BWW Interview: Ted Sperling on Rodgers & Hammerstein Concert at SF Symphony
BroadwayWorld spoke with conductor Ted Sperling about his upcoming concert with Laura Osnes and the San Francisco Symphony. They will be performing selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Read the full interview below.
You have a large background in Broadway musicals. As you prepare to come to San Francisco, how do you approach Rodgers and Hammerstein's scores?
I've done a little bit of specializing recently in Rodgers and Hammerstein. I've two of the shows in New York in the last ten years, South Pacific and The King and I. I'm the music director of the tour of King and I that's actually playing in San Francisco right now. And we also did South Pacific at the same theatre, the Golden Gate. So I've been steeped in it now for about a decade, and I was quite friendly with Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers' daughter. And she helped advise when we did South Pacific. And of course I've done a lot of listening throughout my life to these scores and various versions.
One thing to know about the concert that we're doing is that it's a combination of live performance from Laura Osnes and then also a big component is that I'll be accompanying segments from the films. It's fun to contrast those two versions.
What insight has your experience as a conductor given you on this music and how does that influence how you approach these scores?
I know how particular Richard Rodgers was about the performance of his music. People are very faithful to what's on the page. I take that very much to heart. I always try to start with what I think his intention was. And hen I try to bring a fresh eye to the material, as well, and acknowledge that we're performing today, and that people's expectations about how certain songs should be acTed May have changed a bit over time. Both productions that I've done recently were directed by Bart Sher, and he and I have a very close working relationship that we always try to start from the text and from the acting intention. We take the blueprint of the written music as a jumping off place, but then also try to think afresh about how it might be interpreted by individual performers.
We'll hear a variety of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes at this concert. What have you learned about their careers and subject matter?
It's interesting. Rodgers and Hammerstein each had very successful careers before they teamed up. They came into this partnership with decades of experience between them. I don't think they had the usual growing pains, and they had one of their biggest successes with their very first show, Oklahoma. They combined Hammerstein's simplicity and preciseness of lyrics with his concern for social good and social justice, and then Rodgers had always been a wonderful melodist. I think with Hammerstein, found a new expansiveness with his writing. They brought out the best in each other and hit the ground running. I think that what each show does is explore some central themes about love against a world that is changing and a world that is throwing that love into a difficult circumstance.
What can audiences expect from your Symphony program?
Because Laura played in the title role in Cinderella on Broadway, we're going to do a selection from that show, which doesn't get heard as often as the others, and is usually not thought of in the same sentence. We'll be doing some instrumental pieces, as well. But there's so much great material to pull from that I think it's going to feel like one hit after another.
Laura has also performed as Nellie Forbush and Julie Jordan. What does she bring to the stage for this concert?
She's played these big, big lead roles, so I think she brings a lot of real life experience. She's also just a very smart performer and person, and funny, so I think it will be nice to hear directly from her. This is a program that's usually done only with the film component. Bringing in Laura allows us to do some stuff from The Sound of Music, which is not normally included in this program. It gives me somebody to talk to on stage, and I get a good colleague and friend to perform with.
You've also worked with stars like Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald - whom you work with at San Francisco Symphony twice. Do you also take away new insights on the music you conduct from working with Laura and the rest?
That's one of the great pleasures of doing these kinds of concerts. With Audra, we were always bouncing ideas off each other. That was an exciting process. The first time I was in San Francisco, Audra and I were just starting to work together, and I think San Francisco was my very first major symphonic engagement, so it was also scary. It's wonderful to come back all these years later with a little more experience.
What makes Rodgers and Hammerstein's music so worth revisiting?
I think Rodgers and Hammerstein were always writing for a family audience, and that's one of the things people look for over the holidays. My kids in fact have seen The King and I a number of times. I think really great Broadway musicals are timeless. Even though they're very much of the decade they were created, the music and the story always live on and are somehow timely. Human nature doesn't change that much over time. Hammerstein was such a humanist and such a believer in justice that I think his shows had a very strong moral fiber that's appealing no matter what time.
Do you have a favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song or show?
I have performed the "Carousel Waltz" quite a bit. I always get a big thrill out of that. I grew up with The Sound of Music. It came to the theatres at the perfect time for me as a kid. That move is etched firmly in my brain, and there are many favorite songs from there. We're going to do one that was written specifically for the movie, "I Have Confidence." And I have to say that's one of my very favorites. The concert will be a special opportunity to hear those orchestrations which are big and extravagant live. I've been listening and studying the movies, and the music is beautifully played, but of course the recording technology back then was not what it is today.
For a full concert schedule, visit http://www.sfsymphony.org/. Future holiday concerts include Charlie Brown, Singing in the Rain, Cirque de la Symphonie, Gladys Knight, The Messiah, Ruthie Ann Miles and more.