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At 80, Musical-Theater Icon Stephen Sondheim Looks Back

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.

36:24

Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2010: Interview with Stephen Sondheim; Interview with Matt Richtel.

Transcript

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At 80, Musical-Theater Icon Stephen Sondheim Looks Back

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This week, we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the
year. This year, we were lucky enough to have Stephen Sondheim on our show
twice: first, to celebrate his 80th birthday, then to mark the publication of
his book, "Finishing the Hat," which collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and
tells the stories behind the songs.

Sondheim is the greatest Broadway composer-lyricist of our time and one of the
best and most musically innovative ever. 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," which is back on Broadway, "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In the
Park With George," "Into the Woods," "Assassins," "Passion" and "Road Show."

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with him in April, when the
Roundabout Theater was presenting the show "Sondheim on Sondheim," a review
featuring his songs, as well as video clips of interviews with him.

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. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Lyricist, Composer): 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 song is at the point where they were 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 Franklin Shepard) How's it coming?

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. ANN MORRISON (Actor): (As Mary) I think I got a job.

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

Ms. MORRISON: (As Mary) (Unintelligible).

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

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

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

Ms. MORRISON: (As Mary) (Singing) (Unintelligible) from instinct. I don't have
the time to do a polish.

Mr. PRICE: (As Charley) (Singing) Well you sing, right? 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 - 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 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:

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 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?

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.

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: 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: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with 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 discordant - 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 some 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) (Singing) 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) 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 violins.

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: 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: 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 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 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 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. 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 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 together or in tandem but not one and then the
other. It's one then the other, one then the other, at the same time.

GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview I recorded in April with Stephen
Sondheim in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. This week we're featuring some of
our most entertaining interviews of the year. Let's get back to the interview I
recorded in April with the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim who
turned 80 this year. He wrote the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy,"
then went on to write words and music for such shows as "Company," "Follies,"
"A Little Night Music," Sweeney Todd, "Sunday in the Park with George" and
"Into the Woods." When we left off we were talking about his process of
songwriting.

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 a
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.

GROSS: 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 demonstrate any of 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 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" 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."

(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 the 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, who could foresee?

You are the goddamndest 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 me. So what do you say we just stay
home? What do you say we just...

GROSS: A song from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Road Show." The interview we
heard was recorded last April. This year Sondheim turned 80 and he finished the
book "Finishing the Hat," collecting his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and telling
the stories behind the songs.

Coming up, one of our most popular interviews of the year, about how being
constantly connected to our digital devices is not only distracting us, it's
changing our brains.

This is FRESH AIR.

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The Price Of Putting 'Your Brain On Computers'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This week we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year.
Our next interview was one of our most popular. It's about how we keep
ourselves entertained, informed, and constantly connected with our digital
devices, and how those devices are also distracting us and driving us crazy.

With computers, smartphones, apps, we have the potential of being constantly
connected just about anyplace we go. Scientists have been investigating how
being constantly plugged in is affecting our brains and our stress levels.

Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for the New York Times who has been
writing about this new science. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his
series of articles "Driven to Distraction," about the dangers of driving while
multitasking with cell phones and other digital devices. We spoke in August.

We think, when we're multitasking, that we're really doing great; we're getting
two things done for the price of one, or three things done in the amount of
time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how
efficiently we're doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the
same time?

Mr. MATT RICHTEL (Technology Reporter, New York Times): This is - it's pretty
clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time. This research
goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new
applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I've
heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me.
It's a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years,
where if you sit at a cocktail party and you're listening to the person in
front of you, you can't really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if
someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you're not processing both those
streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying
to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or
colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly
among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your
effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

GROSS: I keep wondering, did my brain develop in a different way than
children's brains are developing now, because they have different technology
than I did when I was growing up?

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are asking what I think is the question. I mean, this
is - it's maybe one thing for those of us whose brains are mostly formed. But
the frontal lobe of the brain tends to develop last. It is the thing scientists
say makes us the most human. There is some thought that the way kids' brains
are developing now is different from the way ours developed.

This is something we have been - I have spent much of the year researching and
I think this frontal lobe question is fascinating. This is the part of the
brain that - it's the front of the brain. It evolves last. It sets priorities.
It helps us balance between and make choices. It essentially says, here's where
I'm going to direct my attention at any given time. And it's kind of long-term
thinking, long-term goal-setting.

But it is constantly, if you will, in a simplistic sense, under bombardment
from other parts of the brain. The sensory parts that like, you know, we see
something and we send a message to the frontal lobe that says, should I pay
attention and how much?

When we have an onslaught of data coming in, the sensory cortices of the brain
are now constantly bombarding the frontal lobe, saying, what should I pay
attention to?

GROSS: Right, and that is so distracting, and it makes it impossible to do the
project that you're really trying to do.

Mr. RICHTEL: And on some level, all this modern technology, what it winds up
doing is kind of playing to a very primitive clash between the sensory cortices
and the frontal lobe. If you take yourself back millennia, and you're in the
jungle or you're in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your
sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you're doing, whatever
hut you're building, stop and run.

Well, here's what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these
pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost
like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let's say, maybe little
tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of
adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices.
But these in some ways aren't these modern bombardments; they're the most
primitive bombardments. They're playing to these most primitive impulses and
they're asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.

GROSS: It's really interesting. Now, I don't know if this relates to what
you're saying or not, but here's a paradox for me; I'm driven crazy by email
because I feel every time I open it, I'm on everybody else's agenda instead of
my own. I'm answering their questions and responding to their needs and doing
all these things as opposed to doing the research for my next interview or
something, you know what I mean?

At the same time, when it's really late at night and I know it's time to go to
bed, I'll often say, I wonder what's in my email. And I'll check it one last
time because I'm just so curious. And it's hard for me to reconcile that, that
sense of curiosity, I wonder what's there, maybe it's something interesting, I
better open it. And the sense of, oh, if I open it it's going to drive me
crazy. There's things I'm going to have to respond to right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't want to. I need to go to sleep or I need to prepare my interview
or whatever, and those things are always clashing in me.

Mr. RICHTEL: You have illustrated a number of the concepts that underlie the
why question. And this is, to me, some of the most fascinating part of what we
learn not only in distracted driving, but that we learned - that we're learning
this year, which is given that we recognize attention, that we're having
trouble getting things done at some cases, that we're having trouble focusing
on the face of the person across from us at the dinner table because we feel
the buzz in our pockets, why? Why are you compelled at night to check your
device?

Do you want to take a shot at that before I start throwing out what some of the
research says?

GROSS: I always think maybe it'll be a little gift there, like some really
wonderful message, something like really interesting and fascinating or
somebody I'm dying to hear from.

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are a winner. You know, if this were like "Family
Feud," that would be answer one or two.

GROSS: What did I win? What did I win?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: You have won an email. You've won an attachment you can't open.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: So, let's break this down between psychological and physiological.
You've hit on one of the really interesting psychological reasons people
constantly feel compelled to check their devices. And this goes to one of the
ideas that psychiatrists think is the most powerful in luring people, and it's
called intermittent reinforcement.

I'll use a crude analogy. If you have a rat in a cage and the rat doesn't know
when a food dispenser is going to dispense a pellet, it feels compelled to
check all the time. It creates intermittent reinforcement. You or I or anyone
else who doesn't know when something fascinating is going to come by email,
when something good is going to come, feel compelled to check all the time. So
that would be a psychological lure. And if you take that back again to the
primitive analogies that we discussed earlier, you know, you don't know when
you're going to get a little rabbit coming in or a little lion. It's not only
the positives you're looking for but you also get stimulated by the threats.

GROSS: You describe psychological reasons why we check our email even when we
don't want to be bombarded by it. Is there, like, a neurochemical thing going
on there too?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, and these things, I mean, I guess as we all kind of know in
life, the brain and the body are hard to differentiate at this point. But let's
make that division and say that there's some research out there now that says
for instance, heavy video game use gives you some dopamine release. Dopamine is
a chemical that is also thought to be involved with addiction. A lot of this
research is still forming, so I want to be careful not to overstep my
understanding of this.

But the connection that scientists are making are saying basically this: when
you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a
ring - you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of
adrenaline. So you're getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess
what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're actually conditioned by a
kind of neurochemical response.

Now, I don't want to go too much into the distracted driving thing 'cause, you
know, that was something we handled last year. But to me, it's the most
powerful manifestation in a way of this concept because you're behind a two-ton
vehicle and yet you feel compelled to check your device, or you're sitting at a
stoplight and you feel bored for a second and you feel compelled to check it.
That's a place where you might have a deadly manifestation.

Sitting behind your desk, though, as we've talked about the last, you know,
hour or so, there are other kinds of manifestations, while not as potentially
dangerous, still take their toll.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Matt Richtel, a technology reporter
for the New York Times, who has been writing about how digital technology is
affecting our brains, stress levels and ability to concentrate.

You wrote such a great series called "Driving While Distracted." This is the
series you won the Pulitzer for, and it was all about drivers, you know,
texting and using their cell phones while they drive and often getting into
accidents, as a result. And you looked at all the science behind that and the
behavior behind that.

Now, here's one of the things that scares me: I don't text while driving, and I
try not to dial phone numbers while driving. But I will dial a phone number in
a parked spot and then listen through my headset to a call - you know, to
somebody on the phone - and I'll think that that's fine. But you've written
that science is finding that it's riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a
hands-free device, while driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car.
And it's hard for me to understand: What's the difference? I mean, you're still
talking and listening. Why is it different if you're doing it on a cell phone
than to somebody who's in the back seat or the front seat in the same vehicle?

Mr. RICHTEL: It's not fair to call this nugget trivia, but in some ways, this
is one of the most interesting pieces of trivia I learned in writing that
series and that I get asked about the most. The reason is - remember, we talked
about how you can't process two streams of information at a time. Well, if
you're engaged in a phone conversation, even if both hands are on the wheel,
you're processing a stream of information.

Most times, you can get away with that because driving turns out to be, you
know, a fairly rote experience. But if something comes into your field of
vision, if a kid walks into the roadway unexpectedly, if a car swerves into
your lane, you have missed - you have forfeited milliseconds of crucial time to
make decisions that would've allowed you otherwise to react. And I, you know, I
did some research for our articles on some really tragic accidents, head-on
death collisions, where the researchers tell me they would not have happened if
a person hadn't been on a hands-free phone.

Now, how is that different, you asked, from talking to a passenger next to you?
This kind of gets to that really fascinating nugget I mentioned earlier. It
turns out, when you're sitting next to someone in a car, that person helps your
safety, the research shows, by acting as a second set of eyes. They watch the
roadway. They modulate their conversation, both topic and tone, based on what
they see in front of them. They tend to get more quiet when the weather gets
bad. So rather than being a detractor, like someone on the phone who can't see
you or your conditions, they're an advantage.

GROSS: All right. Well, Matt Richtel, it's been great to talk with you. Thank
you very much.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry. I've enjoyed it.

GROSS: Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for The New York Times. Our
interview was recorded last August.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring our most
entertaining interviews of the year with Jay-Z. He'll talk about writing his
most famous song and his first rhyme when he was nine.

JAY-Z (Hip-hop artist): They were kind of advanced for a young kid. Like I'm
the king of hip-hop/ Renewed like the Reebok/The key in the lock/With words so
provocative/As long as I live.

GROSS: Jay-Z on the next FRESH AIR.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)
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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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