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Friday, May 17, 2013

Tuesday in the PAC with Sondheim

Finishing the Hat Dept.: Here’s a longer version of the piece running in this week’s Metroland, along with the photo I took of the event.


TO EMPHASIZE THE RANGE of characters for which Stephen Sondheim has written songs, interviewer Mary Darcy pointed out that the range includes John Wilkes Booth and Little Red Riding Hood. “Yes,” said Sondheim, “but they’re both killers.” And he brought down the house.

Stephen Sondheim and Mary Darcy
at HVCC, Troy, NY | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
With musicals like “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “A Little Night Music” and “Company” to his credit – not to mention lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” – Sondheim is easily Broadway’s most renowned and accomplished songwriter.

But the best illustration during the interview of the power and magic of live theater was Sondheim’s skill at working an audience. He told stories you can read in his two volumes of collected lyrics or watch him recount on YouTube videos, but in person he gave a nuanced performance well-targeted for the full house of theater enthusiasts. And he knows how to get a laugh.

All over Albany’s Darcy, herself a musical theater performer, was enough prepared to leave her notes behind throughout the interview, pursing the encounter as a conversation. While I had the sense that Sondheim could have rolled one engaging story into another, he graciously worked it as a partnership.

Among the many topics covered was his start in music. He was playing the piano by the time he entered Williams College with the idea of becoming a math major, but he signed up for a music class described by the students as a “cinch course.” Robert Barrow, the no-nonsense professor, started off by playing a recording of Debussy’s “La Mer” and asking the studients what it sounded like to them. “‘To me,’ he said,” said Sondheim, “‘it sounds like a whole-tone scale.’ He took all the romance out of it, but I felt my blood start to churn and I changed my major to music.”

He would go on to study with the formidable Milton Babbitt, known for his post-atonal development of electronic music with Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia, “but Milton was also a songwriter manqué who loved musical theater. We would spend the first hour analyzing a show song as if it were Mozart 39, and then the next hour studying Mozart 39.”

Talking about the importance of teaching brought Sondheim to the edge of tears. “Teaching is it,” he said. “Art is a form of teaching.” Formal education is important, he stressed, but “the best way to be a playwright or an actor or an actress is to write a play, act in a play, sing in a play.”

As a veteran of work with such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and, more recently, James Lapine and John Weidman, Sondheim extolled the importance, to him, of collaboration – with the audience as the final collaborators. But: “Write something you want to see,” he said, “and hope that 1500 people – or, sometimes, 100 people – enjoy it as much as you do. If they don’t like it, that’s okay. If they don’t understand it – that’s your fault.”

He traced the journey of several of his shows, revealing that he’d hoped to pepper his Broadway debut, as lyricist of “West Side Story,” with the first-ever use on that stage of a popular invective, ending the show’s most lively song with,“Gee, Officer Krupke: fuck you!”

Although Laurents and Bernstein and Robbins liked it, it was Columbia Records producer Goddard Lieberson who pointed out that putting that word on the original cast album would restrict its sales to New York state. As for the now-unsurprising employment of such terms, “ff you use them carefully, they’re wonderful. And I think ‘fuck’ is one of the most expressive. But I would never use them just to shock an audience – except, of course, in the case of ‘Officer Krupke.’” 

As part of his mission to educate, Sondheim asked to meet with a group of students beforehand, and about 50 assembled for their own Q&A, many of them hoping for career advice. Opening for Sondheim were Sonny Daye (piano) and Perley Rousseau (vocal); Perley performed such Sondheim songs as “Broadway Baby,” “Another Hundred People” (with a refrain in Portuguese) and “I Remember” with great sensitivity to the lyrics.

An Evening with Stephen Sondheim

Hudson Valley Community College, May 7

Metroland Magazine, 16 May 2013

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