BWW EXCLUSIVE: Stephen Sondheim Talks Past, Present & Future

By: Nov. 03, 2010

Yesterday, perhaps the greatest gift a Broadway baby could receive was benevolently bestowed upon me in the form of an indepth and revealing discussion with the foremost composer and lyricist of his generation, one of the greatest writers in American history in any medium - the unmatched musical and lyrical genius himself, Stephen Sondheim. In this compelling discussion we examine his new book, FINISHING THE HAT, as well as take a look back at his legendary career both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Merman to Madonna, Brecht to Barbra, COMPANY to GROUNDHOG DAY (or not) - we cover it all. See here just a glimpse of the reason why the name Stephen Sondheim means more to musical theatre than any other name in the last sixty years. Plus, his promise to - in his own immortal words from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - "give us more to see" in the very near future. That moment cannot come soon enough, as any fan of theatre - or art in America, for that matter - can assuredly attest.

Water Under The Bridge & Rainbows

Stephen Sondheim is an American Institution and certainly needs no introduction. But, if you do not yet own FINISHING THE HAT - Sondheim's new tome on the first half of his career - then you must immediately go out and get it. Do it for yourself - you will not regret it. It is one of the best books on musical theatre, period, written by the very man who wrote the greatest musicals of all time - WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, COMPANY, FOLLIES, SWEENEY TODD being, in my estimation, the five greatest musicals of all time.

For an idea of what is to come in this candid and revealing conversation: Stephen Sondheim and I discuss much of the lesser-known and unique work in his canon, much of it coming from projects that have not yet come to fruition or happen to be more obscure than "Send In The Clowns" and such. We also focus in on most of his film work, which he has not spoken about in depth in the press before talking to Never fear: in addition to the esoteric elements we also talk about some of his favorite performances of his material of late - including a thorough look at the upcoming SONDHEIM! PBS concert airing this month which is, I can report, the very best concert featuring his material to date - as well as comments on Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Barbra Streisand, Rosie O'Donnell, Judy Garland and much more! What more do you need? FINISHING THE HAT, that's what. If you have that - and love that - already, please enjoy this exciting preview of what is to come in LOOK, I MADE A HAT, the already-eagerly-awaited conclusion of the two-part series by Sondheim. And, after that - believe it or not - we may get a new Sondheim musical after all, as the man himself promises at the end of our chat! Wishes do come true.

To Purchase the Incredible FINISHING THE HAT, CLICK HERE.

PC: Right off the bat, I just have to tell you that your work means more to me than anyone else's and you are the reason I write. Thank you for everything you have given us.

SS: OK. Well, it's all an anti-climax from here. I can tell! (Laughs.)

PC: My favorite song of yours is "Water Under The Bridge". Could you tell me about the SINGING OUT LOUD project since you write about it so favorably in your new book - as a taste of what's to come in volume two, perhaps?

SS: Oh, my goodness. I don't even remember what I said about SINGING OUT LOUD in the book.

PC: I'd be happy to tell you: you just gave it a tease, saying it was one of your favorite film projects. [Page 282]

SS: Did I say that in the book? Really? (Laughs.)

PC: "Dawn" and "Sand" are two other great songs from that project.

SS: Were "Dawn" and "Sand" recorded?

PC: Yes. Bruce Kimmel recorded them on the Varese Sarabande label for the SONDHEIM AT THE MOVIES and UNSUNG SONDHEIM albums.

SS: Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. Yes. That's awhile back.

PC: Yes, it was! But, they are great songs!

SS: Well, SINGING OUT LOUD is a project that, unfortunately, sort of died aborning. We wrote - Bill Goldman wrote - he wrote one, two drafts of the script and I wrote six and a half songs. Then, the director - Rob Reiner - sort of lost interest in it. So, it was sort of just wavering. And, we didn't push it anyplace else. So, it's sort of just sitting there.

PC: I brought it up because of the very contemporary vibe of the material...

SS: A ha!

PC: ... that is so unique in your canon.

SS: Yes!

PC: I mean, to have a Paul Simon-esque pop/rock song in it like "Water Under The Bridge"...

SS: Well, that was sort of the character. He was, you know, a pop writer. So, yeah, I tried to imitate the various pop styles - the ones that I would think that a movie studio would think were palatable in those days.

PC: Liza Minnelli told me in a recent interview how much she loved premiering that song at the 1992 Sondheim - A Celebration at Carnegie Hall concert.

SS: Oh, yeah!

PC: Do you remember that night?

SS: Oh, yeah! Sure! That was the first time I heard it in public.

PC: That was such a great concert, and so is the most recent one at Avery Fisher Hall, SONDHEIM! - the DVD is sublime. Is there one concert - out of the many in the last few years - that is your favorite, or one that is the most memorable to you?

SS: Oh, gosh! I love them all for different reasons. I don't really have a "favorite".

PC: Perhaps a moment - like when Barbara Cook sang "Anyone Can Whistle" a capella at Westport a few years ago or at the Sondheim Celebration in '02?

SS: Oh, yeah! The way she does it... of course! I always love hearing Barbara sing.


SS: Of course. But, you know, most of the concerts of my stuff I have liked very much. They are very carefully done and people take their time with them and cast them well. I have rarely been to a concert that disappointed me.

PC: The SONDHEIM! concert coming up on PBS is absolutely exquisite.

SS: Yeah! Yeah. It is great.

PC: The parade of Sondheim ladies all dressed in red! Whoa!

SS: Really great, right?

PC: It's the greatest Sondheim performances all together in one place.

SS: Yes. But, also, it's the idea of having those six leading ladies - each one topping the other, so to speak - is such a... a super, super idea.

PC: And to end with [Elaine] Stritch, of course!

SS: Of course!

PC: I agree, all of them are great, though.

SS: The nice moment is when Patti LuPone comes on and sings Strich's song ["The Ladies Who Lunch" from COMPANY].

PC: What a thrill!

SS: That was the coup as far as I was concerned.

PC: Aptly so. I think the first time I met you was at that concert at Westport where Patti first sang that song.

SS: Oh, yeah! Yeah! At Westport. Yes, indeed. That was a couple of years ago, but it was a great night.

PC: It means so much to the fans and to those of us that have been interviewing you, that you are so open and kind to us.

SS: Oh, that's nice of you.

PC: Is it true that in the original INTO THE WOODS workshop wasn't the concept considered at one point to have the characters sing in distinctly different styles / genres - of music? I was recently talking to Chip Zien about it, but neither of us were sure.

SS: A ha. Let me see... let me think. (Pause.) If he remembers it - something like that - then it's probably true. But, I'm not... I don't honestly remember that, for sure. I certainly... well, if it was considered, it was just a passing thought because I didn't write anything in explicitly different genres for the different characters, so I may have abandoned it. During the workshop, I don't think so... but, gee... it's possible!

PC: Right.

SS: But, certainly, there are no songs in the workshop that weren't in the show in one form or another. So, it's not like I wrote other songs.

PC: The reason I was curious is because of the "Witch's Rap" and I'd love to know how you came up with having her sing in that style, which was very new and edgy in the mid-eighties.

SS: Yes. I don't know quite how I came up with it, but, I just thought that she's got to tell a lot of exposition and that's always tricky when you are dealing with something like that, if you do it in song.

PC: The challenge dictated the form.

SS: Yeah, I think what it was, is that I wanted a sort of contemporary feeling to the show, anyway - you know, so it wasn't Disney-esque.

PC: Cartoonish.

SS: Yeah, that was the thing I wanted to avoid, was all the Disney fairy tales. So, I think that was what led me to think of the Witch delivering the exposition in rap.

PC: I know that you also wrote a couple of new songs for the proposed film version of INTO THE WOODS. One of them is called "Rainbows", which I absolutely adore.

SS: Yeah! That's a nice song. Yeah, I'm definitely putting that lyric in the second book.

PC: Oh, really? It's fantastic. What about the other songs you wrote for that?

SS: Yeah, the opening song, "I Wish".

PC: That's kind of a pop song, too. Isn't it?

SS: Sort of. Yeah. I love that arrangement.

PC: I do, too!

SS: I must say, the guy who orchestrated that - I thought he was really good.

PC: I just interviewed Baz Luhrmann and we discussed the possibility of an INTO THE WOODS film version. What do you think of the idea of turning that project into a film?

SS: You know what, we've had... there have been numerous nibbles. There was a reading. A script was done by two screenwriters named Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Manzel.

PC: I love those names.

SS: OK. You know who they are?

PC: They wrote CITY SLICKERS. And, those are two unforgettable names!

SS: Right. Exactly.

PC: (Laughs.)

SS: They did one... actually, we did two readings. The first one was designed, I think, for Billy Crystal. But, no, it might have been Martin Short...

PC: Robin Williams?

SS: No, it's the second one that had Robin Williams as the Baker. That had an all-star cast in it.

PC: Perfect cast!

SS: Yeah, but, first, the first one was - I guess - Martin Short. But, I'm not absolutely certain.

PC: But, the second one...

SS: I don't think I wrote too much in the first book about that, did I?

PC: No, not from what I remember - and I would imagine that the second one will cover all of INTO THE WOODS, anyway.

SS: I must be saving it for the second book, then! I have some things to say about it.

PC: I can't wait! Tell me your fondest memories, then - a free preview, if you will!

SS: The second reading was the one I remember very vividly. That was with Robin.

PC: With Cher as the Witch, right?

SS: Yes! Cher as the Witch.

PC: Perfect casting!

SS: Yes, and Goldie Hawn as the Baker's Wife!

PC: Again, perfect.

SS: Danny DeVito as the Giant!

PC: How hilarious!

SS: Steve Martin as the Wolf. Roseanne as Jack's Mother...

PC: Talk about an all-star cast!

SS: It was really, really good. I remember thinking, "If a bomb drops on this house, half of Hollywood would be wiped out!"

PC: Speaking of your film music, I just adore "The Glamorous Life" - it's probably my second favorite of your songs - written for the A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC film. Especially Audra McDonald's performance of it on the PBS concert. Thrilling.

SS: Oh, yeah! She's great at that! I don't know how she does it. Her taste in songs... she picks obscure songs that are really good.

PC: That's another of her many talents!

SS: That song is one. One of my favorite songs that she sings by Bock & Harnick is "When Did I Fall In Love?"

PC: Great song.

SS: Nobody had ever sung that - I don't mean nobody, but - until she did. She put it on her album a few years ago.


SS: Yeah. Then, I heard her on the Frank Loesser special, she did a Frank Loesser song that nobody ever does. She's great digging out obscure stuff.

PC: In your book, you talk about having loftier ambitions for the way that song ("The Glamorous Life") would be filmed than the way it ended up. Did you actually envision them having a princess in a tower with dragons and all that?

SS: Oh, no no no no! What it's supposed to do... it's a metaphor.

PC: Of course. Could you elaborate on that metaphor, though? I find it fascinating.

SS: Yes. Her grandmother rides around the grounds in a horse-drawn carriage, as established in the opening sequence of the film. So, that's what she means by "wagons". Then, her mother is a princess to her - but, no, it's an imaginary princess. But, the dragons are the horses. It's the imprisonment of how she feels in her grandmother's home. Of course, it's not meant to be literal.

PC: So, a feudal flashback wasn't cut for budgetary reasons, then?

SS: Budgetary reasons, yes, that's true. But, it didn't have to do with doing princesses or castles - it had to do with numerous shots. Too many shots. I put so many flashbacks... not flashbacks, but... simultaneity... in that sequence.

PC: It tells a lot of story in one song.

SS: Yeah. You know, she's reading something in the letter and, then, you're supposed to cut to the actual thing that is happening that her mother is describing. That letter covers her mother doing a lot of things!

PC: Indeed!

SS: So, in the end, it was just too many set-ups. Each one would have required a different set - you have to have the interior of a train, you have to have a stage; you have to have a number of things.

PC: Could you tell me about working with Michael Bennett? Do you think he invented the meta-moment in a musical in COMPANY?

SS: Well, I don't know... what do you mean by the "meta moment"?

PC: I mean that in "Side By Side" all the characters, at the same time - in one moment - are: the PTA club, the actors singing the song and the characters in the play.

SS: Yeah. Hmm. (Pause.) Well, of course, that was the whole idea of the title COMPANY because there was a company of players.

PC: Of course. Do you specifically remember how you, Michael and Hal came up with that moment, though?

SS: I can't really tell you anything about it except that we talked about utilizing the cast, always, as a company - because we didn't want a chorus. Since it's all a series of scenes between two people - three people, actually - you think, "What are the other people doing if they are not, you know, in character?"

PC: Fascinating. So, you don't think it was totally original?

SS: Yeah, that's not really what I would call a meta number. I mean, it's a vaudeville treatment of the number... but, that kind of thing had been done years and years and years earlier in things like LOVE LIFE.

PC: Of course.

SS: So, yeah, the idea of treating characters in a vaudeville style was not new with COMPANY. What was new with COMPANY was that there was no plot.

PC: Undoubtedly. The most revolutionary musical piece since MAHOGANNY, also by Brecht and Weill. What do you think of that piece?

SS: Well, I was asked to translate it once.

PC: No way! Really? You and W.H. Auden.

SS: Yeah! But, I'm not a Brecht/Weill fan and that's really all there is to it. I'm an apostate: I like Weill's music when he came to America better than I do his stuff before. It was not as original...

PC: Really? I thought you liked a few things with Brecht.

SS: Well, yeah, I love THE THREEPENNY OPERA but, outside of THREEPENNY OPERA, the music of his I like is the stuff he wrote in America - when he was not writing with Brecht, when he was writing for Broadway.

PC: Speaking of meta-moments: ASSASSINS. Do you consider the Roundabout ASSASSINS the perfect production of the show? Joe Mantello is a genius.

SS: Well, there's no such thing as a perfect production...

PC: Of course not.

SS: But, yes, I thought it was just sensational.

PC: And Marc Kudisch's role being significantly expanded... that was so interesting.

SS: Yes, that is interesting. We discussed that a lot - at great length - but I think that was Joe's idea. It worked!

PC: What have been your favorite productions of your shows in the last ten years?

SS: Oh, gosh. Well, there are a lot of contributing factors... but, I loved both of John Doyle's productions (SWEENEY TODD and COMPANY) an awful lot and I certainly thought Sam Buntrock's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE was just... spectacular. What he did with those visual effects was just thrilling.

PC: What do you think of 3D and digital imagery in theatre?

SS: It's not so much 3D - that's more film... the thing is that SUNDAY is about an artist. It's about bringing the drawings to life. It's not so much about electronic magic or 3D magic - it's about utilizing animation. That's what it's about: utilizing animation as part of the story, rather than just as a decorative thing or a joke. So, that's what I loved about it in that production.

PC: Do you think a 3D film version of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE would work? I've heard Danny Boyle might be considering it.

SS: (Laughs.) 3D... I haven't seen 3D since it first came out forty-five years ago! I don't know, I guess I'm just used to seeing a two-dimensional screen thing. I have no objection to 3D, as long as it doesn't interfere. But, those uncomfortable glasses... those are a problem. (Laughs.)

PC: You write so favorably about Cole Porter in your book. My favorite Cole Porter song is "Come To The Supermarket In Old Peking".

SS: Oh, Jesus! (Laughs.) "Come To The Supermarket In Old Peking"? You have esoteric taste!

PC: I just interviewed Michael Feinstein and he told me a story about how it was written and I love it even more.

SS: What was the story? I'd love to know.

PC: Apparently, Cole Porter was so sick and his legs had just been amputated but he wrote that ebullient, joyful, dexterous song through all that pain. He hadn't lost anything mentally. And, that was one of his last songs.

SS: Oh, yeah. A great story. That was how he wrote "At Long Last Love", too - when he first had the accident. He wrote it while he was waiting for the doctors to arrive, while he was under a tree and a horse had fallen on him.

PC: Is that your favorite Porter lyric, "At Long Last Love"?

SS: That's one of them! I don't have any "favorite" Porter because I like so many of them so much. That's interesting what you just said, though. Do you think you would like that song - "In Old Peking" - as much if you didn't know that story?

PC: I first heard it in the Patti LuPone version - before I heard the story - but the Loretta Devine blues version really converted me.

SS: Oh, really? I've never heard that. I have to check it out.

PC: My favorite story in your book is playing the score for GYPSY for Cole Porter.

SS: Yeah, it was a big moment in my life, I can tell you!

PC: I'm twenty-six. How old were you when that happened?

SS: Twenty-eight.

PC: I'm curious ... do you frequent internet sites or message boards?

SS: If I did, I would do nothing but! I have an addictive personality. If I did - if I got involved with the chat rooms and Facebook and everything - I would probably never leave. That's why I don't do it. I literally don't do it. At all. (Laughs.)

PC: What are your opinions on 21st century technology in general?

SS: I love computers. Also, I love writing on them. I love gadgetry. The thing is: I am a slow reader. So, if I am going to get my work done, I read, like, a newspaper and that's it. If I got into websites and the internet, I wouldn't get any work done.

PC: Speaking of gadgetry, what's on your iPod right now?

SS: I just bought an iPod. So, what's on my iPod right now is wrapping paper. (Laughs.)

PC: When do you usually write: morning or night?

SS: I usually start around eleven o'clock in the morning, after I've read the newspaper. If I'm up against a deadline, of course, I start earlier and work later. But, usually, it starts around eleven.

PC: Do you Netflix?

SS: No, I don't. Most of the movies... you see, being a member of the Academy Awards thing, I get screeners at the end of the year. So, most of the movies I want to see just arrive from the Academy of Motion Pictures.

PC: How convenient!

SS: Yeah! And, the movies I haven't seen... I haven't seen a lot of contemporary movies because they don't particularly interest me. But, the ones that do interest me are the ones that usually arrive at the end of the year. So, there's no point in my being on Netflix, really. As far as old movies go, I've seen most of them, so...

PC: What are some of your favorite films and favorite directors?

SS: Oh, there are many of them. Gosh. I have very plebian taste, you know.

PC: I doubt that!

SS: CITIZEN KANE is the most entertaining movie I ever saw. CASABLANCA is the second most entertaining movie I ever saw.

PC: Classics! Rightfully so.

SS: As far as movies that I really go back to, I have a few obscure foreign ones. There's a movie called CONTRACT by a Polish director that I think is one of the best movies I ever saw. And, also, I'm very fond of Michael Powell's movies - you know, THE RED SHOES and STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. I don't have very unusual taste in movies, generally.

PC: You tell a great anecdote about John Huston in your book - that film editing is the same thing as eye-blinking in life.

SS: Isn't that interesting? Yeah, that was a lot of fun to work on that movie.

PC: How did that happen that you became an extra on that movie?

SS: One of my best friends was invited by Huston to assist him on that movie. I had never been to Europe, and this friend of mine was very wealthy and he said, "Come on with me ‘cause you won't have to pay anything because you can stay with my parents - who have a flat in London - and, then, we'll go to Italy and the company will pay for the hotel. So, you won't have to spend anything except on food."

PC: A good deal, right?

SS: Yeah, I said, "Great!" That was my way - the first time I saw Europe and I saw Italy for a few weeks. Then, when my money did run out I came home.

PC: You've said you were heavily influenced by film music. Would you say it had a bigger effect on you than classical music did?

SS: They both did, equally, I think. A lot of film music comes out of classical music, so I don't actually think of them all that differently.

PC: HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) is your ideal film score, right?

SS: HANGOVER SQUARE is, I guess, my favorite film score - as a score - because of the way it works in the movie as well as the music itself. But, it's because of the way it's used in the movie - which is so ingenious.

PC: Definitely. It's a great film to discover (and it's on Netflix).

SS: Also, I like all the old-style, big, bombastic music - like Warner Brothers music. Actually, it's mostly a lot of the Warner Brothers composers - although they worked in other places, too - people like Franz Waxman and Max Steiner. I like that era of Hollywood music, from the 30s and 40s.

PC: What do you think of Judy Garland's A STAR IS BORN?

SS: Well, I like it. I like it a lot. I like some of the songs a lot. I like the kind of whole camp melodrama of it. But, it's James Mason that makes it for me anyhow.

PC: And Harold Arlen was a huge influence on you, as well.

SS: Arlen is - yes. Arlen was my hero.

PC: He wrote a lot of original songs and scores for films. Tell me about doing that for DICK TRACY and REDS.

SS: I did it for DICK TRACY. There weren't any songs in REDS.

PC: There's one!

SS: I took the title for that theme - Warren [Beatty] wanted a sort of love theme. So, then, he wanted Diane Keaton to sing it - not in the movie, but as sort of a single - so I put words to it. And that's a song called "Goodbye For Now".

PC: One of your most touching songs.

SS: For DICK TRACY... I think that is the only time I've written songs directly for the screen.

PC: How did you decide to rewrite "I Remember" a few years ago for Barbra Streisand's CHRISTMAS MEMORIES album?

SS: I remember she approached me about it, but I don't remember exactly all the details.

PC: Did you enjoy working with her again, your first time since the BROADWAY ALBUMS?

SS: Yeah, I love working with her - especially because she is meticulous. She is a really, really meticulous artist.

PC: Would you say there is one of your songs that she does that you enjoy more than the others?

SS: You know, I don't have a lot of favorites - which isn't very good for a reporter - but, I just don't have a lot of favorites!

PC: There's too many good things to choose from, in your case!

SS: I think most people I know don't have favorites, either. You know, if you really pin me to the wall and say, "You've got to give me a favorite!" maybe I could. But, I don't think I could. I could give you six or eight.

PC: I completely understand. I agree.

SS: You could say, "What's your favorite song you've ever written?" - like they've been asking me. "I could give you six or eight!"

PC: I could give you sixty!

SS: Yeah, but it's all a fool's game because there really isn't "a" favorite.

PC: Moving to the near future: Bernadette Peters is confirmed and committed to FOLLIES coming up, correct?

SS: Yep. She will be, indeed.

PC: The Kennedy Center is the perfect place - particularly after the Sondheim Celebrations in ‘02?

SS: Absolutely!

PC: That will be magnificent!

SS: Well, I hope so! (Laughs.)

PC: Rosie O'Donnell just told me how much your complimentary words about TABOO meant to her.

SS: Oh, how nice!

PC: She said that comment meant everything to her and got her through some very tough times.

SS: Oh, my God. I didn't even know she did that [show].

PC: She said when she read your words on it in Time Magazine that that meant everything to her when she was going through the lawsuit and turbulent times with the musical.

SS: Oh, my gosh. That's how she knows!

PC: She was really moved by it.

SS: Oh, I meant it! I meant it.

PC: You liked TABOO? It's a great score, I think.

SS: Yeah, I really liked it.

PC: Define collaboration.

SS: Define collaboration. (Pause.) It's a temporary marriage, is what it is.

PC: Please write us a new show, we need it on Broadway these days more than ever before.

SS: OK. As soon as I finish the second volume (of this book), you've got it!


SS: (Laughs.) No, not GROUNDHOG DAY! But, something else.

PC: Something better.

SS: Yeah!

PC: You are the man and I really appreciate your time and candor for this interview. This was beyond incredible. You have made my dream come true today. Thank you. For that, and everything else.

SS: (Laughs.) OK. This was fun. And, thanks for the compliments! Bye!

To Purchase the Incredible FINISHING THE HAT, CLICK HERE.