'Fresh Air' Celebrates Broadway Legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1) Sondheim, who turns 90 on March 22, composed the music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Company and other shows. He spoke about his career in musical theater in this 2010 interview.
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'Fresh Air' Celebrates Broadway Legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

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'Fresh Air' Celebrates Broadway Legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

'Fresh Air' Celebrates Broadway Legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It doesn't feel like there's much to celebrate right now, but today, we're going to celebrate the 90th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, the greatest Broadway composer and lyricist of our time, and one of the best musically and most musically innovative ever. It seems as if there's always one or more of his shows being revived in New York. Revivals of "West Side Story," for which he wrote the lyrics, and his show "Company" are currently suspended because of the virus. And ticket sales for an upcoming revival of his show "Assassins" are currently suspended.

We'll be hearing some of Sondheim's music during the course of this interview and hearing what he has to say about those songs. His shows include "Anyone Can Whistle," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." Early in his career, he wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy." Let's start with the opening song from the first show for which he wrote words and music, "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," which opened in 1962. Here's Zero Mostel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMEDY TONIGHT")

ZERO MOSTEL: (As Pseudolus, singing) Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone - a comedy tonight. Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone - A comedy tonight. Nothing with kings. Nothing with crowns. Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns. Old situations, new complications, nothing portentous or polite. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Are you surprised to find yourself in the position as, like, the elder genius since it seems like you spent so much time as, like, the really young brilliant guy? You know what I mean (laughter)?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Well, I think of myself as 18 years old. So, you know, I'm only surprised when I look in the mirror. No, I'm - as far as I'm concerned, I'm 18 and very promising.

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

SONDHEIM: Yes, yeah.

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

SONDHEIM: OK.

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

SONDHEIM: Yes. It's about - it takes - the song takes place over a period of two years in the lives of the three leading players, who are in their late 20s. And two of them are songwriters - a lyricist and a composer. And their best friend is a woman who is - a young woman who is a budding novelist. And it's the three of them trying to break into - well, the two guys - into show business. And she's trying to finish writing a book.

GROSS: So this song is at the point where they're kind of hoping to become real, you know...

SONDHEIM: That's right. Yeah. They're...

GROSS: ...A real composer, a real lyricist and a real novelist.

SONDHEIM: They're opening doors.

GROSS: They're opening doors.

SONDHEIM: They're knocking on doors. They're knocking on doors...

GROSS: 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."

SONDHEIM: Right.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING DOORS")

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

LONNY PRICE: (As Charley Kringas) Good. You?

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Done.

PRICE: (As Charley Kringas) One minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) (Unintelligible).

ANN MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) Hi.

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Mary.

PRICE: (As Charley Kringas) Say hello.

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn, singing) I think I got a job.

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Where?

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) (Unintelligible).

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

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) (Unintelligible).

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) What about the book?

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) What about the book?

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Did you give the publisher the book?

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) Yeah.

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Good.

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) No.

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Mary.

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) (Unintelligible).

PRICE: (As Charley Kringas) Finished.

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

MORRISON: (As Mary Flynn) (Unintelligible).

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

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Right.

PRICE: (As Charley Kringas) Probably it stinks.

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Right.

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

WALTON: (As Franklin Shepard) Will you sing?

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

JASON ALEXANDER: (As Joe Josephson, singing) That's great. That's swell - the other stuff as well. It isn't every day I hear a score this strong. But, fellas, if I may, there's only one thing wrong. There's not a tune you can hum. There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum. You need a tune to go bum-bum-bum-di-dum. Give me a melody. Why can't you throw them a crumb? What's wrong with letting them tap their toes a bit? I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit. Give me some melody. Oh, sure, I know it's not that kind of show. But can't you have a score that's sort of in between. Look; play a little more. I'll show you what I mean.

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

ALEXANDER: (As Joe Josephson, singing) Listen; boys, maybe it's me, but that's just not a hum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mumable 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 melody-dee-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 that's not a song you can hum, give me a melody.

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, 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 I particularly - I was very close to Mary Rodgers, Dick Rodgers' daughter. She became a composer as well as a novelist, as a matter of fact. And of course, Hal Prince, who was a producer and then eventually a director. And we were all very close to each other. It's not specifically based on us. But it's on the ambiance 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 sings 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. But we would spend - we had four-hour sessions once a week. And we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, the classic songs of the American theater and American movies. And Milton also on - he wrote songs. Most of the time, he wrote these extremely forward-looking pieces. He was writing electronic music before anybody ever knew that electronic music existed.

And - but he had this - he's a jazz fan. He's - and he's also got the kind of memory - if you play him a jazz record from 1932, he'll tell you who was playing what instrument. He's remarkable that way. But what we did was we spent an hour, you know, on, you know, songs, and then three hours on Beethoven and Bach. And it was all about, essentially, compositional analysis. But no, I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music.

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

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 through a circle of fifths and then breaks the circle of fifths with a tritone, which echoes itself not only in the melody but also in the bass and defines both the key that the song is written in and the key to which it's going - et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I've actually reproduced that hour-long analysis he gave me to students I had at Oxford, when I taught at Oxford. And it's - it was - it's lodged into my mind because it is a way of approaching, when you are trying to hold a song together, how you hold it together harmonically and still make it fresh. Kern was a master at that.

GROSS: Now, Babbitt wrote atonal music, among other things, and he wrote a now famous essay called "Who Cares If You Listen?" that was published in High Fidelity in 1958 in which he suggested that composers should withdraw from the public world to a world of private performance and electronic media and eliminate the public and social aspects of composition. Now, did that sense of principle, that a certain kind of music should just be uncompromising, kind of give you permission in a way to be uncompromising on Broadway when you felt like you needed to be?

SONDHEIM: I don't think I've ever been uncompromising in that sense. I've always been uncompromising in terms of - I don't change something simply because somebody says, oh, I can't hum that. But I...

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

SONDHEIM: But no. But I - you know, I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested in communication with audiences. Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I would be in another kind of profession. No, I love the theater as much as I love music. And the whole idea of getting across to an audience and exciting them or making them laugh or making them cry or just making them feel is paramount to me. The whole business of humability (ph), of course, has to do with familiarity. If you hear a tune enough times, you'll hum it.

You know, you can - first time I heard the Berg violin concerto, I thought, what is this noise? And the third time I heard it, I thought, oh, that's interesting. And the fifth time I heard it, I was humming along with it. And I remember being at the intermission of "A Little Night Music" when it first came out and hearing somebody say, oh, that "Weekend In The Country," is - that's such a catchy tune. Well, you don't, no - very few people accused me of writing catchy tunes. And of course, it was a catchy tune; she just heard 11 choruses of it, and so of course she could hum it. I've often said familiarity breeds content.

The problem with so much music, particularly in those days, was that you went into the theater humming it, you know. If you hum something on first hearing it, might be because it is so immediately memorable, but more likely, it's because it reminds you of something else.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. We're listening back to it today because Sunday is his 90th birthday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF PASSION'S "HAPPINESS")

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. When we left off, we were talking about studying with composer Milton Babbitt.

Now, an example of a song that I think is maybe influenced by your experience with new music, your experience with Milton Babbitt, is part of "Sweeney Todd." And I'm thinking of the "Epiphany," especially toward the end, like, when Sweeney sings full of joy, the chords are so dark there is no joy (laughter).

SONDHEIM: Well, that's the idea.

GROSS: It is the joy of anger and revenge.

SONDHEIM: That's the idea.

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

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 discord - what you mean is dissonant; discordant means mistakes. Dissonant means...

GROSS: Oh, I didn't mean that (laughter).

SONDHEIM: That's all right. No, so - but yes, it's dissonant because what's going on in Sweeney's head is dissonant. That 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 kind of violin harmonics, meaning very high, shrill sounds. And Hal Prince said, you know, Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song you've got 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 (laughter).

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 actually right. There's a constant chord and a dissonant chord going on at the same time, one right after the other.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear this end of the "Epiphany." And this is the moment where Sweeney Todd, the barber, learns that the judge that sent him away to prison on a life sentence on trumped-up charges had later raped Sweeney's wife and taken Sweeney's daughter as his ward. And Sweeney at this point, just finding out about this, he's decided to use his razors to take revenge against the judge. And the work he refers to in the song is the work of revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EPIPHANY")

LEN CARIOU: (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, nor ten men, nor a hundred can assuage me. I will have you (laughter). 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 Cariou sings - joy, full of joy - did you think hard about what that note should be? Because it's not the note that - you expect a kind of resolution at the end there, a musical resolution.

SONDHEIM: Well, if you're not...

GROSS: 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'll 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 play. 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: Does that make...

GROSS: Yeah.

SONDHEIM: ...What I'm saying - yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, that's great. Thank you for - I didn't think of it that way.

SONDHEIM: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you very much (laughter).

SONDHEIM: Yeah.

GROSS: I should say that that song is sung very well by Tom Wopat in "Sondheim On Sondheim."

SONDHEIM: Yes, very scary.

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

SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's - 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. 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.

I remember I played the score for the actor Tony Perkins, who knows movie scores the way I knew movie scores - or knew movie scores the way I did. And I was (laughter) - 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: So let's get back to "Merrily We Roll Along" a second. It was a flop. It didn't - how many performances?

SONDHEIM: Nine.

GROSS: Ugh. It...

SONDHEIM: Oh, wait a minute. That's - sorry, it was 16.

GROSS: Sixteen. Yeah.

SONDHEIM: Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

GROSS: It kills me because it was such a good show.

SONDHEIM: It was. Well, it...

GROSS: And it's been revived several times. So people...

SONDHEIM: Well, ah...

GROSS: Yeah.

SONDHEIM: ...But George and I worked on it. George Furth, who wrote the book, and I after the Broadway show - which was partly our fault, but also partly fault of the production - the idea of the show was to go - as the listeners may not know - go backwards in time from a very successful group of 40-year-olds or 45-year-olds and take them back to their very youthful days before they compromised their principles. It goes backwards in time. It's based on a George Kaufman-Moss Hart play.

And Hal Prince's idea, as producer and director, was to cast it with young people, meaning 17 to 22, which is the ages they end up at the end of the show. They would start as middle-aged or early-middle-aged people and gradually become younger. And the trouble with casting 17- to 22-year-olds is that most of them had no experience at all and were talented but not professional, and here we were on a Broadway stage charging Broadway prices. If that show had been done off-Broadway, I think the reception would have been extremely different. Done same, with the same cast and all that - it wouldn't have received quite the beating it did receive.

But also, there was a problem with the storytelling in the first half hour. The hero is a very unlikable man at the beginning, and then you gradually see how this guy became such a - I can't use the word on public radio...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SONDHEIM: But such a betrayer and such a - compromised all his principles and his talent. And by going backwards in time, you gradually strip away - it's like the reverse of "The Picture Of Dorian Gray." The portrait gradually becomes purer and purer and purer. And then finally - matter of fact, long before finally - you start really to like him towards the end of the first act, and then you get to like him a lot in the second act. But that first 40 minutes, we wrote - rewrote it, and we then tinkered with it over a period of years. And by the time we got to the York Theatre production, we had the play we wanted.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in 2010 in celebration of his 80th birthday. Sunday is his 90th birthday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PRIEST")

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Stick to priest.

CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, laughter).

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Now, this might be a bit stringy. But then, of course, it's fiddle player.

CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) No, no, this isn't fiddle player; it's piccolo player.

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) How can you tell?

CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) It's piping hot.

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) Then blow on it first.

(LAUGHTER)

SONDHEIM: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) The history of the world, my sweet...

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Oh, Mr. Todd. Ooh, Mr. Todd. What does it tell?

SONDHEIM: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) ...Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) And Mr. Todd, too, Mr. Todd, who gets to sell?

SONDHEIM: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) But fortunately, it's all so clear.

LEN CARIOU AND ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, singing) That everybody goes down well with beer.

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) Since marine doesn't appeal to you...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Stephen Sondheim's 90th birthday is Sunday. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Sondheim got his start on Broadway writing lyrics for "West Side Story." The music was composed by Leonard Bernstein. The current revival of "West Side Story" has been suspended, along with all other Broadway shows, because of the pandemic. Let's hear a song from the original Broadway cast recording of "West Side Story." This is Larry Kert in the role of Tony singing "Something's Coming."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S COMING")

LARRY KERT: (As Tony, singing) Could be. Who knows? There's something due any day. I will know right away, soon as it shows. It may come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows? It's only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach, under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, going to come true, coming to me. 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 going to be great. With a click, with a shock, phone will jingle, door will knock.

GROSS: Let's get back 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'd 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?

(LAUGHTER)

SONDHEIM: I mean, you know, he wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music, is what it was. And he might've 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, there were the big guys there - Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents and Jerry Robbins. So it was their problem to get the show on. 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.

GROSS: Now, you've talked about George Gershwin and Harold Arlen as great influences on you, and they were both very influenced by jazz. Did you listen to much jazz or pop when you were in your formative years?

SONDHEIM: Nope. Nope, I didn't, and I'm not very influenced by jazz. First of all, the whole idea of jazz is improvisation and instrumentalists, and because I'm only a piano player and have never played in a band, I don't have a feeling for that. Also, I think by nature I'm too conservative. I'm just - I only improvise at the piano when I'm writing a song, but I never improvise for anybody else or in front of anybody else or at a party or anything like that. And I don't think I would be good at it. I'm much too constrained.

It's partly my training. I was - my first music teacher, which - who was a professor at Williams College, was a very, very kind of Mary Poppins kind of teacher, with - you know, he laid down the rules. And that appealed to me a lot, the idea of of rules of how you write music that say what music consists of, that it's not just sitting and waiting for an inspiration, but that you take a melodic idea that you have - that might be an inspiration - but then you develop it and you work with it and work it out. You don't just fiddle around it at the piano to do it. And that appealed to me a lot, but that's very conscious composition, and that's also what I studied with Milton Babbitt, and that is the reverse of jazz.

In fact, it's always struck me so odd that Milton - who is so knowledgeable about composition and composes according to a set of rules, some of which he makes up himself - is also such a jazz fan. I could never put those two things together. At any rate, no, I was not influenced by jazz. I was influenced by Gershwin's and Kern's and Arlen's songs and particularly by their use of harmony.

GROSS: Was there any pop music that did make a big impression on you when you were young?

SONDHEIM: Well, you see, I wasn't exposed to a lot of pop music, you know. I didn't - there was - there were not a lot of records in the house. And I was - you know, when I listened to radio, it wasn't to music; it was to comedy shows and melodramas. So my exposure to songs was almost exclusively movies and theater. And so I grew up on theater and movie songs, not on pop songs. And I was not somebody who liked to go to dances, so I didn't get to, you know, hear the big bands very often, except, again, when they were in movies. And so the answer is, no, I didn't hear much pop music.

GROSS: Now, another question about your formative years. You went to a Quaker school, but you also went to the New York Military Academy and...

SONDHEIM: Yeah, that was earlier.

GROSS: I can't imagine you being a cadet. And I know there's also an emphasis on athletics at the school. I went on the website, and it said all cadets must participate in sports throughout the year. So what was it like for you to be...

SONDHEIM: Well, I - first of all, I went when I was 10 years old and...

GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter).

SONDHEIM: Ten and 11 years old.

GROSS: Yeah.

SONDHEIM: Only those two years. So I think you may have the wrong picture of me. And it was also because my parents had just divorced, and military school was always considered a place to send kids of divorced parents. A lot of my classmates were kids of divorced parents. And it was a lifesaver because your life becomes chaotic, suddenly, when your parents split up, and military school is bringing order to chaos. You have to be at a certain place at a certain time. You have to polish the buttons on the uniform. You have to parade here. You have to take orders there. And it was wonderful. You - there's a sense of structure. And I think, psychologically, it must have saved my life.

GROSS: You know, that actually really fits into what you were talking about wanting rules and structure in music.

SONDHEIM: Yeah. Order out of chaos. Order out of chaos. That's why I like crossword puzzles - order out of chaos.

GROSS: Right. Right. Right.

SONDHEIM: I think that's what art's about, anyway. I think that's why people make art.

GROSS: To create order in...

SONDHEIM: To - out of chaos, yeah.

GROSS: ...A world that's chaotic (laughter).

SONDHEIM: The world has always been chaotic. Life is unpredictable. It is - there is no form. And making forms gives you solidity. I think that's why people paint paintings and take photographs and write music and tell stories and that have beginning, middles and ends, even when they're - even when the middle is at the beginning, and the beginning is at the end.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGELA LANSBURY'S "ME AND MY TOWN (LIVE)"

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He turns 90 on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So 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."

SONDHEIM: That's the name of the show. Just for the listener...

GROSS: That's the name of the show.

SONDHEIM: For the listener, that's not the name of the song.

GROSS: No, no, no. That's not the name of the song. It's the name of the show.

SONDHEIM: I know. Your sentence made it seem as if...

GROSS: Thank you for listening that carefully (laughter). OK.

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

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

SONDHEIM: "Greenwillow."

GROSS: "Greenwillow," yeah, where - and he also had some pop jazz recordings that he made...

SONDHEIM: Correct.

GROSS: ...That are 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 the 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 here - 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF 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 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.

PERKINS: (As Charles Snell, singing) You shall have the world to keep. Such a lovely world, you'll weep.

PERKINS AND CARR: (As Charles Snell and Ella Harkins, singing) We shall have the world forever for our own.

GROSS: That was "Take Me To The World" by my guest, Stephen Sondheim, from his musical "Evening Primrose," which - I should say there's a - I have a bootleg copy of this. But there's a real, genuine legit DVD that's coming out, so - which I highly recommend.

SONDHEIM: Any minute.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. So who is Charmian Carr, who we just heard?

SONDHEIM: Charmian Carr - it's just - for listeners who may not know, might be interested to know - that she was - she played Liesl in the movie of "Sound Of Music." And I think she did one thing after that, and then I think she retired from the business, got sane and got married.

GROSS: Oh. Well, can we talk a little bit about your process of songwriting? I know the first thing that comes for you is the story. You only write songs in the context of character and story. But I know this is probably the most often-asked question of any songwriter, and they hate to answer it because it's so corny. But really, when you're writing music and lyrics yourself, which comes first for you?

SONDHEIM: There's no first. Sometimes, you get a melodic idea. I sometimes like to, by myself, improvise the piano, sometimes with the 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've talked about, you know, the scenes and the songs for weeks before. But until something's on paper, I have nothing to imitate. And so I've 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.

At the same time, I'm also jotting down any lyric ideas I have - titles or just subject matters or things like that. And then I usually try to start from the first song. And if I have a lyric, line or a phrase that seems useful or fruitful. I'll maybe expand on it a little bit, but I try to - I may do the same thing with the music. I may have a musical idea and expand on it a little bit. But I never go very far without bringing the other one in 'cause 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 them together or in tandem but not one and then the other way. It's one, then the other, one, then the other - same time.

GROSS: When you're writing at the piano, are you recording what you're playing, or are you just...

SONDHEIM: Never, never.

GROSS: ...Like, notating it?

SONDHEIM: Just notating - notating. There's - 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 play it again, you may think, wait a minute. That A-flat - now, 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, Michelangelo 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 try to work out a whole body.

GROSS: Now, you - when you're working with rhyme, what's your process for figuring out options for rhyming words?

SONDHEIM: What you - you use rhyming dictionary 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're - you know, you say, all right. I've got this line that ends with day, and I want to say she loves him. So how will I? And then you go through the rhyming dictionary.

And I say rhyming dictionaries are useful for rhymes like day. They're not useful for trick rhymes. Those you just think up, you know? But there's so many rhymes for day. And you want something that will somehow encompass or pinpoint what you want to say - there's a rhyme right there - about this situation and I use a particular rhyming dictionary called the Clement Wood, which - the advantage of which is that all the rhymes are listed vertically instead of horizontally. So your eye sweeps up and down the page until a word catches it.

The problem with - for me anyway, with 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 say, oh, yes, of course. Well, of course, they're on Biscayne Bay. Maybe that'll be useful. So you write 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: Now, 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 it again. Loddy doddy and nobody. You don't use that more than once. Or if you do, you're a fool.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SONDHEIM: And I've probably used it more than once. 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: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN RAYSON'S "OVERTURE AND NIGHT WALTZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He turns 90 on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: In the show "Sondheim On Sondheim," the song "Finishing The Hat" from "Sunday In The Park With George" is one of the songs that's performed. And about that song, you say that it's about what it's like to come out of the process of making art, to be done with something and then reenter the world. And I just wonder what it's like for you when you finish with a project, and you're out of that art that you've been making, and you're - both feet back in the real world, is the real world, like, a comfortable or an uncomfortable place for you?

SONDHEIM: That's not quite the analogy. That's not really exactly what the song's about. Song's about the actual creation. It's about the creative moment. It's about when you are painting a painting or when you are - even, sometimes, when you're writing a letter, you get so intensely involved in what you're doing that you look up, and, suddenly, it's an hour later, and you didn't know that an hour had passed. It's always a shock. That song came out of an incident in my life where I sat down to invent a game for a friend. I started inventing it 8 o'clock in the evening. And I looked up from my pad at the sun because the sun was coming up. And I'd been concentrating for eight hours. And I know, obviously, I must have gotten up to get something to drink, to go to the bathroom or something. But I have no memory of anything except that. And it's trancing out. It's about that and getting back in the world.

It's not about making a show, which is, after all, a series of those in-and-out moments. So it's the intensity of that moment, even if it's just two minutes. But the intensity - and then with a shock you look around, and you're back in the real world. It's neither an anticlimax nor a disappointment. It's just a plain, old, ordinary shock. It's like you've been swimming under water for a long time. You come up for air, take air, and then you go back underwater again.

GROSS: I want to end with a song. And I'm going to give you the choice of which one we're going to do (laughter), 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," formerly known as "Bounce," formerly known as "Wise Guys." And the song is "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." So which would you prefer?

SONDHEIM: It's hard to pick. I think I prefer "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 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 put it in context for us? Tell us where it comes in in the show.

SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: And something about the writing of the song.

SONDHEIM: Yeah. Well, in the first version of it, which was in the version of the show called "Bounce," it was between one of the - the two leading characters are brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner. And Wilson was heterosexual, and Addison was homosexual. In the first version, it's Wilson singing to his lady friend who he eventually is going to marry. And the second one, in "Road Show," we cut that character out because it seemed that the story really is about - if there's any love story in it, it's between the two brothers. And so this is a song now sung by Addison, the homosexual brother, to his young lover and vice versa. It's a duet between the two guys.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much for talking with us.

SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: And happy 80th - happy belated 80th birthday.

SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: My interview with Stephen Sondheim was recorded in 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He turns 90 on Sunday. All of us at FRESH AIR wish him a happy birthday and good health. For Monday's FRESH AIR, we're planning to talk with comic and actor Marc Maron, who has a new Netflix standup special called "End Times Fun." And he came up with that title before the coronavirus. I'm Terry Gross. Stay well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAS HAPPENED")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) First, there's cocktails at the Cosdens.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Oh, Jesus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) Hon, we've got fish to fry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Why don't you do this one without me, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) Then there's dinner at the Dodges, the reception at the Roosevelts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) I think I'm going to die.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) And every party filled with millionaires who want to build the biggest villa since the days of ancient Rome. So what do you say we just stay home?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) 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. They say we all find love. I never bought it. I never thought it would happen to me. Who could foresee? You are the god-damnedest thing that has happened to me ever. When I have this much happiness happen to me? Never. I can't believe my luck. And all I can do is be the best thing that's happened to you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) So what do you say we just stay home? What do you say we just go out on the boat and get smashed and make love on the beach and stare up at the moon?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison) Hollie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) You might just be the best thing that has happened to me so far. Of course, not much ever really has happened to me so far. I didn't much like love. I always fought it. I never thought it would happen like this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) Give us a kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hollis and Addison, singing) We may just be the best thing that has happened us...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) ...Kiddo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) ...Partner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hollis and Addison, singing) Another moment like this may not happen to us...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) ...Partner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) ...Lover.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hollis and Addison, singing) When all is said and done, I have to agree you are the best thing that's happened to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Hollis, singing) Who knew?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Addison, singing) Who dreamed?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hollis and Addison, singing) Beats me.

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