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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 artists in American musical theater." Sondheim composed the music and lyrics for, among others, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company. In 2010 he joined Fresh Air to discuss his career in musical theater.


Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2013: Review of the television documentary "Six By Sondheim"; Interview with Steven Sondheim, Review of the film "Inside Llewyn Davis."


December 6, 2013

Guest: Stephen Sondheim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, we're going to listen back to a 2010 conversation between Terry and Stephen Sondheim when he was celebrating both a significant birthday and the opening of a new show.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:In the Roundabout Theatre production of "Sondheim on Sondheim," you say the people assume that a lot of your songs are really autobiographical, but they're not, with the exception of "Opening Doors" from your 1981 show "Merrily We Roll Along." And I saw a revival of the show a few years ago. It didn't last long, sadly, on Broadway, but I saw a revival by the York Theater Company.


GROSS: It was wonderful. I loved the show, and I loved the songs from the show. So I want to play "Opening Doors," and then I want to talk a little bit about it.


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

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.

GROSS: So this 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.

SONDHEIM: That's right. Yeah, they're opening doors. They're knocking on 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."


GROSS: So here we go, from Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."


JIM WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) How's it coming?

LONNY PRICE: (As Charley) Good. You?

WALTON: (As Franklin) (Singing) Good.

PRICE: One minute.


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

PRICE: (As Charley) Say hello.

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

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

MORRISON: (As Mary) (Unintelligible).

WALTON: (As Franklin) What about the book? Did you give the publisher the book? Good. Mary.

PRICE: (As Charley) I finished.

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

PRICE: (As Charley) This is just a draft.

WALTON: (As Franklin) Right.

PRICE: (As Charley) Probably it stinks.

WALTON: (As Franklin) Right.

PRICE: (As Charley) I haven't had the time to do a polish.

WALTON: (As Franklin) Will you sing?

PRICE: (As Franklin) Right. (Singing) Who wants to live in New York? Who wants the worry, the noise, the dirt, the heat? Who wants the garbage cans clanging in the street? Suddenly I do. They're always popping their cork - I had that line - the cops the cabbies, the sales girls up at Saks. You've got to have a real taste for maniacs. Suddenly I do.

JASON ALEXANDER: (As Joe) (Singing) That's great. That's swell. The other stuff as well. It isn't every day I hear a score this strong, but fellas, if I may, there's only one thing wrong:

(As Joe) (Singing) 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.

(As Joe) (Singing) 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.

(As Joe) (Singing) Oh sure, I know, it's not that kind of show, but can't you have a score That's sort of in-between? Look, play a little more, I'll show you what I mean:

PRICE: (As Charley) (Singing) Who wants to live in New York? I always hated the dirt, the heat, the noise. But ever since I met you, I...

ALEXANDER: (As Joe) (Singing) Listen, boys, maybe it's me, but that's just not a 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: That's "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along" by my guest, Stephen Sondheim, who said this is his really autobiographical song. So is the part autobiographical where the producer complains that it's not a song you can hum, give me a melody?

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. Oh sure, oh sure, oh sure, sure. But it's autobiographical in the general sense. It's, you know, first of all, I didn't have a collaborator. I mean, it's not specifically autobiographical. I wrote my own lyrics 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.

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...

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. 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.

But what we did was we spent an hour, you know, on, you know, songs, and then three hours on Beethoven and Bach. And it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But no, I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of an insight you got from Babbitt studying, say, a Jerome Kern song?

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

GROSS: Oh sure.

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. It's lodged in my mind because it is a way of approaching, when you are trying to hold a song together, how you hold it together harmonically and still make it fresh. Kern was a master at that.

BIANCULLI: Brodway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. A new TV special, "Six by Sondheim," premieres Monday night on HBO.

GROSS: 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.

SONDHEIM: Well, that's the idea. That's the idea.

GROSS: And it's so discordant. I mean, I just love that section. Are there things that you learned in composition that helped you write that kind of Broadway music?

SONDHEIM: No more than that helped me write "A Little Night Music" or "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum." The principles are exactly the same. The expressivity is different. Incidentally, I stumbled on that word because discordant - what you mean is dissonant. Discordant means mistakes.

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

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.

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.


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.

(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. 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.

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.

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.


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

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 know 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: Let's get to this idea of opening doors. What were some of the first doors you knocked on before actually getting to Broadway and writing lyrics for "West Side Story"?

SONDHEIM: Well, I played for an awful lot of people. I remember once playing for a guy named Cy Feuer, who was one of the producers of "Guys and Dolls." He 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?


SONDHEIM: I mean, you know, he wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music, is what it was. And he might have been right, but I don't think he was. And I played for a number of producers and directors and generally was dismissed.

It was, you know, I snuck in through the back door. I snuck in through "West Side Story" where, you know, they were the big guys there, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents and Jerry Robbins. So it was their problem to get the show and believe me, it was not an easy show to get on.

GROSS: Did you learn anything working with Bernstein and watching him work?

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. A great deal. Yes. Mainly I learned something about courage. I learned - Lenny was never afraid to make big mistakes. He was never afraid to fall off the top rung of the ladder and I learned by implication that the worst thing you can do is fall off a low rung. If you're going to make a mistake, make a huge one.

BIANCULLI: Stephen Sondheim, speaking with Terry Gross in 2010. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's conversation with Broadway composer and lyrists Stephen Sondheim. He's also an author, thanks to a recent two volume book about his music and lyrics.

When the first volume called, "Finishing the Hat," was published in 2010, Terry spoke with him about some of the stories from that book, including one about the "Jet Song" from his first produced Broadway show, "West Side Story." Leonard Bernstain wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Riff) (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you've got brothers around, you're a family man.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) (Singing) You're never alone. You're never disconnected. You're home with your own when company's expected. You're well-protected. Then you are set with a capital J, which you'll never forget 'till they cart you away. When you're a Jet you stay a Jet.

GROSS: So one of the things I love about your book is that you, you know, you not only tell the stories about the songs, you reprint the lyrics for alternate songs, for songs that you wrote before the final song was written or chosen. And you do that with the "Jet Song."

There were a couple of songs that you'd written lyrics for that weren't used.

SONDHEIM: There were two that were written and then another one which was to replace the "Jet Song" that we wrote in Washington. So there were three: two prior to the show going to Washington and one after. And we decided to keep the "Jet Song."

GROSS: So would you read us a few lines from one or two of those alternate lyrics and tell us what you were trying to do there that was different from what you did in the "Jet Song?"

SONDHEIM: Oh, well, I wasn't trying to do anything different than I was trying to do in the "Jet Song." Here, for example, here are a couple of lines from "Mix(ph)," which was the name of a song that we wrote, which was our - the second attempt at an opening song.

The first attempt was a long, rambling combination of dialogue and lyrics that took place in a clubhouse that the Jets had, and they were reading comic books and doing pushups and clowning around. And they imagined a trip to the moon, and the whole thing was a sort of fantasy.

And it was just too kid-like for the opening. So we decided on something more menacing and gang-like, and this is almost like a rumble song. And the lines go: Mix make a mess of 'em. Pay the Puerto Ricans back, make a mess of them. If you let us take a crack, there'll be less of 'em. There'll be less of 'em.

GROSS: And then there's another song that you wrote lyrics for called "This Turf Is Ours."

SONDHEIM: That's the one we wrote in Washington. And that was because people felt that "Mix" was too violent. So we wrote the "Jet Song," which is very mildly threatening and menacing. And we got to Washington, and then everybody sort of felt that maybe it was a little too gentle. So we wrote something called "This Turf Is Ours": This turf is ours, drew a big white line with a keep out sign, and they crossed it. This turf is ours, gotta hold our ground, or we'll turn around, and we've lost it.

And so we eventually decided the "Jet Song" was the best of the bunch, and that's what we kept.

GROSS: Now, the song ends with, you know, we're going to beat every whole every whole buggin' gang on the whole buggin' street on the buggin' whole ever-lovin' street. Did you want to use the F-word there?

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. I wanted this to be the first musical to use (BEEP), and in fact, I first used it in "Krupke." I wanted the last line of "Krupke" to be: Gee Officer Krupke, (BEEP) you.

And we played the song for the head of the record company, Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson, who was going to do the album and also for a lady who was raising money for the producer at the time, and she blanched visibly and clearly was upset by it. She didn't complain. She just was sort of shocked and unhappy. But then Goddard told us that if we used that word, we couldn't ship the record across state lines because it would be in violation of the obscenity laws. So we changed it to Krup you.

Of course, I wanted, in the "Jet Song," to be when the (BEEP) hits the fan, not when the spit hits the fan. And on the whole mother-lovin', mother-(BEEP) street. But the audience understood exactly what we were saying. It did kind of make it a little kid-like.

And then when we did the revival this last year, and Arthur decided to utilize Spanish for the Sharks sometimes to speak - that they would speak to each other in Spanish, he wanted to make it more, quote, "realistic." And that's what led to that. And along those lines, I thought, well, if it's going to be more realistic, then let's use (BEEP) and (BEEP). And the trouble is that the rest of the script doesn't is not in that style.

When the dialogue is going on, they never use four-letter words. Therefore, for the lyrics to have used four-letter words would have been completely out of style and a sort of showing-off for its own sake.

If I had my choice, we would have used it just once in the original, just on (BEEP) you instead of Krup you, and everything else would have remained the same. I wanted it to be sort of just the one shock moment. But as I say, we couldn't have shipped the record across state lines in those days.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Here come the Jets. Like a bat out of hell. Someone gets in our way, Someone don't feel so well. Here come the Jets: Little world, step aside. Better go underground, better run, better hide.

(Singing) We're drawin' the line, so keep your noses hidden. We're hangin' a sign, says visitors forbidden, and we ain't kiddin. Here come the Jets, yeah. And we're gonna beat ev'ry last buggin' gang on the whole buggin' street. On the whole. Ever. Mother. Lovin'. Street. Yeah!

BIANCULLI: The "Jet Song" from "West Side Story," with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. A new TV special about his life and music "Six By Sondheim," premieres Monday on HBO.

GROSS: Let's get to some more music. There's a song I want to play from something that you wrote for television and it's called "Evening Primrose" and this was...

SONDHEIM: That's the name of the show.

GROSS: That's the name of the show.

SONDHEIM: It's just for 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. That's the name of the show.

SONDHEIM: No. I know. No. No. No.


SONDHEIM: But your sentence made it seem as if - yeah.

GROSS: Thank you for listening that carefully.




SONDHEIM: That's what I do for a living.

GROSS: That 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 is a wonderful singer. I mean he'd been in some musicals before, including Frank Loesser's...

SONDHEIM: "Green Willow."

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

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...

SONDHEIM: That's correct.

GROSS: ...pronouncing that correctly.

SONDHEIM: That's correct.

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


ANTHONY PERKINS: (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.

ANTHONY PERKINS AND CHARMIAN CARR: (As Charles Snell and as 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." 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 its so corny, but really, when you're writing music and lyrics yourself, which comes first for you?

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, Ill 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...

SONDHEIM: Never. Never.

GROSS: ...notating it?

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

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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?

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.

SONDHEIM: 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.

SONDHEIM: 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?

SONDHEIM: Oh yeah.

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

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.

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-doddy 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.


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 want to end with a song and I'm going to give you the choice of which one we're going to do.


GROSS: OK? One is a kind of famous one; "Losing My Mind" from "Follies" sung by Dorothy Collins; and the other is a song from your most recent show - "Road Show," formally known as "Bounce," formally known as "Wise Guys." And the song is "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." So which would you prefer?

SONDHEIM: Well, 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...


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

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.

SONDHEIM: 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.

SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.


NATHAN LANE: (As Addison) (Singing) First there's cocktails at the Cosdins. 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.

(as Addison) (singing) 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. OK, then one of the best things that's happened to me, you are. They say we all find love. I never bought it. I never thought it would happen to me, who could foresee?

BIANCULLI: That's Nathan Lane singing. Stephen Sondheim spoke with Terry Gross in 2010. A new TV special about his life and music called "Six by Sondheim" premiers Monday on HBO. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Coen Brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis." This is FRESH AIR.


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: Brother Joel and Ethan Coen continue to mine American pop culture in their new movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." The time is 1961. The place New York's Greenwich Village. The title character is a homeless folk singer trying desperately to break out. He's played by Oscar Isaac. The film features, among many others, Justin Timberlake. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The films of Joel and Ethan Coen pose a challenge: How do we reconcile their wildly disparate tones? Consider "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", a burlesque of Homer's "Odyssey: centering on three stumblebums - but with a soundtrack assembled by T Bone Burnett of heartfelt historical gospel and country music. Ditto "The Ladykillers": venal idiot characters, soaring African-American spirituals. The ridiculous and the sublime sit side by side, with no spillover.

Now comes "Inside Llewyn Davis." It's a beautifully crafted tale of woe set in the early '60s folkie world of Greenwich Village, pre-Bob Dylan. Much of the music - again the soundtrack is produced by T Bone Burnett - is gorgeous and deeply felt. The milieu of folk clubs and coffee houses is lovingly evoked. But the overarching tone is snotty, condescending, cruel.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a man of deep contrasts. He's a jerk who uses other people, and the Coens throw misfortunes his way. They're positively fiendish. We watch his money run out and options shrink, and though we wait for something better - as in a standard rags-to-riches showbiz tale - it seems as if each anvil dropping on his head is heavier than the last.

But when he hunches over his guitar and sings standards like "Hang Me Oh Hang Me" and "The Death of Queen Jane," the film enters a more exquisite sphere. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is partly inspired by the life of the late Dave Van Ronk, who was terminally overshadowed - if you believe conventional wisdom - by his quasi-protégé, Dylan.

Oscar Isaac bears little physical or vocal resemblance to Van Ronk, but he, too, pulls stints in the merchant marine to keep his music career afloat, and he also bums a ride to Chicago to audition for a famous club owner and manager - in life Albert Grossman, here called Bud Grossman, and played by a dour F. Murray Abraham. Llewyn's current manager, Mel, is ancient and disorganized.

And the Coens prolong Llewyn's humiliation in a scene with Jerry Grayson as Mel and Jeanine Serralles as Me's secretary.


JERRY GRAYSON: (as Mel) How we doing?

OSCAR ISAAC: (as Llewyn) We're doing great.

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Really? New record's doing well?

ISAAC: (as Llewyn) How we doing?

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Not so hot. I gotta be honest. Jenny, where's Cincinnati?


GRAYSON: (as Mel) Cincinnati. It's not in here.

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) It should be in there.

GRAYSON: (as Mel) It's not in here, I'm telling you. Is it...

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) Cincinnati?

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Yeah.

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) I got it.

GRAYSON: (as Mel) What?

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) I got it.

GRAYSON: (as Mel) You got Cincinnati?

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) Yeah. You want it?

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Could I have it?

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) Should I bring it in?

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Yeah.

ISAAC: (as Llewyn) You owe me something? You have to owe me something.

GRAYSON: (as Mel) I wish. People need time, you know, get to know you, buy you as a solo act even though you're a solo act. Cincinnati is not good.

SERRALLES: (as Jenny) That's it, right?

GRAYSON: (as Mel) Yeah, this is it. God help us.

ISAAC: (as Llewyn) Nobody knew us when we were a duo. It's not like me and Mike were ever a big act. It's not a big reeducation for the public. Mel? Mel!

GRAYSON: (as Mel) How you doing, kid?

EDELSTEIN: The shtick in that scene feels too easy to me, though the Coens do better elsewhere. There's a running joke with a cat that Llewyn keeps losing and finding, which leads to a two-pronged punchline, one part tragic, the other absurdly happy. The Coens worship movie fodder: archetypal faces that really read - or freaky ones that make you laugh out loud.

A peppy little professor played by Ethan Phillips adopts Llewyn as a sort of bohemian pet. John Goodman shows up briefly as a foul-mouthed junkie musician pickled in his own bile. The homeless Llewyn crashes on the sofa of a folk duo known as Jim and Jean played by the radiantly ingenuous Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. Onstage, Timberlake's tenor meshes perfectly with Mulligan's earth-mother tones, and she's lit like an angel - though offstage all she does is scold Llewyn for being a creep.

For all its surface delights, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is thin. Those disparate tones - the mocking and the transcendent - can't be reconciled because they're meant to be irreconcilable. Once the music stops, petty humans are back in the muck. It's a sour worldview - and unearned. Only the Coens could turn that stirring early-'60s era that helped give birth to the best part of the counterculture into a sick joke.

I have no doubts about Oscar Isaac, though. With his thick, unruly hair and beard, he evokes two countercultural touchstones, Lenny Bruce and Al Pacino in "Serpico." He makes Llewyn a jerk of stature, chafing at his fate but always getting that sick joke that is his life. Musically, Isaac doesn't hit every note dead on, but his singing feels richer than performers with better pipes. He gives the Coens' vision more fullness than it deserves.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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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