Stephen Sondheim's 80th-birthday presents started piling up early last March. The New York Philharmonic held a two-day concert hosted by David Hyde Pierce and featuring tributes to the Broadway legend from Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin.
The Roundabout Theater Company renamed one of its Broadway houses, the Henry Miller's Theatre on West 43rd Street, in Sondheim's honor and held a benefit at Studio 54 that included an early performance of the new Broadway production Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical portrait of Sondheim's life complete with archival interview footage. (James Lapine, who collaborated with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park With George and Passion, directed the show, which featured Vanessa Williams, Barbara Cook and Tom Wopat singing new arrangements of Sondheim classics.)
So what does Sondheim think of the recent celebrations in honor of his birthday?
"It's been a little too much in the public spotlight," he tells Terry Gross. "But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It's terrific to know that people like your stuff."
Sondheim's "stuff" includes the lyrics for classics like West Side Story and Gypsy, not to mention the music and lyrics for — among others — Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods, Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
He's been honored with eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar (for the music in 1990's Dick Tracy). The New York Times calls him the "greatest and perhaps best-known artist in American musical theater."
Upon graduating from Williams College in 1950, Sondheim received one of his first awards, the Hutchinson Prize for Composition. The award gave Sondheim the opportunity to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.
"I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that's what I learned from him," Sondheim says. "We had four-hour sessions once a week and we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson — the classic songs of the American theater and American movies. ... But what we did was — we did an hour on songs and three hours on Beethoven and Bach, and it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But I only wanted to write songs. I didn't want to write concert music."
Though Babbitt influenced Sondheim's compositional techniques, he says it was the film composer Bernard Herrmann — most famous for his musical work on the Hitchcock films Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo — who heavily influenced the score of Sweeney Todd.
"When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written," Sondheim says. "It's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. It particularly impressed me — but all of Bernard Herrmann's music particularly impressed me, so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him."
One of the most famous compositions in Sweeney Todd is "Epiphany" — the terrifyingly mad ballad sung by the title character (a homicidal barber) after he learns that the judge who unjustly sent him to prison had later raped his wife and adopted his daughter. Sweeney has decided to take his revenge — via his razors — against the judge. The chords at the end of the song are extremely dissonant, particularly when Todd sings the last line, "I'm alive at last / And I'm full of joy!"
Sondheim says he wrote the music to mimic the madness that's taking place in Sweeney's head — and that he originally resisted writing a conclusion that would move an audience to applaud.
"In fact, I ... had it end on a sort of dissonant chord with kind of violent harmonics — meaning very high, shrill sounds," he says. "And Hal Prince said, 'Len Cariou has worked so hard while he sings that song. You have to give him a hand.' So I put a big chord on the end, and that big chord still strikes me as wrong. So even in the printed copy — that is, the piano/vocal score that's published — I put two endings in. Those who want to give it a big nice consonant chord at the end and get a hand from the audience — and those who do what I wanted to do, which was to let the thing dribble out into the next scene."
Before Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, he played his music for a lot of producers and directors, trying to break into theater. He got a lot of blank looks.
"I remember playing once for Cy Feuer, the producer of Guys and Dolls," Sondheim says. "He also was the head of the music department at Universal, and I remember he criticized me for having too many B-flats in a melody. I remember he said that, and I thought 'Gee whiz, what is he talking about?' He wanted to show me that he knew a lot about music, is what it was. And he might have been right, but I don't think he was."
After West Side Story, Sondheim was hired to write the lyrics for Gypsy — which led to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics.
When he writes, Sondheim says, he doesn't necessarily always write the lyrics first or the music first; the process depends on what pops into his head.
"I will improvise or think of various melodic ideas and sometimes chord sequences. ... At the same time, I'm also jotting down any lyric," he says. "Then I try to start from the first song, and if I have a lyric line or a phrase, I'll expand a bit. ... I may have a musical idea and expand on it, but I never go far without bringing the other one in, because you can paint yourself into a corner if you write a whole tune or even half a tune with no idea what you're going to say in it — because you're then going to be hard-pressed to find words that fit inside the music easily and accomplish exactly what you want them to accomplish."
During this musical sketching process, Sondheim doesn't record himself — he just makes notations on what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.
"The process of putting something down on paper is very important in keeping the stuff alive in your head," he says. "You can improvise and think, 'Wait, that A-flat doesn't sound right,' and you change things as you go along, even though you're just sketching."
And when he needs to create a rhyme, Sondheim says, it's crucial to know what he wants to say beforehand.
"To know what you want to say and then how you want to phrase what you want to say — and then as the music develops, you'll start to improvise a rhyme scheme or to sense a rhyme scheme. And then you'll say 'All right, I've got this line that ends with "day" and I want to say "She loves him,' " and then you go through the rhyming dictionary. But there's so many rhymes for 'day.' and you want something that will somehow encompass or pinpoint what you want to say — there's a rhyme right there — about this situation. ... You make a list of rhymes that are in some way relevant, and then you use them."
There are certain rhymes Sondheim says he would never use again — soul-stirring and bolstering from Follies, for instance — but other rhymes get used day in and day out from song to song, show to show — because they're extremely useful.
"They're words that have many meanings and many connotations so that's what I mean," Sondheim says.
And words, he says, are why he's in theater in the first place.
"I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested in communication with audiences," he says. "Otherwise I would be in concert music. I'd be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me."
Sondheim reflects at age 80