On March 27, at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, a sold-out crowd of musical theatre fans joined New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, for a “Times Talk” with Stephen Sondheim. The esteemed composer-lyricist was cheerful and relaxed, which Tommasini pointed out was a marked contrast to the photo that ran on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine about a year ago. Sondheim said that a “wag” at Music Theatre International, which licenses his shows, had added the caption: “Will compose for food.”
The evening began with a discussion of Sondheim’s musical education. He had studied composition in the very small music department at Williams College. A grant after college made it possible for him to study with noted twelve-tone composer (and would-be pop songwriter) Milton Babbitt. The analyses they did of Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas gave Sondheim a vocabulary of thematic, harmonic and rhythmic development that he uses, consciously and unconsciously, in his work. Babbitt did not coach Sondheim on serial music, however, explaining that the younger composer shouldn’t work in that mode until he had exhausted all tonal possibilities. Jokingly, Sondheim said he had not yet exhausted them, in fact he was still working on the same I, IV, V chords, or rather “I, IV, V with a tri-tone” (a discordant note). (Tommasini had already demonstrated the extraordinary harmonization in the “murmering” theme that begins “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”)
Asked if he had any interest in writing for the concert hall, Sondheim admitted to writing a piano sonata in college, and a duo-piano concerto which will be presented as a one-piano and orchestra “Concertina” by Jonathan Sheffer and the EOS orchestra later this year. He explained that the original impetus for that piece was knowing a friend with two grand pianos, but that, otherwise, he was entirely motivated by theatre projects.
Tommasini, who received his doctorate in music from Boston University, said that, by nature of his training, he looks for structural and harmonic motifs in music. From the piano he gave the audience numerous examples of themes passed from one song to another in the score of Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim agreed that a knowledge of “long form composition” helped him avoid getting “stuck” during the writing process. He said that it was also a tool for giving an overall shape and unity to a set of 13 songs which would be interspersed with dialogue. Even if the audience was not conscious of what was happening and how it worked, the resonances would be heard.
Tommasini’s classical background also prompted him to question Sondheim about his writing for singers. In the opera world, there is a fairly narrow standard for acceptable singing. In the musical theatre world, the range can be as wide as Bernadette Peters to Elaine Stritch, Fred Astaire to John Raitt, who, the critic said, could have been a Verdi baritone if he wanted. Sondheim said that he always opts for a good actor who can sing a little over a good singer who can act a little. Often it’s a practical choice. He explained that the character of Desiree in A Little Night Music was written with the idea that they would not have a singer. It would be hard enough to find a woman of a certain age who could do high comedy and be desirable enough to “be wanted by virtually everyone on stage.” So Sondheim gave the really heavy singing to the characters Anne and Fredrik. It happened, however, that when Glynis Johns auditioned, she had a tiny, but “silvery” voice that was “perfect on stage.” On the subject of amplification, Sondheim said that the problem was circular. Audiences, conditioned by television and movies, always expect to feel as if they are in the fourth row. They have lost the habit of concentrated listening, of leaning forward from the second balcony as Sondheim and his friends and collaborators used to do. Meanwhile, performers get accustomed to the bounce of the amplified sound in the hall. Because the Booth is a small theatre and Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters are such strong singers, Sondheim had planned on doing Sunday in the Park with George without amplification. Yet, when they got on the stage, the performers felt the hall was “dead.”
In conjunction with Follies, which opens April 5 on Broadway, the topic of pastiche, that is, evocation of particular past types of songs, came up. While writing the score to Follies, Sondheim said, he enjoyed figuring out what made Arlen, Arlen or Porter, Porter. His pastiche songs were written with great affection. The only time he felt prompted to “outdo” any of the writers whose styles he had appropriated was in the case of the British admiral in Pacific Overtures. Not a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, Sondheim said he thought to himself, "I’ll throw in three times as many rhymes!" Earlier in the evening, Tommasini had recited another impressive feat of rhyming, from the Pacific Overtures song “Chrysanthemum Tea” where the Shogun’s mother says “…if the tea the Shogun drank will serve to keep the Shogun tranquil….”
The host had pronounced the current state of American Musical Theatre too depressing to go into, but Sondheim did make a few remarks on the subject. He said that he found today’s composers in their 20s have much greater skill than he did at that age. The difference may be that the younger generation has grown up listening to cast albums. Virtually every show from Oklahoma! to the present has been recorded, which is a great resource and learning tool. As the chair of the panel which gives the Richard Rodgers Production Award, he has encountered a lot of good work — not necessarily in good shows, he said.
As for his own work. Assassins will be back in New York later this year. And he and Harold Prince expect to finish Act I of Wise Guys in a few weeks, “if I have a good few weeks.” The amount of time would depend on the quality of the reviews for Follies. Responding to a question from the audience, Sondheim acknowledged intense pressure to pull off another stunning work. He oughtn’t think about it so much, he said, but it certainly had slowed him down. He said that Wise Guys is a small-scale show — and that he imagines people will say “It took you five years to write this ?!?” He and Harold Prince have been restoring the show's "speedy, bouncy" pace after a certain sentimentality was added during the workshop with Sam Mendes. As for the upcoming series of revivals at the Kennedy Center, Sondheim said he will be available to the creative team and the actors, who are always a little scared of him at first. The most important thing he can give to the performers, he said, is confidence.
The announcement that the program would stop promptly at 7:45 to allow Sondheim to be present at that night’s preview performance of Follies was met with an understanding sigh.