Sondheim reveals his secrets in O.C. appearance
At this point, Stephen Sondheim has nothing to gain from yet another public interview about his long and impressive career. He's 82, an age when most artists are content to let their work speak for itself.
But like any dependable Broadway trouper, the composer-lyricist made good on a delayed promise to come to Orange County and chat about his life as one of Broadway's greatest creative talents. Looking rumpled but relaxed, Sondheim entertained and enlightened a crowded house on Friday at the RenÃ©e and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with an evening of anecdotes, some fond recollection, a touch of acerbic wit and moments of glorious music.
Sondheim's talk was originally slated for last October, but a snowstorm in New York kept him home. O.C. audiences were treated to a wonderful consolation prize: the two performers slated to sing for the event, Tony winners Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell, cobbled together an impromptu evening of Sondheim's songs, aided by pianist Tedd Firth and the evening's host, Michael A. Kerker, director of musical theater for ASCAP.
Everyone returned for Friday's event. Kerker served as a gentle and knowledgeable interviewer – not always an easy task with Sondheim, who can occasionally be evasive and even a touch prickly about certain subjects.
Sondheim dug deep into his memory at some points. He recalled how his father, an amateur pianist, would place his young son's hand on top of his own as he played melodies on the keyboard.
At Williams College, Sondheim enrolled in a music course that inspired him. The instructor "took all the romance out of it. He said, 'This is what a leading tone is, what a diatonic scale is.'" The lessons were a revelation to a young man whose only notion about composing was from Hollywood fantasies of artsy types "sitting on a penthouse terrace ... he was the first big influence on me."
Sondheim also described the valuable advice of his collaborator on "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," writer Burt Shevelove – "an extremely erudite fellow, as well as very funny."
Shevelove's advice conflicted with the rules as laid down by Oscar Hammerstein II, the famous Broadway librettist, who was a neighbor of the Sondheims and befriended Stephen when he was a child. Shevelove's approach "was exactly the reverse of Oscar's," Sondheim said.
"Oscar taught me to think of (Broadway songs) as little one-act plays that carried forth the texture of the piece and moved the characters and the plot from point A to point B ... and 'Forum' required (songs) to arrest the action. It's a farce, and the function of the songs was to give the audience a rest between the jokes. Burt said, 'It would be relentless without these pauses for songs.'" The musical's score, Shevelove told Sondheim, "should consist of little interruptions ... commas in the sentence, so to speak."
That less doctrinaire approach freed Sondheim to try more unconventional structures. He pointed to "Company" (1970) as an example – a musical that he described as "not quite a revue, but not a straightforward book musical either."
As a young lyricist working on "West Side Story" Sondheim worked closely with composer Leonard Bernstein, then at the apex of a spectacular musical career. "Lennie made me less square," Sondheim said. Bernstein was fond of odd-shaped phrases and unexpected musical elements, which Sondheim said impressed him.
Sondheim's talk was a valuable primer on musical-theater composition. Talking about the restrictions that governed his composing for "A Little Night Music" – every song's meter is in 3 or its multiple – Sondheim dropped this pearl of wisdom: "Don't be too diffuse." In other words, set rules and follow them.
Kerker steered the conversation artfully toward points that could be illustrated by song, and Ebersole and Mitchell provided the musical interludes with Ã©lan and charming self-effacement. We heard a range of Sondheim's work from Broadway and the movies.
They began with the duet "We're Gonna Be Alright" from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" (Sondheim's infamous collaboration with Richard Rodgers).
Each took turns soloing as well: Ebersole charmed with the racy "I Never Do Anything Twice" and Mitchell's smoothly seductive voice was perfect for "Sweeney Todd's" "Pretty Women" (actually a duet, but Mitchell showed no strain performing both parts in places).
For Broadway insiders, there was some juicy talk, though nothing Sondheim hasn't revealed before in conversation and print. Richard Rodgers was an unhappy man who had lost his confidence by the time Sondheim worked with him near the end of his career. Jule Styne, with whom Sondheim collaborated on "Gypsy," was a gifted composer but hated to work on his songs. If asked to polish a first draft "he came back with something completely new," Sondheim recalled.
At times, Sondheim seemed a bit uncomfortable talking about himself and his work. Like many artists, he eschews analysis and "the bird's-eye view" and takes a dim view of critics (unkind New York scribes wounded Sondheim early in his career).
But this friendly, low-key forum is perfect for artists such as him. Despite his age, Sondheim seems as vital and astute as ever. If Friday's appearance is indicative, he has more years of public conversation (and, we hope, inspired songwriting) left in him.
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