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

By Kenneth Jones
November 24, 2011

On the occasion of the publication of "Look, I Made a Hat," his second volume of collected and annotated lyrics, Stephen Sondheim talked to Playbill.com about everything from cast-album producing to his country house.



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Now that he's put his books "Finishing the Hat" (2010) and "Look, I Made a Hat" to bed — the latter was published Nov. 22 and Knopf will offer both in a box set in December — composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the Tony Award winner whose Follies is currently playing on Broadway, is looking forward to a 2012 that is less about his past and more about his future.

At 81, the Pulitzer Prize-honored songwriter who contributed to the musicals Gypsy, West Side Story, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George, among others, said by telephone that he wants to "just get back to the piano…I miss writing music."

A year after Playbill.com's interview with Sondheim at the time of the release of "Finishing the Hat,"  we snagged Sondheim for a followup.

I'm loving your new book.
Stephen Sondheim: Oh, good.

I'm taking it in courses, like a long dinner.
SS: Ha!

But I'm also skipping around. I feel like I'm sometimes getting to dessert before the seafood —
SS: Oh, don't do that, don't skip.

No?
SS: No, it's a chronological saga. Don't skip around in the Wise Guys chapter, because that really is one long arc.

Well, right, you can't really skip around in that area, because it has a beginning, middle and end — three phases of one property, Wise Guys, Bounce and Road Show.
SS: No, that's the one place. You can skip around otherwise.

You write in the beginning of the book that friends gave you suggestions for Volume Two, and you had obviously reread Volume One, "Finishing the Hat," and had your own thoughts about how to proceed. What were your friends' chief wishes?
SS: A couple of them said they wanted more about music. And also, people catching errors I'd made either of attribution or of chronology or something like that. Although, of course, a huge amount of people say that there were errors that were not errors at all. But people depend so much on the internet, which is full of misinformation, and on old programs, which list songs that never got on the stage, etc., etc., etc., so there's that kind of stuff. But, otherwise, the biggest complaint or suggestion was "can we have more about music?" And then, as I say, some what I call nitpicking — some are large nits, some are small nits, but most of those were corrected in subsequent printings. By the time I got around to putting this one together there weren't very many to correct.

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Did you know from the beginning of this two-volume project that you would be putting the film songs and the television songs into "Look, I Made a Hat"?
SS: Oh, yeah, I'd always planned that. The whole [project] was always planned for one volume, but it would have been so outrageously long that I suggested to the publisher it really should be two, and they said fine. I'd always planned that sort of stuff. It's obviously, when you do complete lyrics, it's not like a catalogue raisonné — it's almost all of it, but you don't include certain sketches and things like that, you know, but certainly all the finished ones I include. I figured since some of the juvenilia had [been] recorded…I couldn't omit it, you know, some of the birthday songs, things like that. I figured that since they were already out there in public there was no point in concealing them.

And after volume two went to bed was there somewhere that you said, "Oh, sh*t, I forgot about — "?
SS: Yes, already there's something I discovered just the other day. There's a song in "Dick Tracy" called "Live Alone and Like It," and I'd written a second release and a second ending for it and I'd completely forgotten about it, but it had already been recorded once, and I thought "oh my goodness," so that unfortunately is not included. Maybe in subsequent editions. I don't know. The trouble is, you can make small corrections, but you can't make things that were omissions in subsequent printings, because it means repaging it, so you can't do it. So I'm afraid that's just gone. And I suspect there will be a couple other small things like that, but I'm not expecting anything big.

And after it went to bed, were there trunk essays that didn't make the final cut?
SS: No, no, no, no, no. The so-called "essays," those were all preplanned… In the first volume, as you remember, there were sidebars on various lyricists and my opinions of them. Since I'd covered all the major ones, I figured for the equivalent to sidebars here I'd give one or two sidebars to the lyricists who never wrote a lot for the stage but wrote a little. And then just some observations on everything else, from, as you know, critics to awards to directors, this sort of thing.

I do love that you gave a shout out to the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh because her work is so delicious.
SS: Oh, she's wonderful. I just wish she'd written more for the stage, but you can't consider her in the same category as people like Hart and Harburg, who wrote primarily for the stage. She was an extraordinarily brilliant technician.

You write in this volume that you have no interest in a future memoir or autobiography.
SS: No, absolutely.

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.

Follies choreographer Warren Carlyle and director Eric Schaeffer
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Do you slip into your shows and give notes while they're running, or do you step away and live your life?
SS: Oh, no, somebody's got to go. Particularly in this case, [with Follies] Eric Schaeffer, the director, is based in Washington, so, you know, he only gets a chance to get up to New York every couple of weeks, so I try to go in — actually I haven't been myself in two weeks, but that's because of the book, doing promo and that sort of stuff for the book. But, no, if the director isn't around each week, then the authors usually go in and check.

And you give notes.
SS: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Yeah. But if the director isn't there, I give them to the stage manager.

When we spoke last year, I asked if you had a drawerful of show ideas. And you said a "drawer" is too big, you said it's a "shallow drawer."
SS: [Laughs.] That's right, exactly. There's still one or two in there, but I'd say two at the most.

When I talk to emerging musical theatre writers they often talk about how they see ideas for musicals in everything — in pop culture, in everyday life, in magazine articles. When you experience the world, do you say the same thing? "This would make a great musical…"?
SS: No, well, every now and then I come across — as I did with Sweeney and with Assassins — an idea, but most of the time people come to me with an idea. Collaborators whom I've worked with come to me with ideas. I don't spend my life looking, and never did, for subjects to write about. It was always somebody, whether it was Arthur Laurents or Hal Prince or John Weidman, somebody — [James] Lapine — would come up with them. It's usually librettists who come. And in the days when I was working with Hal a couple of ideas came from him.

But sometimes they do leap out. They sometimes slap you in the face, ideas.
SS: Yes, well every now and then. As I say Sweeney when I saw that out in Stratford East in England, and when I first saw the title of this idea that a playwright had of Assassins, yeah, they leap out at me. Other times, you know, we were looking, Hal and I. A Little Night Music [happened] because Hal and I wanted to do something romantic and then we asked Hugh [Wheeler] to do it with us. Hal and I, we started trying to get the rights to Ring 'Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh and the agent wouldn't give us the rights, so we went looking for something like Ring 'Round the Moon. I don't read a lot, I go to the movies a lot, or I used to anyway, and I remembered two movies: Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game" and Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," and so while Hal and Hugh were reading, I suggested those, but that's where you are searching through a very specific pile, so to speak. Things popping out of newspapers? That doesn't happen to me very often.

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.

Cole Porter

I love that you mention verses in the new book. Introductory verses in songs have now become a rich part of the storytelling, rather than just lyrical palate cleansers or delights, as in the old days.
SS: Right.

Cole Porter was certainly a master at them.
SS: Well, everybody was a master at them. Verses allow the composers free reign to write in any form that they wanted, they didn't have to stick to the AABA 32-bar form. Verses allowed you to play around, so a lot of the verses that people wrote in the '20s and '30s are very imaginative.

Yes. And also practical, in that they just prepared an audience to shut up.
SS: I don't know — they just prepared the audience to get ready for the tune. They didn't want to come right in with a big tune, they wanted to get the audience to get in the mood, and then, "All right, now we're gonna sing a big tune for ya."

Can I throw a Cole Porter verse at you?
SS: Sure.

"It's not that you're fairer than a lot of girls just as pleasin'/That I doff my hat as a worshipper at your shrine/It's not that you're rarer than asparagus out of season/No, my darling, this is the reason why you've got to be mine."
SS: Yeah, well, you like the asparagus line, I can see.

It's the verse to "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To."
SS: Oh! That makes sense.

I'm just trying to impress you, Steve.
SS: That's O.K. There are a lot of verses I don't know. I didn't know that one.

Before I let you go, the old question: Are you working on something new?
SS: No. Well, I'm nibbling, I'm nibbling at a couple of things. The book has taken up my concentration for the last three years and so when I finally handed in the last of it about a month ago, I thought I'd sort of scout around and talk to a couple of my collaborators and see if we could come up with something — see if we can resuscitate a couple of ideas from the shallow drawer on my desk. But just get back to the piano is the point, I miss writing music.

Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.