by Patricia Grandjean
Feb 20, 2013
05:57 PM
Box Office

Front Row Q&A: Stephen Sondheim

Front Row Q&A: Stephen Sondheim

Roman Iwasiwka

The greatest living composer of American stage musicals? It's hardly arguable, but the debate will no doubt come up when Stephen Sondheim, 82—whose name is synonymous with shows like West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Assassins—comes to the Ridgefield Playhouse for a conversation with Morton Dean at 7:30 p.m. Feb 23. For more information, call 203/438-5795 or visit

You've done this kind of show on several different occasions . . .

Don't call it a show—although it's a little pretentious to say, it's really a "conversation." I don't want people to think there's going to be a lot of singing and dancing.

 . . . as I said, different occasions around the country, often with Frank Rich, although this will be with Morton Dean. What kind of satisfaction or challenge do you get from these conversations?

Frankly, it's always fun to talk about yourself—everybody feels that way, I think. When I was growing up in the theater, so to speak, I would have loved to have heard everybody from Cole Porter to Arthur Miller talk about what they do. Often in New York, when there are events like The New York Times talks on subjects that interest me—whether theater or not theater—they're fun to go and listen to. You put a personality with the work. Obviously, I go to places where people whose work I admire or am interested in are speaking. And in a conversation, insights come up that wouldn't ordinarily come up in, let's say, an interview with a newspaper, where people are a little more guarded about what they say.

Conversation tends to flow, and you get all the errs, ahhs, ums and sudden thought associations. Whereas a print article—you're going to format that. It is, in a sense, censored; by which I mean edited. You're going to pick out the things that interest you in particular—and try to make me look articulate, or non-articulate. My point is, it's a "formed" piece. A conversation—particularly with a good interviewer, on which a lot of this depends—allows for more surprises, even when you're trying to guard what you say. That's why I like doing it so much with Frank, because he's a great interviewer. He never tells me the questions he's going to ask ahead of time. We know each other very well, but there are still new things you discover every single time.

Is it nerve-wracking at all to do these events, because you are putting yourself out there?

There are certain things that I try to avoid on the stage that would offend people: certain language, opinions, politics. You don't want your audience to be uncomfortable; you want them to be stimulated. There's a thin line between those two things.

I'm so used to having public conversations now that it doesn't make me nervous at all. I don't really feel constrained. I always tell the interviewer that there are a couple of things that I don't want to talk about, for example, the work of any living writers in the theater. The whole adage "Never speak ill of the dead" is something I don't understand. It seems to me that those are the only ones you should speak ill of. Because you can't hurt their feelings, and they can't talk back. But you can't hurt their feelings; that's the real thing.

Let's talk about your recent books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. Now that they're out there, are you happy with the way they turned out and how they were received?

I was very happy with my books. I don't check my book sales, and I have read only a couple of reviews. Actually, both were in The New York Times—one in the daily paper and the other in the weekly Book Review. I do know that the people whose opinions I care about liked the books. I also know that in Britain, there was a great outcry over my criticism of some of their sacred cows, and that's okay, too. At least they were paying attention.

You've said that you really don't read for pleasure, yet these books are very "writerly."

I don't know where that comes from. I don't read for pleasure very much, but I do read newspapers and articles in The New Yorker, where there's very good writing. And I've always been interested in words. I never thought that prose would be something I'd be comfortable with. When I first started writing, I was very self-conscious. But I showed my writing to some people who are writers of prose, and whose work I respect, and they were encouraging. That made me flow a little bit, and then I got to like it. You know, I'm putting down on paper my opinions about things. What could be more self-satisfying?

What was the biggest challenge in writing them?

The biggest challenge was my memory. Thank god I keep files of everything I've ever written. And as it turned out, there were things I omitted in the first book that a friend of mine caught. I also had a couple of letters about things I left out—lyrics that I left out or changed that are published somewhere else. There was a lot of that sort of stuff. I put some corrections in the second book.

A couple of critical reactions that I came across struck me as interesting. One critic said that there's a conception out there that your musical work is cold, but that the books come across as emotional and needy.

So many of those adjectives have dogged me, but they're sort of dog-eared now. Most people don't think I'm "cold" any more—that really has to do with critical perception, and I can't speak for them. I can't comment on that.

But would you call the books emotional and needy?

No—how can a book be needy? Meaning what? "Needy" doesn't mean anything to me; it's a meaningless word. In these contexts, I can't imagine what that means. "Emotional," what does that mean? Crying? Laughing? This is a writer who's given to the old clichés.

Another review I read was Paul Simon's, and he made an interesting point: He talked about the use of dissonance in your work and then commented that in Finishing the Hat, you don't acknowledge any interest in or debt to jazz.

But I don't talk about music in the book. The whole point was not to do that, because music is an arcane language to most people. You can't talk about music to a general reader. Most readers don't even know what dissonance means. I'm serious—they confuse it with discord. They're entirely different things; Simon is talking about a specific use of harmony. And I have always, always acknowledged my debt to jazz, in that I constantly say how I use jazz chords. I just don't say it in the book.

He also writes about your lyrics, saying that they're "deeper, more intricate, and braver in their search for truth" than any composer who has preceded you.

I think what that's about is something I deal with in the book, which is that my generation, because of the liberation of Rodgers & Hammerstein, really started to delve into character development in musicals. The book writers—the librettists—were ready to apply serious playwriting insights and techniques to musicals, which hadn't been true before. They were really trying to tell stories with characters exactly the way plays do. This was not true before Rodgers & Hammerstein; Hammerstein was the real pioneer, with Show Boat. Before that, in commercial musicals nobody bothered to tell stories about people you were supposed to care about, that wasn't the function of musicals. So, I think what Simon is commenting on is something that is true of my whole generation. It's true of Kander & Ebb, and Boch & Harnick.

I remember years ago, my whole family was sitting around watching My Fair Lady, and one of my nieces, who was 15, was watching it for the first time with us. And on came the scene for "On the Street Where You Live"; when it was done, my niece turned to all of us and said, "Wouldn't it be great if people could just burst into song like that in real life?" And I thought that if I were doing it in real life, I'd be more inclined to sing "Being Alive" or "Send in the Clowns." Because your songs are closer to the music that plays in my head.

Uh-huh. Well, the fact is that Freddie Eynsford-Hill, who sings that song, is not a developed character. And in fact, on the stage, that song was used as an "in one" way to change scenery upstage. The actor sang it "in one"—that means on the apron of the stage, in the very front, with the curtain behind him; while behind the curtain the next set was being assembled. That was the function of the song, and they also wanted a romantic ballad. But that's not a character song. It's a perfectly anodyne ballad written so they'd have something to sell on records.

You're dissatisfied with movie musicals. Why is that?

Musicals are seldom written for film. They are taken from the stage and "adapted." That sometimes means opening them up so you get hillsides and full towns, instead of a façade on a stage, but they're not written for the camera. The camera is a reportorial instrument; movies are reportorial. The theater is about imagination—first of all, there's no fourth wall. The actors are facing front and talking to you, and pretending to talk to each other. Right away, you have to suspend disbelief in the theater, if you're going to have a good time at all—whether it's a musical or a straight play. It's a completely artificial form, and you sign an invisible contract when you go into a theater.

Whereas with movies, which are a much more passive experience, you don't have to use your imagination at all. It's all right splat! in front of you, photographed. That means if you're going to write something as artificial as a musical, and try to involve an audience in those characters' lives, enough to make the audience believe in them, the technique of writing has to be different. And movie time is different than stage time. You can sit in a theater and listen to a four-and-a-half minute song, and be completely enthralled. You try to do that on the screen and four-and-a-half minutes becomes six hours long. Movies move very quickly. So you can't linger on something the way you can on the stage.

The ultimate is opera, where you sit there for 20 minutes while someone sings good night, because it's not about the dramatics and emotion, it's about listening to the singer and the music.That's the joy of it, and that's partly the joy of listening to a ballad on the stage, or any music on the stage—the fun of listening to the performer live with the orchestra. On the screen, you want the story to move ahead—that's what movies are about.

And yet, one of the best stage-to-movie adaptations I've seen is Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

Well, yes, because Tim recognized this problem, and we talked about it. That's why there are no choruses of people singing at the same time. He recognized that you can't have people coming out and singing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" unless it's a highly stylized thing, because it holds up the action. On the stage, they're punctuation. In the movies, they would be obstacles. He thinks in cinematic terms; that's who he is.

 Now, we've got movie musicals being brought to the stage, like Singing in the Rain.

Singing in the Rain is not the kind of movie we're talking about. That's not an attempt to get you involved with the characters. That's much more in the tradition of old-fashioned musicals, pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein. The numbers in that have nothing to do with character; they're numbers. People are talking, then they burst into a song that has something vaguely to do with the conversation leading up to it. That's what musicals did in the 1920s and '30s. Singing in the Rain is like a 1920s/'30s musical, but much more sophisticated.

I thought it was interesting that, in Finishing the Hat, you likened Oscar Hammerstein to Eugene O'Neill.

That's something that I had never really thought about; it occurred to me as I was typing away. The thing is, when people think about O'Neill, they tend to just think about the weightiness of what he was talking about. Nobody takes into account how experimental he was. His openly experimental plays—the ones with a capital "E"—like The Great God Brown, were failures. So nobody thinks of those. They think about the more realistic ones, like Long Day's Journey into Night or even Strange Interlude— though the latter was experimental, too. But people don't think of O'Neill as being experimental like they do Ionesco being experimental, let's say. Well, no one thought of Oscar Hammerstein as being experimental, because of the homeyness of his style of writing.

My boss [Charles Monagan] co-wrote a musical a year or so ago, The Mad Bomber, about George Metesky . . .

I'm not surprised . . .

 . . . and he told me that he consulted Finishing the Hat as kind of a guide for the process, like a master class in musicals.

Good. I'm by nature a teacher; it's something I talk about in the book. Since I believe that art is a form of teaching, it all comes together. Sure, absolutely, I did mean the books to be how-tos.

Something extramusical that I noticed in the books that interested me personally: At one point, you say that you cry at the shows on Animal Planet.

Did I say that? I actually mentioned that? Well, I have two dogs and I love animals—what can I say?

I volunteer at the New Haven Animal Shelter, that's why it stood out.

Doesn't it break your heart all the time? How do you do that? I couldn't. I've always been an animal lover, all my life. I had a dog die in a fire 20 years ago, and I was traumatized and couldn't get another animal until about eight years ago. But I have two standard poodles now. That's the dog that died; I had a standard poodle when I was a kid.

You've said these books are not memoirs, though they strike me that way.

No, they're not memoirs. When people say "memoirs," they're talking about their life so far: "I got married, I got divorced, I had these kids, I became an alcoholic." That's not an overview of the work. My books are memoirs of the shows I did, they're memoirs of my writing process, not personal history. But it just depends on you're definition of the word memoir.

One thing people might not know about you is that, at the beginning of your theater career, you were an apprentice at Westport Country Playhouse. In a book on the history of the playhouse that was published several years ago, one contributor said you were part of the "Westport Culture and Bird-Watching Club."

Never heard of it.

This person also wrote that you ran the poker games.

I did play in the poker games, but I didn't run them.

Okay, I guess we've established that he made it all up. But the apprenticeship was worthwhile?

Oh yeah, sure. You learn a lot by being an assistant stage manager, about backstage and the technical details of the way shows are run. Shows are very intricate machineries between 8 and 11 p.m. I learned about lighting, costume changes—all the practical things, I'd say.

You've supposedly had a longstanding fascination with puzzles and mysteries. At one point, you designed some puzzles for New York magazine.

The first year they ran them, yes.

Do you do puzzles much any more?

No, not really. I'm still just as interested as I ever was; I just don't take the time.

Is there any relationship your love for those and the way you approach composing?

Oh, sure. As I've said before, art is a matter of making form out of chaos. That's the whole idea of any creation, whether a painting or a piece of music, to make form out of something that's formless. And what does a puzzle do? You're putting things together to make a pattern. I think they're very much related. And then, of course, there are individual puzzles to solve in a musical—working out a lyric, for example.

What does the future hold? Word is that there's going to be a new musical . . .

Yes, I'm writing a musical with playwright David Ives.

Can you tell us anything about it?

No. It was something I had the idea for for many, many, many, many years, based on something in a play Ives wrote. Unfortunately, there's been a hiatus, because three months ago I fell while in London and broke my wrist, and I haven't able to hold a pencil until two weeks ago. So I haven't been able to work for a couple of months.

There are also plans to film Into the Woods.

Yes, there are. The Into the Woods movie is supposed to go into production in February, but no casting has been announced yet.

Despite our talk about the pitfalls of stage to movies, are there any other musicals you'd like to see filmed?

I don't think about that. I think some of them would lend themselves to movies, and some wouldn't. It's hard to tell; it depends upon the director having a vision. Certainly, Follies could be done in a different way—it'd be about movies rather than about the theater—and Company could be done because it has a form that I think might very well lend itself to cinema. But I don't think about those things.

You've said that if a project didn't scare you at some level, it wouldn't be worth doing. What scares you these days?

There's always the fear of people's expectations of what you do, sure.

Do you ever fear letting yourself down?

I think every writer feels that way.

Is it influenced by age for you?

Yep, absolutely. You think, gee, since all your other muscles go, you're mental muscles go, too.

What is your take on Broadway these days?

This is what I meant when I said I don't talk about anything going on at the moment. My take on Broadway is the same take everyone has: Everything is too expensive, therefore the audience is being squeezed out. Or, at least, the young audience; the audience is mostly middle-aged and elderly. Young talent isn't getting a chance to be heard, except off-Broadway and at regional theater. That's too bad—at those theaters, you can get a hearing but not make a living. And you can't get a hearing on Broadway unless you've got a big star, or you're doing a jukebox musical based on material that's not new.


Front Row Q&A: Stephen Sondheim

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Box Office is your guide to entertainment across Connecticut, courtesy of senior editor Pat Grandjean. If it's a chat with an actor or actress, previewing a new play at a regional theater, the latest on a state celebrity's new movie, or recommendations for seeing and doing, let Box Office be one of your hubs.

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