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

By Kenneth Jones
24 Nov 2011

Stephen Sondheim

I know that you're a New York City guy from the beginning. You're a New Yorker.
SS: Absolutely.

I'm curious about your connection to the natural world, to Connecticut, to the country. Do you have a relationship with nature? Is it clarifying to get away from the city?
SS: Oh, I don't think it's clarifying. It's just — it's relaxing, I love the country, I always have. Even though I was born and brought up in New York City, even as a kid I went to summer camp. And then my father, in my teens, had a place in Connecticut. My mother, in my early teens, had a place in Pennsylvania. There were always either weekends or summertime spent out of the city, so I've always been connected to the country — but the country within a hundred mile radius.

Is your Connecticut place a suburban place, or is it more country — small town?
SS: No, it's country, it's a converted farmhouse. It's in Roxbury.

I'm guessing you don't write in the country?
SS: Oh, no, I do indeed. The problem is, it's very simple: It's more efficient in the city, but it's pleasanter in the country, which is why it's a little less efficient. But in the country you do get distracted by the outdoors, by going outdoors and strolling. But in the city I just don't want to leave my study because what's going outside my study is nothing I want to be connected with.

Oscar Hammerstein II

I've often thought about Oscar Hammerstein's connection to the country, and the images of nature in his work.
SS: I think he wrote all — I think he wrote mostly in the country. I mean I know nothing about what he did before Oklahoma!, but, you know, for Oklahoma! and the subsequent shows he did most of the writing in the country, but, then, he spent most of the time in the country. You know, I think he only came in for business. I saw him a lot in the city, of course, and of course he did work here, but I think most of the work he did here had to do with rehearsals and producing, because you know they produced their own shows — and, of course, other peoples' shows — so I think the writing work was done mostly in the country, and the business work and the producing work was done mostly in the city.

A lot has been written of his use of images from the natural world. You know: yellow skies and larks and birds, the mists of England and meadows and whatnot. Did his Pennsylvania farm in Doylestown directly inform the craft?
SS: You know, I don't know, because he was using nature — natural images — as early as Music in the Air back in 1931 or 1932, and I don't know if he had a place in the country [back then]. I know he had a place in Great Neck in the '30s. Most of the lyrics before the mid-'30s are fairly citified, you know. There's less about mist and stars and moonlight in the lyrics of the '20s, except of course, when he's writing operetta, in which case is a whole other style.

Operetta lyrics certainly borrowed from nature, used nature images more than, say, [Ira] Gershwin did.
SS: Exactly. [Still,] operettas were written by guys who never left their apartments.

I have a memory of reading somewhere that to inform the writing of Into the Woods you went to an old-growth forest on the East Coast somewhere….?
SS: No, no. Oh! What you're thinking of: I wanted [the cast] to see what the deep woods were like. There are woods, obviously, all over Connecticut, and right down the road from where I live about half a mile was what looked like a very small woods, but as soon as you got about 50 yards in it you were completely cut off from the outside world. And it was both mysterious and beautiful and scary. A lot of people live in the city, and I just wanted people to see what the woods are like. My memory is that I don't think I ever got them in there! On the other hand, I used to go to the woods on my own. Where I live, on my own property, there are woods that are fairly extensive and thick — or rather it's actually not on my property, it's across the road, at a friend's house. And I used to go out there, he put a bench in the middle of the woods, and I used to go out there and sit and just listen to the trees creak, and things like that. And being a city boy, I wanted to get some sense of what the woods were like, so yeah I did a little writing in the actual woods up there, but not a lot.