voices and some of us do not.
The worse voice I've ever heard was Leonard Bernstein. That God only withheld
one musical talent from Lenny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: And that, well, maybe two. But that one, he gave him the voice of
a frog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: And I don’t know if it ever frustrated him or not, but it was
agony to listen to him try to sing. It was embarrassing. And the more
enthusiastic he got, because what he was trying to do was to substitute passion
for vocal acuity and it was deeply embarrassing. It was kind of cute but it was
embarrassing. And it was - when we had to demonstrating the songs from "West
Side Story" I would see to it that I did the singing. And believe me, I'm not
that good but I was a lot better than Lenny.

GROSS: 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 you’re, both feet are back
in the real world, is the real world like a comfortable or an uncomfortable
place for you?

Mr. SONDHEIM: It'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 are 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 eight 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've 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 could 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 making 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. And it's neither an
anticlimax nor a disappointment. It's just a plan ole ordinary shock. It's like
you’ve been swimming underwater for a long time. You come up for air, take air
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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. One is a kind of famous one; "Losing My Mind" from "Follies" song
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."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And the song is "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." So which would
you prefer?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, hard to pick. I think I'd 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 pout it in context for us? Tell us where it comes in in the
show...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: ...and something about the writing of the song.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah. Well, the first version of it, which was in the version of
the show called "Bounce," it was between - the two leading characters are
brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner. And Wilson was heterosexual and Addison
was homosexual. 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: And happy 80th - Happy belated 80th Birthday.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened")

Mr. NATHAN LANE (Actor, singer): (As Addison Mizner) (Singing) First there's
cocktails at the cousins. Oh Jesus. Hon, we’ve got fish to fry. Why don’t you
do this one without me, huh? Then there's dinner at the Dodge's, the reception
at the Roosevelt's. I think I'm going to die. And every party filled with
millionaires who want to fill the biggest bill since of days of ancient Rome.
So what do you say we just stay home? You are best thing that ever has happened
to me, you are. Okay, 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.

GROSS: A song from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Road Show." Sondheim turned 80
last month and the celebrations continue. Tomorrow night, the Roundabout
Theater production "Sondheim on Sondheim" opens in New York. You can watch a
clip from "Sondheim on Sondheim" and listen to several Sondheim songs on our
website freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can always count on comic and actress Sarah Silverman to talk about
things that make people uncomfortable or that make her uncomfortable.

On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with her about her new memoir "The Bedwetter:
Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee."

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
124907187

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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