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Remembering the life and legacy of Stephen Sondheim, a giant in musical theater
William Brangham: As we reported earlier, the theater lost one of its most influential composers today.
Stephen Sondheim's melodies, music, and complex lyrics made him a giant in musical theater for five decades, with a range of work that stretched from "Gypsy" and West Side Story" to "Sweeney Todd," to "Into the Woods," and many more.
Our own Jeffrey Brown interviewed Stephen Sondheim in 2010, and talked to him about how he crafts his lyrics.
Stephen Sondheim, Composer: I have often said, if you think of a lyric as a little one-act play, then each line is a scene, and a quatrain becomes an entire act.
Jeffrey Brown: Each line is a scene.
Stephen Sondheim: Each line is a scene. And you have got seven words in a line. So, we have got somewhere -- so let's say each word is a speech.
Well, if you're writing a play, and something's wrong with a speech, you cut or change the speech, the same way you have got to do it word by word. It is as focused as that.
Jeffrey Brown: And the greatest focus is on words that rhyme.
Sondheim writes lying down, better for a quick nap when things aren't going well, he says. He uses an old rhyming dictionary and a 1946 edition of "Roget's Thesaurus."
Stephen Sondheim: A rhyme draws the ear's attention to the word.
So, you don't make the least important word in the line the rhyme word. So, you have to -- and also a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger. If you tell a joke in rhyme, it's twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, as if it was just a speech, the same words, but the rhyme goes:
Stephen Sondheim: It does that to it.
And that is the use -- one of the uses of rhyme is not only to focus the attention on the word, but to strengthen what you're saying. Now, sometimes, you avoid a rhyme, because things -- you don't want to draw the ear's attention to...
Jeffrey Brown: Because the ears expect it.
Stephen Sondheim: Exactly right, so you want to fool them, because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.
Jeffrey Brown: And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, from something happening between the ear and the brain.
For example, he believes words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher.
Stephen Sondheim: I think we see words on -- as if they're on paper, sometimes when you hear them. I don't mean it's an absolutely conscious thing, but I'm absolutely convinced that people essentially see what they're hearing.
William Brangham: For more on Sondheim's life and the legacy he leaves behind, I'm joined by Ben Brantley, former co-chief theater critic of The New York Times, and by Eric Schaeffer, the co-founder and former artistic director of Tony-winning Signature Theatre here in Virginia. He has produced and directed multiple productions of Sondheim's shows, including at The Kennedy Center.
Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being here or what is obviously a really tragic day in this field.
Ben Brantley, Brantley to you first.
Could you just remind us a little bit about why he lives in such a high esteem in the pantheon of theater?
Ben Brantley, Former Theater Critic, The New York Times: Well, I think you can say he is truly without peer when you look at earlier generations of composers.
There may have been -- certainly were giants, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, but there were others who wrote in that style. Sondheim was sui generis.
And I came of age with Sondheim, really. So I feel the loss very personally. My first Broadway show was "Follies" when I was 16. But he was addressing an era in which the old convictions no longer held, and people were incredibly ambivalent about practically everything, their country, their futures, love.
And he found the equivalent of those feelings in music. But it wasn't chilly, as has often been sort of lodged against him. There's incredible feeling in his ambivalence. And, I mean, whether it's "Assassins," which has been revived recently in New York, or "Company, ' his breakout hit, or "Sweeney Todd," there's so much feeling and so much complexity in a way I think is unmatched by anyone else.
There won't be a Sondheim heir.
William Brangham: Indeed.
Eric Schaeffer, I know you had the opportunity to talk with Sondheim several times when you were producing and directing plays and musicals of his. What was that process like? I mean, I would imagine, to get on the phone or to meet in person with a legend like that, especially when you're working on his projects, how did that go down? How was that?
Eric Schaeffer, Founding Artistic Director, Signature Theatre: It was amazing.
I mean, I have to say, with Sondheim, one of the things I think people may think is, he was an amazing collaborator. He wanted to be in the room with you and have a conversation. He was not the one saying like: Look, I'm the smartest in the room.
No way was he like that at all. He was the most giving person at all of -- in the room, which was fantastic.
And I think, also, as Ben alluded, I mean, he changed the face of musical theater that all of us looked up to. I mean, I saw -- "Sweeney Todd" was the first musical I saw is when I was in high school on Broadway, and I literally came home, ran out, bought the album and just played it until the record warped in, literally looking at the lyrics and how smart and wonderful it was.
So that's the thing I think that people don't realize about him. He was a great friend and a great mentor. And he was also about giving people a chance, which was -- because here was a kid from, myself, Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, this little small town in Amish country, that said, oh, I love your work. I want to do it.
And he totally embraced that. And I got to end up do over -- direct over 30 of his musicals over the years, which has been amazing.
William Brangham: Wow. What a great experience.
Ben Brantley, in that clip that we heard, when he was talking with Jeffrey Brown. He described how he values each and every word, that each line is a speech. Every word can be so freighted.
And you certainly see that in his work, that he's -- there's incredible complexity, but also great wit, great simplicity and get a very, very direct. I mean, he really is a tremendous lyricist in that regard.
Ben Brantley: Oh, I mean, and he was first known primarily as a lyricist. That was what people responded to, was the wit, were the bon mots.
And you realize there's more weight to it than that. This isn't just sort of like Dorothy Parker cleverness. There's a real feeling in the weight of every word. And often the words are at variance with the music. So that kind of imbalance I was talking about earlier will be tugging. There will be a friction between what's being sung, like some of the pastiche of numbers in "Follies," remembering a great love, a different time.
And then the music will say, you're lying or it's more complicated than that.
William Brangham: Eric Schaeffer, is there a particular moment?
I mean, you worked on so many of his projects, but do you remember a particular moment of interacting with him where you really got a crystal sense of who the man was?
Eric Schaeffer: Well, there's many, but I think one of my favorite memories was, actually, I had dinner at his house. And there was a meeting with myself and Michael Kaiser, who was running The Kennedy Center, where we pitched to him about doing the Sondheim Celebration, where we actually did six of his musicals in repertoire in 2002.
And I remember we left this house, and a minute later, my phone rang, and it was Steve. And he said: "Do you think they can really do this?"
And I was like: "Absolutely, Steve." I said: "We can do it, 300 percent. And we won't let you down."
And he was like: "OK, let's do it."
And that festival, I think, really relaunched his work into the world in a brand-new way, that people saw his work. Even though they were seeing it again and again, they were seeing it for the first time in a brand-new way. And that was in 2002. And I think it's something that Ben alluded to is, like, his work is so written for the character, which is so great.
And that's why you see all of these revivals, because you can reinterpret his writing, because his writing is so brilliant and so strong, and it can stand that with someone bringing their ideas to what he's written.
William Brangham: And, Ben Brantley, last question to you.
I mean, in the end, we know he was working up until the very end. There were reports that he was at -- at some previews or something, and just a few weeks ago. What do you think you will most remember of him and from him?
Ben Brantley: Oh, I think -- there's a song from "Pacific Overtures." It's one of his less well-known works.
But it's three different people remembering the single event, momentous event in history. And they're saying, it's the fragment, not the day. And I think Sondheim honors those fragments, I think, more than any composer of musicals I can think of.
It's a way of seeing what you get. It's "Sunday in the Park With George." It's all those little points that go into making experience, life and art.
William Brangham: All right.
Thank you both very much for being here. Ben Brantley, Eric Schaeffer, appreciate your time. Thank you.