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. (The house, of course, was Hudson Valley Community College’s Maureen Stapleton Theater on May 7.)
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, 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, which included private 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.”
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 OK. 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, “if 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.