A Conversation With Stephen Sondheim: On Lyrics, On Cast Albums, On Weekends in the Country

By Kenneth Jones
24 Nov 2011

I found with "Finishing the Hat," and with this volume, that I'm listening to various cast albums as I read the chapters. It enriches the exploration.
SS: Oh, that's good. The publishers and I had talked about issuing recordings with the thing, but the problem of rights clearing and copyrights and publishing rights is just so complex it was defeating. It just became impossible.

I wanted to talk to you a little about cast albums, and in particular about producers of cast albums. I know that you've trusted record producer Tommy Krasker of PS Classics for years —
SS: Yes, absolutely.

I love the sense you get from the cast albums Tommy produces: It's not just a collection of songs, it really is an impression of a night at the theatre.
SS: Right. And he's topped himself with the cast album of Follies [getting released Nov. 29, a title] he's always wanted to do, but he really wanted to give a sense of the whole show to the listener, and that's in fact what he's done. We've included a lot of dialogue at Tommy's behest in this one, so there's a real continuity in listening to the cast album because it really — for somebody who hasn't seen the show — is a very good substitute. I don't know if anybody ever did a radio play with songs, but it's like a radio play with songs!

What makes a good cast-album producer?
SS: Well, most of it has to do with efficiency. Unlike pop albums, you have one day — or with two records, two days — in which to record everything, so you can't do the infinite amount of takes that pop recording artists are privileged to do. So a lot of it has to do with things like logistics, because, of course the unions, like Equity and the musicians' union, have strict rules as to how many hours people can work. So you have to have an actor come in from 10 o'clock to 1 o'clock, go home and come back in at 4 o'clock, etc., etc., etc.

That's one of the things that a producer has to do. And the other thing is to say whether the album is going to be just a collection or songs or whether it's going to have some sort of arc to it. And then the other thing is, of course, to have taste and a good ear and be able to get the best out of the performers in a limited amount of time — and knowing what you can do in the editing room and what you can't do in the editing room. It's a skill like anything else and it comes mostly with experience.

One of the changes in the world of cast albums in the past 25 years is that you can get 79 minutes on a disc — perhaps a complete score.
SS: Yes sir, yes sir. In the old days, in the days of LPs, you had to do a lot of judicious cutting because if you crowded too much onto one side of a record then the equalization went off and the album suffered as a result. But if you didn't, then you suddenly went 15 minutes over length and then what could you do except cut things down. The original cast album of Follies, on Capitol, is a perfect example of this. It's a dreadful album because there simply wasn't enough space for time and Capitol wouldn't give us two records.

And a generation grew up thinking that was the whole score…
SS: Yeah, I know. Unfortunately. But, you know, these things get corrected, at length. It would be nice to have a full-length, proper recording with the original cast but we didn't.

I love that Madame Armfeldt's "wooden ring" speech featuring Angela Lansbury was on PS Classics' most recent A Little Night Music cast recording.
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, that's nice, yes, yes.

Cover art for the new Follies album

Is it your taste as a listener to have dialogue on the album?
SS: No, see, because I go to the shows, I just want the songs. But for people that don't get a chance to see the shows, I think it's valuable. And also, the way things are recorded now, you can skip. Each passage of dialogue is its own cut, so you can easily skip by. You know, in the old days when you had to lift up the needle and replace the needle and lift up the needle and replace the needle, it wasn't such a good idea. As soon as you can do it by remote control and electronically, then it becomes easy. You just skip from cut number three to cut number six or whatever you want to do. But in the old days, the number of scratches I put on a record lifting up the needle and saying, "Oh, I don't want to hear that but I want to hear that" were infinite.

I'm looking forward to the new Follies recording.
SS: Yeah, you'll like it a lot. Yeah, they all recorded extremely well. You know, it's always dangerous to praise something you've been connected with, but I've got to say it's a really good cast album.

Back to the idea of including dialogue: Hearing the work of Hugh Wheeler or James Goldman on an album continues something I know you're interested in: recognizing and honoring your librettists.
SS: Mm-hm. Certain show [albums] benefit from having dialogue in them, and Follies is one because there is no overt action in Follies: the show is people talking and singing and talking and singing, there is not plot. You don't need much dialogue in something like Sweeney Todd because it's all plot. And so certain cast albums, as I say, are enhanced by having dialogue in them and certain cast albums are not.

We recently checked in with Music Theatre International and they indicated that the current licensable version of Follies that they offer is the 1971 script, although the current Kennedy Center/Broadway production reflects amendments since then.
SS: I thought they were licensing the revised version, but maybe I was wrong. The major change in Follies, in terms of scripting, came with the 1985 concert version. That's when James [Goldman] cut it down, and then after James died, his widow took it over and the current [Kennedy Center/Broadway] version is her tinkering with James' script.

What will the future, licensable "bible" version of the show be?
SS: Well, one decision I made is I wanted the score to be the American version, not the one we tried in Britain. We tried, as you know, some additional songs in Britain, and though I like the songs, I prefer the so-called American version. But it's really up to the librettist, and in this case the librettist's widow, and that's what MTI licenses, usually.