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At 80, Musical-Theater Icon Stephen Sondheim Looks Back

Sondheim, shown here in 1974, won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. He has also received eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy awards and a Kennedy Center Honor. (Getty Images)

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2010. This interview was originally broadcast on April 21, 2010.

Stephen Sondheim's 80th-birthday presents started piling up early last March. The New York Philharmonic held a two-day concert hosted by David Hyde Pierce and featuring tributes to the Broadway legend from Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin.

The Roundabout Theater Company renamed one of its Broadway houses, the Henry Miller's Theatre on West 43rd Street, in Sondheim's honor and held a benefit at Studio 54 that included an early performance of the new Broadway production Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical portrait of Sondheim's life complete with archival interview footage. (James Lapine, who collaborated with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park With George and Passion, directed the show, which featured Vanessa Williams, Barbara Cook and Tom Wopat singing new arrangements of Sondheim classics.)

So what does Sondheim think of the recent celebrations in honor of his birthday?

"It's been a little too much in the public spotlight," he tells Terry Gross. "But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It's terrific to know that people like your stuff."

Sondheim's "stuff" includes the lyrics for classics like West Side Story and Gypsy, not to mention the music and lyrics for — among others — Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods, Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

He's been honored with eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar (for the music in 1990's Dick Tracy). The New York Times calls him the "greatest and perhaps best-known artist in American musical theater."

Epiphany

Upon graduating from Williams College in 1950, Sondheim received one of his first awards, the Hutchinson Prize for Composition. The award gave Sondheim the opportunity to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

"I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that's what I learned from him," Sondheim says. "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. ... But what we did was — we did an hour on songs and three hours on Beethoven and Bach, and it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music."

Though Babbitt influenced Sondheim's compositional techniques, he says it was the film composer Bernard Herrmann — most famous for his musical work on the Hitchcock films Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo — who heavily influenced the score of Sweeney Todd.

"When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written," Sondheim says. "It's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. It particularly impressed me — but all of Bernard Herrmann's music particularly impressed me, so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him."

One of the most famous compositions in Sweeney Todd is "Epiphany" — the terrifyingly mad ballad sung by the title character (a homicidal barber) after he learns that the judge who unjustly sent him to prison had later raped his wife and adopted his daughter. Sweeney has decided to take his revenge — via his razors — against the judge. The chords at the end of the song are extremely dissonant, particularly when Todd sings the last line, "I'm alive at last / And I'm full of joy!"

Sondheim says he wrote the music to mimic the madness that's taking place in Sweeney's head — and that he originally resisted writing a conclusion that would move an audience to applaud.

"In fact, I ... had it end on a sort of dissonant chord with kind of violent harmonics — meaning very high, shrill sounds," he says. "And Hal Prince said, 'Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song. You have to give him a hand.' So I put a big chord on the end, and that big chord still strikes me as wrong. 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 and get a hand from the audience — and those who do what I wanted to do, which was to let the thing dribble out into the next scene."

Opening Doors

Before Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, he played his music for a lot of producers and directors, trying to break into theater. He got a lot of blank looks.

"I remember playing once for Cy Feuer, the producer of Guys and Dolls," Sondheim says. "He also was the 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?' He wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music, is what it was. And he might have been right, but I don't think he was."

After West Side Story, Sondheim was hired to write the lyrics for Gypsy — which led to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics.

When he writes, Sondheim says, he doesn't necessarily always write the lyrics first or the music first; the process depends on what pops into his head.

"I will improvise or think of various melodic ideas and sometimes chord sequences. ... At the same time, I'm also jotting down any lyric," he says. "Then I try to start from the first song, and if I have a lyric line or a phrase, I'll expand a bit. ... I may have a musical idea and expand on it, but I never go far without bringing the other one in, because you can paint yourself into a corner if you write a whole tune or even half a tune with no idea what you're going to say in it — because you're then going to be hard-pressed to find words that fit inside the music easily and accomplish exactly what you want them to accomplish."

During this musical sketching process, Sondheim doesn't record himself — he just makes notations on what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.

"The process of putting something down on paper is very important in keeping the stuff alive in your head," he says. "You can improvise and think, 'Wait, that A-flat doesn't sound right,' and you change things as you go along, even though you're just sketching."

And when he needs to create a rhyme, Sondheim says, it's crucial to know what he wants to say beforehand.

"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 you'll say 'All right, I've got this line that ends with "day" and I want to say "She loves him,' " and then you go through the rhyming dictionary. 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. ... You make a list of rhymes that are in some way relevant, and then you use them."

There are certain rhymes Sondheim says he would never use again — soul-stirring and bolstering from Follies, for instance — but other rhymes get used day in and day out from song to song, show to show — because they're extremely useful.

"They're words that have many meanings and many connotations so that's what I mean," Sondheim says.

And words, he says, are why he's in theater in the first place.

"I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested in communication with audiences," he says. "Otherwise I would be in concert music. I'd be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This week, we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. This year, we were lucky enough to have Stephen Sondheim on our show twice: first, to celebrate his 80th birthday, then to mark the publication of his book, "Finishing the Hat," which collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and tells the stories behind the songs.

Sondheim is the greatest Broadway composer-lyricist of our time and one of the best and most musically innovative ever. Sondheim got his start on Broadway as the lyricist for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy." Then he went on to write words and music for such shows as "Anyone Can Whistle," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," which is back on Broadway, "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In the Park With George," "Into the Woods," "Assassins," "Passion" and "Road Show."

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with him in April, when the Roundabout Theater was presenting the show "Sondheim on Sondheim," a review featuring his songs, as well as video clips of interviews with him.

In the Roundabout Theater 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 this show a few years ago. It didn't last long, sadly, on Broadway, but I saw a revival by the York Theater Company.

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Lyricist, Composer): Yes.

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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Okay.

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

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes, it's about - 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 were kind of hoping to become real, you know, a real composer, a real lyricist and a real novelist.

Mr. SONDHEIM: They're opening doors.

GROSS: They're opening doors. 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." So here we go, from Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."

(Soundbite of song, "Opening Doors")

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

Mr. LONNY PRICE (Actor): (As Charley) Good. You?

Mr. WALTON: (As Franklin) (Singing) Good.

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) One minute.

Mr. WALTON: (As Franklin) (Singing) (Unintelligible), Mary...

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) Say hello.

Ms. ANN MORRISON (Actor): (As Mary) I think I got a job.

Mr. WALTON: (As Franklin) (Singing) Where? What's that?

Ms. MORRISON: (As Mary) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WALTON: (As Franklin) (Singing) What about the book? Did you get the (unintelligible) the book?

Mr. PRICE (As Charley) (Singing) Good. Mary. (Unintelligible).

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

Ms. MORRISON: (As Mary) (Singing) (Unintelligible) from instinct. I don't have the time to do a polish.

Mr. PRICE: (As Charley) (Singing) Well you sing, right? Who wants to live in New York? Who wants the 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 gotta have a real taste for maniacs. Suddenly I do.

Mr. JASON ALEXANDER (Actor): (As Joe) (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 'em a crumb? What's wrong with letting 'em 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:

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

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As Joe) (Singing) Listen, boys, maybe it's me, but that's just not a hum-umam-umam-umamable 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 melodee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee - dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee...

GROSS: The "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 it's not a song you can hum, give me a melody?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, sure, sure, 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 like, particularly I was very close to Mary Rogers, Dick Rogers' 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 ambience of our lives and the speed and the excitement and the disappointment and the triumph, et cetera.

The whole business of hummability, of course, has to do with familiarity. If you hear a tune enough times, you'll hum it. You know, you can - the 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 know, very few people accuse 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, it might be because it is so immediately memorable, but more likely, it's because it reminds you of something else.

GROSS: Now, the producer sings: I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit, he's saying sarcastically. Now, you studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. When you studied with him, was your ambition Broadway, or was it more...

Mr. 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, oh, Jerome Kern or by de Sylva, Brown, and Henderson, the classic songs of the American theater and American movies.

And Milton also, on the - 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 one foot - in fact, he is, because he's still alive, he's a jazz fan. And he's also got the kind of memory, if you play him a jazz record from 1932, he'll tell you who's 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, well, but I'd have to do it with a piano.

GROSS: Oh, sure, okay.

Mr. 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 from 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's as lodged in 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: My guest is Stephen Sondheim. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with 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, there is no joy. It is the joy of anger and revenge.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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 discordant - what you mean is dissonant. Discordant means mistakes.

GROSS: Oh, oh, I didn't mean that.

Mr. SONDHEIM: That's all right. So but yes, it's dissonant because what's going on in Sweeney's head is dissonant. I 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 some kind of violent harmonics, meaning very high, shrill sounds.

And Hal Prince said, you know, Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song. You have 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.

Mr. 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 absolutely right. There's a consonant chord and a dissonant chord going on at the same time, one right after the other.

GROSS: Okay, 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, "The Epiphany")

Mr. LEN CARIOU (Actor): (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, no not ten men, nor a hundred can assuage me. I will have you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) 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, and there's a Sondheim, a wonderful Sondheim review by the Roundabout Theater Company currently at Studio 54 in New York.

Now, that last note in the song that Len Carious sings, joy, full of joy, did you think about hard about what that note should be because it's not the note that you - you expect a kind of resolution at the end there, a musical resolution, and that note does not - yeah, go ahead.

Mr. 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 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 plate.

So 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's great. Thank you for I didn't think of it that way. Thank you very much. I should say that that song is sung very well by Tom Wopat in "Sondheim on Sondheim."

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yes, very scary.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann influence.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's it. 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. And 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.

It's - 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, 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: Yeah, in the chords in that famous part of the "Psycho" score are very, like, dissonant violins.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, yes, and it's not so much the chords, it's the violin effect.

GROSS: You mean, like, the screechy...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly what I mean.

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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. No, 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. 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 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 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 can 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: Can we talk a little about your process of songwriting? I know the first thing that comes to 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?

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

And so I 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. And 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, because 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 together or in tandem but not one and then the other. It's one then the other, one then the other, at the same time.

GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview I recorded in April with Stephen Sondheim in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. This week we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in April with the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim who turned 80 this year. He wrote the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," then went on to write words and music for such shows as "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," Sweeney Todd, "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods." When we left off we were talking about his process of songwriting.

When you're writing at the piano are you recording what you're playing or are you just like...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Never. Never.

GROSS: ...notating it?

Mr. SONDHEIM: No. No. No. No. Just notating.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Notating. 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 playing it again, you may think wait a minute, that A-flat, no that's, no 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, Michael Angelo 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 put the, try to work out a whole body.

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

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh, what, you use rhyming dictionaries 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, you know, you say all right I got a - 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 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 the 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'll say, oh yes, of course. Well, of course, they're on Biscayne Bay. Maybe that'll be useful. So you write that 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?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Like you can't use a rhyme you've already used so - the choices are narrower?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, that no. 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh goodness. I don't know. Soul-stirring and bolstering in "Follies," you know, if you use that once you don't use that again. Loddy(ph) doddy(ph) and nobody. You don't use that more than once or if you do you're a fool. And I've probably have used them more than once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: 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: I've heard you singing on recordings that have been released of you singing. And you said about your own singing, that you wish you were more on pitch and...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Oh yeah. Yes. I never studied singing and I should have. I do not have a God-given voice of any elegance or - it's musical, but it's not a voice to sing with. And however, I can sing on pitch if I concentrate on it. But often when I'm, all those things that you heard me sing and play were never meant for the public to hear. They were unrehearsed except in so far as I was -they were almost always just private recordings for friends or they were from auditions that I would give when I would have to go to producer's officers or to backers to raise money.

And so, they were presented in public, but they're being presented by the composer at the piano, so the certain roughness has charm for listeners. They're certain songwriters who have great voices, Sheldon Harnick, Fred Ebb, the lyricist, a wonderful voice.

GROSS: Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Harold Arlen. Well, Johnny Mercer, certainly, made a career - and Alan Lerner. So a lot of people have really good voices and some of us do not. The worse voice I've ever heard was Leonard Bernstein. That God only withheld one musical talent from Lenny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: And that, well, maybe two. But that one, he gave him the voice of a frog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: And I don't know if it ever frustrated him or not, but it was agony to listen to him try to sing. It was embarrassing. And the more enthusiastic he got - because what he was trying to do was to substitute passion for vocal acuity and it was deeply embarrassing. It was kind of cute but it was embarrassing. And it was - when we had to demonstrate any of the songs from "West Side Story" I would see to it that I did the singing. And believe me, I'm not that good but I was a lot better than Lenny.

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 are back in the real world, is the real world like a comfortable or an uncomfortable place for you?

Mr. SONDHEIM: It's not quite the analogy. That's not really exactly what the song's about. The 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 are 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. And 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. And I started inventing it eight o'clock in the evening. And I looked up from my pad at - and the sun, because the sun was coming up and I'd been concentrating for eight hours. And I know obviously, I must've gotten up to get something to drink or to go to the bathroom or something, but I have no memory of anything except that - and it's trancing out.

And that happens to everybody who either creates for public art or professional art, or as I say, you could get involved in writing a letter. 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. And it's neither an anticlimax nor a disappointment. It's just a plan ole ordinary shock. It's like you've been swimming underwater 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. 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," formally known as "Bounce," formally known as "Wise Guys."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And the song is "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." So which would you prefer?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, hard to pick. I think I'd prefer "The 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 "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 pout it in context for us? Tell us where it comes in in the show...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: ...and something about the writing of the song.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah. Well, the first version of it, which was in the version of the show called "Bounce," it was between - 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.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Sure.

GROSS: And happy 80th - Happy belated 80th Birthday.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened")

Mr. NATHAN LANE (Actor, singer): (As Addison Mizner) (Singing) First there's cocktails at the cousins. Oh Jesus. Hon, we've got fish to fry. Why don't you do this one without me, huh? Then there's dinner at the Dodge's, the reception at the Roosevelt's. I think I'm going to die. And every party filled with millionaires who want to fill the biggest bill since of days of ancient Rome. So what do you say we just stay home?

You are the best thing that ever has happened to me, you are. Okay, then one of the best things that's happened to me, you are. They say we all find love. I never bought it. I never thought it would happen to me, who could foresee?

You are the goddamndest thing that has happened to me, ever. When did 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 me. So what do you say we just stay home? What do you say we just...

GROSS: A song from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Road Show." The interview we heard was recorded last April. This year Sondheim turned 80 and he finished the book "Finishing the Hat," collecting his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 and telling the stories behind the songs.

Coming up, one of our most popular interviews of the year, about how being constantly connected to our digital devices is not only distracting us, it's changing our brains.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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