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Five questions for Stephen Sondheim
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Five questions for Stephen Sondheim

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

A Life in the Theater: An Onstage Conversation with Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich October 26, 8 PM Benaroya Hall

When I heard that Stephen Sondheim was finally making his Seattle debut at age 79, I was beside myself. This man is considered by many to be the greatest Broadway contributor that ever lived. I immediately bought my ticket for the event and tried for an interview, but neither the PR agent handling the event, Flying House Productions, nor a letter addressed to the man in question were, alas, able to produce results. Still wanting an article, I tried a different tactic. Finally a friend (thanks, JH!) proposed a solution: Like Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along, do it backwards. Present the interview questions, but instead of answers from the Maestro, explain what lead to that question and hopefully give insight to one of the greatest theatrical geniuses of our time.

WHO WERE SONDHEIM'S EARLY INFLUENCES?
Sondheim started playing piano at age seven, showing natural talent. After his parents divorced, his mother moved them next door to Oscar Hammerstein II, composer of Oklahoma and Show Boat, who became a mentor and surrogate father figure. He showed Hammerstein an early work, who took the protégé aside going over the submission point by point. Sondheim later said, "I learned more that afternoon than most do in a lifetime."

WHAT SUBJECT MATTERS INFLUENCE SONDHEIM'S WORK?
Sondheim's work has gathered lyrical inspiration from many sources, including Shakespeare (West Side Story), strippers (Gypsy), and Venice (Do I Hear A Waltz). Given the chance to write both music and lyrics, Sondheim's compositions exploded, finding inspiration in an Ingmar Bergman film (A Little Night Music), a photograph of a theater in ruins (Follies), a Seurat painting (Sunday in the Park with George), classic fairy tales (Into the Woods), murderous legends (Sweeney Todd), and attempted murders of U.S. presidents (Assassins) among many other subjects just as diverse. Personal experiences also play a part. When presented with an early draft of one score, a producer criticized the music, saying "There's nothing to hum," and as for the lyric, " Don't be so clever." Both quotes would appear in later lyrics for other shows.

WHAT ABOUT THE DISTINCTIVE PERSONALITIES SONDHEIM HAS WORKED WITH?
Jerome Robbins' brilliance as a choreographer (West Side Story, Gypsy) was marred by his professional personality that was instantly disliked by most. Sondheim said, "Jerry's artistic ruthlessness was combined with real sadism," but credits Robbins with teaching him that a song should serve as a blueprint for the actor to express the character's feelings, the way a director blocks out their moves - this trait will become prominent throughout Sondheim's career. Among the people who have recorded Sondheim's songs are Ethel Merman (who earned the nickname "The Singing Dog" when she asked him to explain his lyrics, saying, "'Everything's Coming Up Roses'& what?"), Barbra Streisand (he rewrote several lyrics for The Broadway Album) and Angela Lansbury, for whom he designed the role of Mrs. Lovett (Sweeney Todd). Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Judy Collins all achieved hits with "Send in the Clowns" (A Little Night Music), a song written 48 hours before the musical's auspicious opening.

WERE THERE ANY DISAPPOINTMENTS?
He critiques his lyrics to West Side Story as the least faithful to their characters and compromised for rhyme and rhythm. He later worked with mentor Hammerstein's long-term collaborator Richard Rodgers (who wrote the music) on Do I Hear A Waltz?- done as a favor to Hammerstein; both men openly regretted working together. Anyone Can Whistle ran only nine performances despite introducing Angela Lansbury to musical theater, but has produced two different cast recordings with large followings. Merrily We Roll Along confused audience members because of its reverse timeline - the musical starts at the end of a trio's friendship and ends at their meeting, so that each scene takes place previous to the one following. It ran for only 16 performances despite a Tony-nominated score. It also ended an 11-show collaboration between Sondheim and producer/director Hal Prince; they wouldn't work together for another 22 years.

WHAT ARE THE DISTINCTIONS OF A SONDHEIM SONG?
When seeing a Sondheim musical, there are two major stars: the music and the lyrics. Like any good musical, the score is to set the characters' moods, each separate song responsible for expressing thoughts or continuing a plotline. For Sondheim lyrics, attention must be paid. Crediting a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus as being important tools, his lyrics and music have always pushed boundaries between traditional theater and the realms of the contemporary. Sondheim's music is recognizable by its "patter" format; the music is usually at a faster pace and the lyrics can be a listing of tongue-twisting words. For the song "Not Getting Married Today" (Company), the bride-to-be is frenzied and it comes across in the song's hectic speed that rings of honest raw nerves and bridal panic: "Go, can't you go? Why is nobody listening? Goodbye, go and cry at another person's wake. If you're quick for a kick, you can pick up a christening, but please on my knees, there's a human life at stake!" When asked if she could stay on the melody, Beth Fowler exhaustedly asked, "Could you remind me again what it is?"

A Sondheim song doesn't have to be complex. With the same poetic similes of a snowfall (Evening Primrose) - "I remember snow, soft as feathers, sharp as thumbtacks, coming down like lint" - Sondheim gives prosaic vision to the murderous promises sung to a razor's edge (Sweeney Todd): "Till now your shine was merely silver. Friends, you shall drip rubies, you'll soon drip precious rubies."

Stephen Sondheim will be interviewed by New York Times critic Frank Rich as part as a public forum. Sondheim has written the music and/or lyrics for 16 Broadway musicals, inspiring more than four separate Broadway revues and concerts based on his works. He's been nominated for 24 Tony Awards, winning 15, including one for Lifetime Achievement. He's won two Grammy Awards for Best Cast Album (Sweeney Todd) and for Song of the Year ("Send in the Clowns"). His Academy Award nominations number at three with one win for Best Song, "Sooner or Later." The musical Sunday in the Park with George became one of seven plays ever to win the Pulitzer Prize and Sondheim is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in Theater. His most recent musical was Road Show in 2008 at the Off-Broadway Public Theater. Currently on Broadway is a revival of West Side Story, while a new production of A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones will be opening on November 24, 2009.

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