NPR

Look, He Made A Hat: Sondheim Talks Sondheim

Among the songwriting "sins" Sondheim identifies as traps: substituting rhyme for character, strained jokes, redundant adjective padding and inconsistency. (AP)

In Finishing the Hat, a compendium of Stephen Sondheim lyrics written between 1954 and 1981, the titan of the American musical theater reveals the stories behind some of his most famous numbers -- including songs from Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In addition to examining his own lyrics, Sondheim discusses his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury, as well as his relationship with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim
Hardcover, 480 pages
Knopf
List price: $39.95

Read An Excerpt

Sondheim tells Terry Gross that he wanted to examine the works of other musical-theater writers in order to put his own lyrics in context.

"I thought, 'I can't just criticize myself,'" he explains. "So I looked very carefully at the dozen best musical writers in the American musical theater who preceded me, and looked at their work and talked about it a little bit. ... I go into a little detail on what I think are the flaws or weaknesses or lazinesses of some of those people, and then [I talk about] the people, the bulk of whose work is solid and skillful and pointed."

Among the lyrical heresies that bother Sondheim, he explains, are mis-stressed syllables, misplaced regional accents, purple prose, lyrics that are "too full of themselves" and words that mean absolutely nothing.

He points to a verse from Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," written for the musical Very Warm for May, as an example of a "lyrical cardinal sin:"

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

"Those are all very pretty words, but what do they mean?" Sondheim asks. "Take a look at those images. I don't know what they mean. I also don't know how they apply personally to anybody. I just think they are poesy" -- in the sense of forced, sentimentalized poetic writing -- "and not poetry. Oscar did a lot of poetic writing, which I would call poesy, using images that are not germane to what's going on. I think that's just a writer trying to be poetic."

But Hammerstein, says Sondheim, could also be genuinely poetic. Take, for example, the opening lines to Oklahoma's "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'":

Oh, what a beautiful mornin',
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rythin's goin' my way!

Sondheim says that though that lyrics don't sound exciting on paper, they soar when set to Richard Rodgers' score.

"This is a lyric that doesn't look interesting, but it's thrilling," he says. "It's made for music."

Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park With George. He has also received seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar and a Kennedy Center Honor.


Interview Highlights

On collaborative moments

"If you're talking about Aha! moments, that comes with any collaboration. You sit in a room and you're talking to someone and your collaborator says 'X, Y, Z' and you say 'Wait a minute, that's a great idea for this song.' I had that with Jerry Robbins. He happened to use the phrase 'Let me entertain you' as a sort of dummy phrase for what we thought the song should be about, and I said 'That's perfect, that's exactly the right phrase.' Because it can be 'Let me entertain you' [sung] by kids, and then, when Gypsy becomes a stripper, it can have the sexy, sultry undertone or overtone to it, because 'entertain' can be seen and heard as a double entendre."

On using slang in the Jets' song from West Side Story

"I was just imitating Arthur Laurents' style. He wrote the book, and he made up a style, a kind of street talk that never existed, because he knew that if he used actual street argot, it would date so quickly that by the time the show got on [stage] a year or two later, it would be old-fashioned. One of the very few pieces of actual street argot we used was the word 'cool,' which still meant the same thing back in 1957 that it had meant to jazz musicians earlier. And that's a word that has stayed, pretty much in the language meaning approximately the same thing, although it changes a little bit. Now of course it just means OK, but 'cool' meant 'better than OK' before, so we kept that."

On using profanity in West Side Story

The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" ends with the cast singing "Gee, Officer Krupke, What are we to do? / Gee, Officer Krupke -- Krup You!"

"I wanted this to be the first musical to use f--k. In fact, I first used it in 'Krupke.' I wanted the last line in 'Krupke' to be 'Gee Officer Krupke, f--k you.' And we played the song for a record company, Columbia Records, who was going to do the album and also for a lady who was raising money for the producer at the time, and she blanched visibly and clearly was upset by it. She didn't complain. She was just sort of shocked and unhappy. But then Goddard [Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records] told us that if we used that word, we couldn't ship the show across state lines because it would be in violation of the obscenity laws. So we changed it to 'Krup you.'"

On writing for Ethel Merman in Gypsy

"We assumed that she couldn't act because she had played all of her life just low comedy and brassy songs, and [Gypsy] would require her to act, particularly at the end of the first act, where she discovers that her daughter has left her and she's going to make the other daughter fill the younger daughter's shoes and make her into a star. And so I thought, 'If she can't act at that moment -- because it's a huge moment -- the way to do it is to give Ethel a kind of song that she's sung all her life: a big, brassy number like "Blow, Gabriel Blow." And then let ... her lover and Louise, her daughter who she's focusing on, react as if they were in front of a cobra -- just completely terrified and motionless and cowering, and then the effect would be made. Ethel wouldn't have to act, but you'd get the idea of, 'This express-train woman is now going to run over her other daughter.' And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act. But the song we wrote, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," is an imitation of "Blow, Gabriel Blow" that Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or any of those brassy [things] that they wrote for Ethel to sing."

On experimentation with musical form

"I never take an overview of myself or what I've done. I do know that if you look at an overview of the stuff that was written before my generation, what you get is [Oscar] Hammerstein as an experimental playwright and his big experiment, which would have broken things open had it been a success, was the third show he wrote with Rodgers, called Allegro, which was an attempt to really try something new with the form. But because it was a failure, nobody picked up on it. Then it was up to my generation to start experimenting [with] the form."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Stephen Sondheim fans, like me, always wonder: How did he write those brilliant lyrics? Well, he has a new book in which he provides a lot of answers. The book collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and tells the stories behind the songs. He also gives his take on other great lyricists, some of whose lyrics he thinks aren't really so great.

Included in the book are his lyrics for the shows "Saturday Night," "Gypsy," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Anyone Can Whistle," "Do I Hear a Waltz," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "The Frogs," "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd" and "Merrily We Roll Along." The book's title, "Finishing the Hat," refers to a song in his show "Sunday in the Park with George."

Sondheim turned 80 this year. There's a revival on Broadway of his 1971 show "Follies." The revival stars Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. Let's start with a song from the first Broadway show Sondheim wrote lyrics for, "West Side Story." The music's by Leonard Bernstain.

(Soundbite of song, "Jet Song")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Riff) (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.

When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you've got brothers around, you're a family man.

Unidentified Group #1 (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) You're never alone. You're never disconnected. You're home with your own when company's expected. You're well-protected. Then you are set with a capital J, which you'll never forget 'till they cart you away. When you're a Jet you stay a Jet.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you back, and thank you for writing down the stories behind your songs and for sharing your thoughts on other lyricists.

So getting to the "Jet Song," the opening song from your first Broadway musical, you know, a lot of people mock "West Side Story" for being about gangs singing and dancing to show tunes. So...

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Lyricist): Really? A lot of people do that?

GROSS: Some people.

Mr. SONDHEIM: So why did the show become so popular?

GROSS: Because it's fantastic. So what were the challenges of writing lyrics for a gang to sing?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, no challenge at all. I was just imitating Arthur Laurents's style. Arthur wrote the book, and he set he made up a style, a kind of street talk that never existed because he knew that if he used actual street argot, it would date so quickly that by the time the show got on a year or two later, it would be old-fashioned.

So, you know, one of the very few pieces of actual street argot we used was the word cool, which still meant the same thing back in 1957 that had meant to jazz musicians earlier. And that's a word that has stayed pretty much in the language meaning approximately the same thing, although it changes a little bit. Now of course it just means okay, but cool meant better than okay.

But virtually everything else, the way the characters talk Arthur made up: highly romanticized and very simply flowery for the young lovers, and for the gangs a kind of made-up slang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GROSS: Right. My guest is Stephen Sondheim, and he has a new book called "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes."

So after "West Side Story," you wrote the lyrics to "Gypsy," to music by Julie Stein. A song from "Gypsy" I'd like you to talk about is "Some People," which Ethel Merman sang in the original production.

You know, I love the opening line: Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. Can you do you remember how that image came to you?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, but I set up a rhyme scheme there of inner rhymes, because I wanted the song to speed along, and inner rhymes help speed lines. So the knitting and sitting becomes a pattern for the song.

So no, but the image itself, sure, you try to imagine what does an angry lady who wants to get out of a small town feel about the small-town life around her? And what would her image of inert, conventional people be?

GROSS: Were there qualities you were writing for, for Ethel Merman's voice? Now, you weren't writing the music for this, you were writing the lyrics. But still, I mean, she has such a distinctive delivery.

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, I mean, we knew we were writing for that kind of outsized personality that she's got. We assumed that she couldn't act because she had played all of her life just low comedy and brassy songs. And this would require her to act, and particularly at the end of the first act, where she discovers that her daughter has left herm and she's going to make the other daughter fill the younger daughter's shoes and make her into a star.

And so I thought: If she can't act at that moment because it's a, you know, it's a huge moment, a woman facing a horrifying crisis and bulling her way through it, it's a big emotional moment. And I thought the way to do it is to give Ethel a kind of song that she's sung all her life: a big, brassy number like "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."

And then let her be her lover and Louise, her daughter, whom she's focusing on, react like - as if they were in front of, I don't know, a cobra, I mean, just completely terrified and motionless and cowering, and then the effect would be made because Ethel wouldn't have to act, but you would get the idea of the moment, which is this express-train woman is now going to run over her other daughter.

And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act. But the song we wrote, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," is an absolutely imitation, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," Cole Porter kind of - or Irving Berlin or any of those brassy songs that they wrote for Ethel to sing. It's a real Ethel Merman song. It requires no acting.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Some People." Just tell me one more thing here. You talk about in your book how writing into a song, you know, from the dialogue, that transition into the song is the most difficult part. How did you solve the problem with "Some People"?

Mr. SONDHEIM: I wrote a verse well, actually, I didn't solve it, and the speech that leads into it reaches a high pitch, and then she starts it on a low note.

And so I wrote - in Philadelphia when we were trying the show out, I wrote a verse for Ethel to sing that would take her from a high pitch to a low pitch so that she could start the song properly. And she wouldn't sing it because in that verse, she, meaning Rose, tells her father to go to hell because she's trying to get $88 from him, and he won't give it to her.

And so she tells him to go to hell, and Ethel said her public would not tolerate telling her father to go to hell. So what happens now is she reaches a high pitch, and then she starts on a long note, and I think it's a real clunky connection, a real clunky transition.

GROSS: So you were never happy with it?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, still not.

GROSS: Okay, well, let's just hear the song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: Okay.

GROSS: So this is Ethel Merman from the original cast recording of "Gypsy."

Mr. SONDHEIM: The line - I paraphrase slightly, but the line that she's telling her father off, and she's angrier and angrier, and she ends it by saying: I'm getting my kids, and I am getting out. And then she starts - sorry about that. I just - I think I blew the ears off the engineer. I'm terribly sorry. He's being taken to the hospital. He's bleeding from both ears.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, but anyway, she reaches that kind of pitch, and then she starts to sing.

GROSS: Okay, so here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Some People")

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN (Actor): (As Rose) (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. That's okay for some people who don't know they're alive.

Some people can thrive and bloom living life in a living room. That's perfect for some people of one hundred and five.

But I at least gotta try when I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, all the things that I gotta be at. Come on, papa, what do you say?

Some people can be content playing bingo and paying rent. That's peachy for some people, for some hum-drum people to be, but some people ain't me.

GROSS: We'll hear more stories behind the songs when we continue our interview with Stephen Sondheim after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. His new book of collected lyrics and the stories behind them is called "Finishing the Hat."

You have some fascinating comments in your book about lyricists whose work you really admire, and lyricists - I think our listeners will be surprised to hear you have a lot of criticisms of their work. And what surprised me the most was to read your criticisms of your mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. And had you shared those criticisms in public before? Is this kind of like the first time for you?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, no. No, no. No, I never in public, and no, not at all. But since I was writing a book that is critical of my own work, I wanted to show the standards by which I, you know, write my own lyrics. And it seemed to me, curious enough, I had thought, when I first began the book, I thought I will not criticize anybody else. I will only criticize my own stuff.

Well, that is, in its own way, the mirror image of self-aggrandizement. Self-depreciation is just the other side of the coin. It's all about me, me, me, me, me. And I thought, if I don't put it into context of other people's work and show what I admire and what I don't admire about my predecessors' work I never talk about anybody living in the book, only about people who are dead because it doesn't hurt their feelings, and also, they can't fight you back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: But mostly, you know, I really disapprove of people who criticize, particularly practicioners who criticize other practitioners while they're alive. I think that's really bad form because it always hurts.

But I thought, you know, I've got to - I can't just criticize myself. So I looked very carefully, as I always have, at, you know, the dozen best lyric writers in the American musical theater who preceded me and look at their work and talk about it a little bit.

GROSS: Well, let me choose a couple of Hammerstein examples that you cite in the book: Oh, what a beautiful mornin', oh, what a beautiful day. You like that a lot.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, it's not that. I point that's not a question with like or not. That's an example of how you under-write a lyric. He knows that that doesn't read very excitingly on paper, but he also knows that when Rodgers puts it to music, it soars.

That's a perfect example because lyrics are not poetry. They have to have air. They have to give music room to give them life. They can't just be self-contained. That's why they're lyrics and not poetry, and they're not light verse, either. Lyrics are not meant to be read. They're meant to be sung.

GROSS: Now, you contrast that I should preface this by saying the last time you were on our show, you talked about the, you know, really interesting harmonic changes in the Jerome Kern song "All The Things You Are," for which Hammerstein wrote the lyrics.

And but you're very critical of Hammerstein's lyrics to the song, such as the line: You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Take the next line. Go ahead, read it again. Read the second line because that's the one that clinches it.

GROSS: Oh, okay, you do it.

Mr. SONDHEIM: You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

Those are all very pretty words, but what do they mean? Take a look at those images. I don't know what they mean. And I also don't know how they apply personally to anybody. Oscar did a lot of poetic lyric writing, which I would call poesy, using images that I think are not germane to what's going on. I think that's just a writer trying to be poetic. And that's an example.

GROSS: Let's get to your show "Follies," which is about a reunion of middle-aged men and women who performed in the follies or the people who were the girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses of those people who performed in the follies.

And so they're now middle-aged, and it's part set in the present and part set in the past, in the follies-era. And some of the songs you wrote for the show are reminiscent of the shows that come out of those reviews, reviews of the '30s and '40s, probably the '20s, too.

Was it fun in a way to write in a style that wasn't yours?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, always. Always, it's great fun to imitate people you admire.

GROSS: And like the opening line: What will tomorrow bring, the pundits query. I can't imagine you writing that.

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, no, but that's exactly the style, you've hit exactly the right style. That's precisely the kind of thing that Ira Gershwin wrote. If you look through his lyrics, you'll find that because it was the style in those days, was to use kind of fancy-ass words and play with them.

The playfulness of lyrics is something that's sort of gone out, not out of fashion, there aren't very many people who can do it. And that was largely the pleasure of the songs that people went to see in the musical theater in the 1920s and '30s and even into the '40s, even after "Oklahoma." People did not go to be moved by songs, although occasionally they might be, but to be delighted by the combination of playfulness in the language and invention and lightheartedness of the music.

There are people today who think that that's what musicals still should be. There are critics today who deplore everything that has happened from Hammerstein on. And they're always taking potshots at him because they want the musicals to be mindless and playful.

Well, I like mindless and playful, but there are other kinds of musicals to write, and the ones that interest me in writing are not the mindless, playful playful, yes, mindless, no.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" from "Follies." This is from the original cast recording.

(Soundbite of song, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow")

Mr. JOHN MCMARTIN (Actor): (as Ben) (Singing) What will tomorrow bring, the pundits query?

Ms. ALEXIS SMITH (Actor): (as Phyllis) (Singing) Will it be cheery?

Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Ben) (Singing) Will it be sad?

Ms. SMITH: (as Phyllis) (Singing) Will it be birds in spring or hara-kiri?

Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Ben) (Singing) Don't worry, dearie.

Ms. SMITH: (as Phyllis) (Singing) Don't worry, lad.

Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Ben) (Singing) I'll have our future suit your whim, blue chip preferred.

Ms. SMITH: (as Phyllis) (Singing) Putting it in a synonym, perfect's the word.

Ms. SMITH and Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Phyllis and Ben) (Singing) We're in this thing together, aren't you glad? Each day from now will be the best day you ever had.

Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Ben) (Singing) You're gonna love tomorrow. You're gonna be with me. You're gonna love tomorrow, I'm giving you my personal guarantee.

Ms. SMITH: (as Phyllis) (Singing) Say toodle-oo to sorrow and fare thee well, ennui. Bye-bye. You're gonna love tomorrow as long as your tomorrow is spent with me.

Ms. SMITH and Mr. MCMARTIN: (as Phyllis and Ben) (Singing) Today was perfectly perfect, you say. Well, don't go away, 'cause if you think you liked today, you're gonna love tomorrow. You stick around and see. And if you love tomorrow...

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim will be back in the second half of the show. His new book collecting his lyrics and telling the stories behind them is called "Finishing the Hat." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Stephen Sondheim. He has a new book called "Finishing the Hat," collecting his lyrics from 1954 to 1981, and telling the stories behind them.

Before we get back to the interview, let's hear another song from his 1971 show "Follies." This is John McMartin.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Many Mornings")

Mr. MCMARTIN (Actor): (as Ben) (Singing) Too many mornings, waking and pretending, I reach for you, thousands of mornings dreaming of my girl. All that time wasted, merely passing through. Time I could have spent so content, wasting time with you.

Too many mornings wishing that the room might be filled with you, morning to morning, turning into days. All the days that I thought would never end, all the nights with another day to spend. All those times I'd look up to see Sally standing at the door, Sally moving to the bed, Sally resting in my arms with her head against my head.

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Stephen Sondheim. His new book of his collected lyrics includes sidebars in which evaluates the work of other lyricists in the pantheon.

Now, in your sidebar about Ira Gershwin in your book, you describe him as rhyming poison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, I don't describe him as rhyming poison. I described that as an aspect of his writing.

GROSS: Okay. And you say he makes you feel the sweat. He's often undone by his passion for rhyming for which he sacrifices both ease and syntax. And you offer as an example an excerpt of the song "How Long Has This Been Going On": 'Neath the stars, at bazaars, often I've had to caress men. Five or ten dollars then, I'd collect from all those yes men. Don't be sad, I must add, that they meant no more than chess men.

Comments on that?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. Well, I dont need to comment on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: It's complete nonsense. It makes the ear tired to listen to. It's so jammed with inner rhymes and it is so oblique a way of saying something apparently - apparently simple, though I'm not even quite sure what he means by it. But it is all, you just feel the lyric writer sweating over every line with his rhyming dictionary, and crossing out - I mean that is such effortful writing. And then when it's sung it makes the listener work as hard as the lyric writer did. Yes, I find that, you know, all too common in his lyrics.

GROSS: You loved Dorothy Fields and knew her. Didnt even realize she was a songwriter untill you were in your teens. And your father introduced her to the man who became her husband.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes, it was his best friend.

GROSS: And you love lyrics of hers that are very colloquial, like sunny side of the street.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah. Again, simple. It seems so simple. You hear lyrics like that and you think, oh, I could write one of those. Well, you couldn't. And it's all the effort that goes into making something sounds effortless, which is a kind of art that I like.

Not all art has to seem effortless. You know, you see Guernica, it's not effortless. But - you read "War and Peace," it's not effortless.

But I think with lyrics, popular lyrics, popular songs - by popular I mean show songs - you should always not be aware of the writer. I think you should be aware of the character and not think of the songs as written. Dorothy had a wonderful line in what I would call simple lyrics. I mean her lyrics are so clean and so uncluttered and so seemingly effortless. And as we all know, it takes a huge amount of work to make something seem like there was no work in it at all.

GROSS: Let's get to your musical, "A Little Night Music," which is currently in revival on Broadway with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, and I want to play "Send in the Clowns." And I'll confess to you, this is a song, I love your songs, this is a song I never really felt much warmth for. I just never connected with it. And then seeing it in context in the show, I fell in love with it and then just kind of went back to the cast recording, original cast recording, and started listening to it over and over again with Glynis Johns singing it.

And you tell a very interesting story about how you wrote this song for her playing to her strengths and weaknesses. Can you talk about that?

Mr. SONDHEIM: The leading lady in the show is supposed to be charming and beautiful, beautiful enough, even though she's entering middle age, to be a rival to a beautiful young 18-year-old girl. That's the idea of the triangle of the show. And we knew that in order to get somebody like that who would have charm and beauty and be able to play light comedy - because it's very elegant, the writing of the libretto, Hugh Wheeler's writing requires somebody who really knows how to play light comedy and there aren't a lot of people who can do that or couldn't in those days and none now, because the whole fashion had gone out.

So I assumed, anyway, that whomever we would hire would not be able to sing very well because to get all those qualities and a singer, certainly nobody sprang to mind and the chances of finding somebody like that were slight.

So I put all the vocal weight on Frederick, the hero, and on Anne, the young wife, the 18-year-old. And Desiree, the middle-aged lady, I had her take part in two numbers in the first act, both of which are essentially comic and do not require any heavy singing.

And when we were in rehearsal, we realized Desiree, who was a central character, had no song in the second act. I mean we knew that anyway. But I said to Hal, you know, I can't find a place for her. And he said, well, maybe in the scene in the bedroom. And I said, well, the scene in the bedroom is really Frederick's scene, it's the scene in which Frederick and Desiree, who have had an affair in the past, were about to resume their affair and Frederick simply can't leave his 18-year-old bride. And so he tells Desiree, who has invited him down for the weekend with the thought that she can get him back, and he says I can't do it.

And so I was writing an I-can't-do-it kind of song that's a - the thrust of the scene - the motor of the scene is Frederick's and so therefore I thought he should be the singer. And Hal called me one day from rehearsal and said, I think, if you'd come down here, I think I've directed the scene so that maybe the motor and come from her.

And I went down and sure enough even though she was the passive one in the scene and he was the active one, he made it so it seemed as if the emotional center of the scene was hers, not Frederick's. So having seen that, I then went home to write it.

And I knew that Glynis had this lovely smoky, silvery voice, but she couldn't sustain notes. She's not really a singer. She's an actress who can sing very nicely but not with a capital S singing. And so I decided to write a series of short musical lines so she wouldn't have to sustain notes. And that suggested questions, little phrases, and then I wanted not to have any open vowel sounds at the end of the opening lines so that it wouldn't seem like she couldn't sing.

But you take a word like rich, it cuts itself off and has a short vowel sound. So if somebody sings isn't it rich, you don't expect them to sing isn't it rich. Whereas if it's an open vowel sound, you know, isn't it love - if she went isn't it love, you could accept it, but you also know that it could be sustained. Rich can't be sustained without ruining the word, so it sounds like it fits the short phrase and it fits her voice. So it was tailoring it that way.

GROSS: So, okay. So this is Glynis Johns from the original cast recording of "A Little Night Music," singing "Send in the Clowns."

(Soundbite of song, "Send in the Clowns")

Ms. GLYNIS JOHNS (Actor): (as Desiree) (Singing) Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air. Send in the clowns. Isn't it bliss? Don't you approve? One who keeps tearing around, one who can't move. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.

Just when I'd stopped opening doors, finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours. Making my entrance again with my usual flair, sure of my lines, no one is there.

GROSS: That's Glynis Johns from the original cast recording of "A Little Night Music." And my guest is Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the words and music for the show and now has a collection of his lyrics with the stories behind the songs and then some, and the book is called "Finishing the Hat." We'll continue our interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. His new book, "Finishing the Hat," collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and tells the stories behind the songs.

I want to move on to "Sweeney Todd," and I want to ask you about writing for the chorus. There's a chorus that opens the show and they kind of - it's almost like a Greek chorus in a way because they tell you what the story is going to be about, they narrate some of the action. And you know, you write in the book about how thrilling it is to hear the sound of a full chorus, but how at the same time it's so often unconvincing, that everybody in a chorus would be having the same feeling at the same time. Like you asked, did everyone in the Navy in "South Pacific" think there is nothing like a dame? You say what about the misogynists in the group? Or if there were no misogynists, are there no homosexuals?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you write for a chorus in "Sweeney Todd"?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, but they're telling a story. They're not having an emotional thought. They're telling a story...

GROSS: So this is the time when you thought you could write for a chorus effectively.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. But when they're all eating meat pies at the beginning of the second act in a number called "God That's Good," or when they're buying Pirelli's miracle elixir, theyre singing different things. When they sing all at once, they all do have the same thought. Everybody at the table thinks the meat is good, so they come together on the phrase God that's good.

But the other phrases of the song are sung by different people because, you know, one of them is trying to sneak out without paying, another one is drunk, etcetera, etcetera. They're all characterized. Same thing is true of "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." When they sing all at once, they are seeing a thought that all of them do have, so it's legitimate.

GROSS: So the first line in the lyric is: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. And you say that that's an example of how God is in the details, which is one of your prime rules of lyric writing. What's contained in that phrase?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, first of all, attend is an old fashioned word, so right away you know you're not in the 20th century. And the happenstance - the happy happenstance of the T sounds - attend the tale of Sweeney Todd - gives it an old ballad feeling because of the semi-alliteration there. And tale tells you right away this is not going to be a realistic story. This is not - you're not meant to take this at face value because if you do, you'd scream with laughter. I mean, you know, that's an outrageous story, if you try to treat it seriously. It has to be treated as a melodrama. It has to - you have to tell the audience we are not - this is not supposed to be real, folks. Now, of course, it's a musical so it's never real in a musical.

But you can get - you know, "West Side Story" does not say that at the beginning. It's attempting to tell the audience, yes, it's a musical, but we want you to take this as if it were a serious story that can actually be happening on the streets of New York right now: two gangs are at war and murders and deaths occur as a result. And - whereas "Sweeney Todd" is strictly about, in a sense, cartoon figures.

At the end of the chapter what I say is what "Sweeney Todd" really is is a movie. And so attend the tale tells you all of those things or implies them. Obviously it doesn't spell it out, but implies them. The formality of the language, you know: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, his skin was pale and his eyes were odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.

Well, right away it's a style, it's been set for an audience, it tells them not to take the show seriously and it implies that it's all going to be narrated, which in fact it is.

GROSS: So here's the opening chorus from "Sweeney Todd."

(Soundbite of song, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. He trod a path that few have trod, did Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) (Singing) He kept a shop in London Town of fancy clients and good renown. And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved by Sweeney, by Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Unidentified Group #3 (Actors): (as characters) (Singing) Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hold it to the skies. Freely flows the blood of those who moralize.

GROSS: That's the opening chorus from "Sweeney Todd." My guest Stephen Sondheim wrote the words and music. Now he has a new book of his collected lyrics from 1954 to 1981. It's called "Finishing the Hat."

Now you point out that none of your musicals elicited as extreme reaction, both extravagant accolades and contemptuous rage, as "Sweeney" did. Do you have a sense of why that was so?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, I really don't. Over a period of time, of course, that's become less true. There is much less contention about it now because it's been - it's sort of has settled into the canon of musicals and it's been done a number of times and then a movie has been made of it, so it has been sort of accepted.

But when it came out - well, I've had that with a number of - I had that same reaction from "Assassins." You know, there are certainly musicals that audiences get put off by on first seeing, usually because of the subject matter.

But I think what put people off on "Sweeney" was that it had a semi-operatic feeling to it. I think that I don't think they were put off by the story. Although, you know, there are people who don't want to see blood on the stage, but I don't think that's what it was about. I think it was the semi-operatic feeling of it. And when people went to - and it's still true - go to a musical they want songs. They don't want semi-opera.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. His new book is "Finishing the Hat." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. His new book, "Finishing the Hat," collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and tells the stories behind the songs.

Let me move on to "Merrily We Roll Along," which is one of the shows - it's the last show actually, included in your new book.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes. Volume two will be forthcoming, let's say and taken up after that.

GROSS: When is it forthcoming?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: A year from now.

GROSS: When is it coming forth?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: Ha, ha. I've written about three quarters of it. It's just - it was all going to be one volume and then I said to the publishers that if it was all in one volume only Olympic shot putters could buy it. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: So I suggested two volumes. They said fine. Starting with "Sunday in the Park with George," the second volume.

GROSS: There's a beautiful song in "Merrily" that's sung twice. And I'm thinking of "Not A Day Goes By."

Mr. SONDHEIM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And both versions have - each version has a different meaning.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Because one is at the beginning of a love affair and the other is during a divorce.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Right.

GROSS: Can you talk about writing that song with two different meanings in mind?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, I wrote the whole score knowing that it was going to go backwards in time and I thought, what does that imply? Well, it implies that something that you and I sing today, 20 years from now will have a different meaning to both of us. It doesn't have to be that we get divorced. Maybe it'll be memories of something. But everything that happens at a given time in your life has echoes and resonances afterwards, what I would call like reprises, really, of thoughts, of moments in your life that happen in different context or - so I thought if I'm going to write the show that goes backwards in time we'll start with the reprises. That is to say, start with the variation on the theme and then go back to the theme and that's what happens here. It happens with a lot of other songs in the show too.

But this one very specifically with the lyric because it applies to two very distinct and distinctly defined situations, one a divorce and one when they got married, so you're taking too high spots of their lives, their marriage and their divorce.

Now I did that throughout the show. I still began as I always do, writing the score from the first song on, but knowing, always making notes as to how I would use it later in the show. So I never wrote blind, so to speak. I wrote knowing, okay, this will be useful when this - because we had plotted out the show and we knew what was going to happen in the second act. In other words, we knew what had happened in the past. And, so yeah, so I was writing to that kind of plot.

GROSS: So we'll hear both versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from the 1994 York Theatre Revival.

Mr. SONDHEIM: But that's the way to illustrate it.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Not A Day Goes By")

Ms. ANNE BOBBY (Actor): (as Beth) (Singing) Not a day goes by. Not a single day. But you're somewhere a part of my life and it looks like you'll stay. As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end? Where's the day I'll have started forgetting? But I just go on thinking and sweating and cursing and crying and turning and reaching and waking and dying and no, not a day goes by. Not a blessed day, but you're still somehow part of my life and you won't go away. So there's hell to pay and until I die, I'll die day after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, till the days go by, till the days go by, till the days go by.

Not a day goes by. Not a single day. But you're somewhere a part of my life and it looks like you'll stay.

Mr. MALCOLM GETS (Actor): (as Frank) (Singing) As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end?

Ms. BOBBY: (as Beth) (Singing) That it can't get much better, much longer, but it only gets better and stronger and deeper and nearer...

Ms. BOBBY and Mr. GETS: (as Beth and Frank) (Singing) ...and simpler and freer and richer and clearer and no, not a day goes by. Not a blessed day, but you're somewhere. Come into my life and you don't go away.

And I have to say if you do I'll die. I want day after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, till the days go by, till the days go by, till the days go by.

Ms. BOBBY: (as Beth) (Singing) Till the days go by.

GROSS: That's two versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along." And my guest is Stephen Sondheim. He has a new book of his collected lyrics and the stories behind those lyrics called "Finishing the Hat."

When writing about working with Julie Stein on "Gypsy"...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you say, only superhuman confidence keeps you writing fearlessly into old age. Julie Stein was one of the few who had it in spades.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have that superhuman confidence to keep writing?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. Not really. Not really. I mean I want to get back to the piano as soon as I finish the second volume. But, no, I don't have that drive and I don't have that eagerness that Julie had every day of his life. I would love a little of that.

GROSS: But you do plan on keep writing - on keeping writing.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sure, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: ...for coming back to fresh air and for talking with us again.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And congratulations on the new book.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Ah, okay, thank you for that too.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim's new book, collecting his lyrics and telling the stories behind them is called "Finishing the Hat." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

Here's another song from "Sweeney Todd."

(Soundbite of song, "The Worst Pies in London")

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) A customer. Wait. What's your rush? What's your hurry? You gave me such a fright; I thought you was a ghost half a minute. Can't you sit, sit you down, sit. All I meant is that I haven't seen a customer for weeks. Did you come in for a pie, sir? Do forgive me if my head's a little vague. What was that? But you'd think we had the plague from the way that people keep avoiding. No you don't. Heaven knows I try, sir. But there's no one comes in even to inhale. Right you are, sir, would you like a drop of ale?

Mind you I can hardly blame them. These are probably the worst pies in London. I know why nobody cares to take them. I should know. I make them. But good? No. The worst pies in London. Even that's polite. The worst pies in London. If you doubt it take a bite. Is that just disgusting? You have to concede it. It's nothing but crusting.

Here drink this, you'll need it. The worst pies in London and no wonder with the price of meat. What it is, when you get it, if you get it. Never thought I'd live to see the day. Men'd think it was a treat findin' poor animals that are dyin' in the street. Mrs. Mooney has a pie shop. Does a business, but I notice something weird. Lately, all her neighbor's cats have disappeared. Have to hand it to her. What a course, enterprise. Poppin' pussies into pies. Wouldn't do in my shop. Just the thought of it's enough to make you sick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular