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‘Fresh Air’ remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 2)

He started his career writing the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and went on to write music and lyrics for such shows as “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday In The Park With George,” “Into The Woods” and “Passion.” The interview today was recorded in October 2010, just a few months after the interview we featured yesterday.

We’ll start with a song from the show that launched his Broadway career, “West Side Story,” the musical that Steven Spielberg has adapted into a film that opens this month.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day.

Arthur wrote the book, and he set – he made up a style, a kind of street talk that never existed because he knew that if he used actual street argot, it would date so quickly that by the time the show got on a year or two later, it would be old-fashioned.

SONDHEIM: Here, for example, here are a couple of lines from “Mix” , which was the name of a song that we wrote, which was our – the second attempt at an opening song.

And we got to Washington, and then everybody sort of felt that maybe it was a little too gentle, so we wrote something called “This Turf Is Ours.” This turf is ours, drew a big white line with a keep-out sign, and they crossed it.

And then when we did the revival this last year, and Arthur decided to utilize Spanish for the Sharks sometimes to speak – that they would speak to each other in Spanish, he wanted to make it more, quote, “realistic,” and that’s what led to that.

A song from “Gypsy” I’d like you to talk about is “Some People,” which Ethel Merman sang in the original production.

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But I set up a rhyme scheme there of inner rhymes because I wanted one of the song to speed along, and inner rhymes help speed lines.

GROSS: Were there qualities you were writing for for Ethel Merman voice? Now, You weren’t writing the music for this, you were writing the lyrics.

And this would require to act, and particularly the end of the first act, where she discovers that her daughter has left her, and she’s going to try to make the other daughter fill the younger daughter’s shoes and make her into a star.

And I thought the way to do it is to give Ethel the kind of song that she’s sung all her life, a big, brassy number like “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and then let Herbie, her lover, and Louise, her daughter, whom she’s focusing on, react, like, as if they were in front of a – I don’t know, a cobra – I mean, just completely terrified and motionless and cowering.

But the song we wrote, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is an absolute imitation “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” Cole Porter kind of – or Irving Berlin or any of those brassy songs that they wrote for Ethel to sing.

GROSS: So I’m going to play “Some People.” Just tell me one more thing here.

And so I wrote – in Philadelphia, when we were trying the show out, I wrote a verse for Ethel to sing that would take her from a high pitch to a low pitch so that she could start the song properly.

The line that she’s telling her father off in, she’s angrier and angrier, and she ends it by saying, I’m getting my kids and I’m getting out.

When I think of all the sights that I got to see and all the places I got to play, all the things that I got to be at – come on, Papa, what do you say? Some people can be content playing bingo and paying rent.

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GROSS: You have some fascinating comments in your book about lyricists whose work you really admire and lyricists – I think our listeners will be surprised to hear you have a lot of criticisms of their work.

And I thought, if I don’t put it into context of other people’s work and show what I admire and what I don’t admire about my predecessors’ work – I never talk about anybody living in the book, only about people who are dead ’cause it doesn’t hurt their feelings.

So I looked very carefully, as I always have, at, you know, the dozen best lyric writers in the American musical theater who preceded me and look at their work carefully and talk about it a little bit.

I point – that’s not a question of whether you like or not.

GROSS: Now, you contrast that – oh, I should preface this by saying the last time you were on our show, you talked about the, you know, really interesting harmonic changes in the Jerome Kern song “All The Things You Are,” for which Hammerstein wrote the lyrics.

Oscar did a lot of poetic lyric writing, which I would call poecy , using images that I think are not germane to what’s going on.

GROSS: Let’s get to your show “Follies,” which is about a reunion of middle-aged men and women who performed in the “Follies,” or the people who were the girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses of those people who performed in the “Follies.” And so they’re now middle aged, and it’s part set in the present and part set in the past in the “Follies” era.

There aren’t very many people who can do it, and that was largely the pleasure of the songs that people went to see in the musical theater in the 1920s and ’30s and even into the ’40s, even after “Oklahoma.” People did not go to be moved by songs, although occasionally they might be, but to be delighted by the combination of playfulness in the language and invention and lightheartedness of the music.

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And they’re always taking potshots at him because they want the musicals to be mindless and playful.

Well, don’t go away ’cause if you think you liked today, you’re going to love tomorrow.

GROSS: We’re listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010, after the publication of “Finishing The Hat,” his first volume of collected lyrics.

Today, we’re continuing our tribute to Stephen Sondheim, the groundbreaking Broadway composer and lyricist.

And do they know it’s like I’m losing my mind? All afternoon, doing every little chore, the thought of you stays bright.

GROSS: Let’s get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010, after the publication of his book “Finishing The Hat,” collecting his lyrics from 1954 to ’81 and the stories behind them.

He’s often undone by his passion for rhyming, for which he sacrifices both ease and syntax.

Don’t be sad, I must add, that they meant no more than chess-men.

And it is so oblique a way of saying something apparently simple, though I’m not even quite sure what he means by it.

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But I think with lyrics – popular lyrics for popular songs – by popular, I mean show songs, you should always not be aware of the writer.

And then seeing it in context in the show, I fell in love with it and then just kind of went back to the cast recording – original cast recording and started listening to it over and over again with Glynis Johns singing it.

And we knew that in order to get somebody like that who would have charm and beauty and be able to play light comedy because it’s very elegant, the writing of the libretto – Hugh Wheeler’s writing requires somebody who really knows how to play light comedy, and there aren’t a lot of people who can do that – or couldn’t in those days and none now ’cause the whole fashion had gone out.

So we – I assumed, anyway, that whomever we would hire would not be able to sing very well because to get all those qualities and a singer, certainly nobody sprang to mind.

So if somebody sings, isn’t it rich, you don’t expect them to sing, isn’t it rich? Whereas if it’s an open vowel sound, you know, isn’t it love? – if she went, isn’t it love, you could accept it, but you also know that it could be sustained.

GLYNIS JOHNS: Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air.

Let’s get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010, after the publication of his book “Finishing The Hat,” the first of two volumes collecting his lyrics and the stories behind them.

And, you know, you write in the book about how thrilling it is to hear the sound of a full chorus, but how at the same time, it’s so often unconvincing that everybody in a chorus would be having the same feeling at the same time.

But when they’re all eating meat pies at the beginning of the second act in the number called “God, That’s Good!” or when they’re buying Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, they’re singing different things.

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So right away, you know you’re not in the 20th century and that the happenstance – the happy happenstance of the T sounds – attend the tale of Sweeney Todd – gives it an old ballad feeling because of the semi-alliteration there.

It’s attempting to tell the audience, yes, it’s a musical, but we want you to take this as if it were a serious story that can actually be happening on the streets of New York right now.

The formality of the language – you know, attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, his skin was pale and his eyes were odd, he shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.

He trod a path that few have trod, did Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: He kept a shop in London Town of fancy clients and good renown.

GROSS: That’s the opening chorus from “Sweeney Todd.” My guest, Stephen Sondheim, wrote the words and music.

But when it came out – well, I’ve had that with a number of – I had that same reaction from “Assassins.” You know, there are certainly musicals that audiences get put off by on first seeing, usually because of the subject matter.

Although, you know, there are people who don’t want to see blood on the stage, but I don’t think that’s what it was about.

Let’s get back to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010 after the publication of his book “Finishing The Hat,” the first of two volumes collecting his lyrics and the stories behind them.

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But everything that happens at a given time in your life has echoes and resonances afterwards, what I would call like reprises, really, of thoughts, of moments in your life that happen in different context or – so I thought, if I’m going to write the show that goes backwards in time, we’ll start with the reprises.

I still began, as I always do, writing the score from the first song on, but knowing – always making notes as to how I would use it later in the show.

As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end? Where’s the day I’ll have started? But I just go on thinking and sweating and cursing and crying and turning and reaching and waking and dying.

BOBBY AND GETS: And I have to say, if you do, I’ll die.

He has a new book of his collected lyrics and the stories behind those lyrics called “Finishing The Hat.” When writing about working with Jule Styne on “Gypsy,” you say only superhuman confidence keeps you writing fearlessly into old age.

But no, I don’t have that – I don’t have that drive, and I don’t have that eagerness that Jule had every day of his life.

Tomorrow, on the third and final day of our Sondheim tribute, from our archive, we’ll hear from James Lapine, who wrote the books for three Sondheim musicals – “Sunday In The Park With George,” “Into The Woods” and “Passion” – and Stephen Colbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who each talked about performing in Sondheim musicals.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR.

…Read the full story

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