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'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 2)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Stephen Sondheim was such a brilliant and groundbreaking composer and lyricist that we couldn't confine our tribute to just one day. Today is Day 2 of our three-day tribute. Sondheim died last Friday at age 91. 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. The occasion for this one was the publication of his book "Finishing The Hat," which collected his lyrics from 1954 to '81 and told the stories behind them. It was the first of two volumes of his lyrics.

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. Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. This is the "Jet Song."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you've got brothers around. You're a family man. You never alone. You're never disconnected. You're home with your own. When company's expected, you're well protected. Then you are set with a capital J, which you'll never forget till they cart you away. When you're a Jet, you stay a Jet.

GROSS: I asked Stephen Sondheim how he went about writing lyrics for a show with street gangs, singing and dancing to show tunes.


STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I was just imitating Arthur Lawrence's style. 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. So, you know, one of the very few pieces of actual street argot we used was the word cool, which still meant the same thing back in 1957 that had meant to jazz musicians earlier. And that's a word that has stayed pretty much in the language, meaning approximately the same thing, although it changed a little bit. Now, of course, it just means OK. But cool meant better than OK before. But virtually everything else, the way the characters talk, Arthur made up - highly romanticized and very simply flowery for the young lovers, and for the gangs, a kind of made-up slang.

GROSS: So one of the things I love about your book is that, you know, you not only tell the stories about the songs, you reprint the lyrics for alternate songs, for songs that you wrote before the final song was written or chosen, and you do that with the "Jet Song." There were a couple of songs that you'd written lyrics for that weren't used.

SONDHEIM: Here, for example, here are a couple of lines from "Mix" (ph), which was the name of a song that we wrote, which was our - the second attempt at an opening song. The first attempt was a long, rambling combination of dialogue and lyrics that took place in a clubhouse that the Jets had. And they were reading comic books and doing pushups and clowning around. And they imagined a trip to the moon. And the whole thing was a sort of fantasy. And it was just too kid-like for the opening. So we decided on something more menacing and gang-like. And this is almost like a rumble song. And the lines go - mix, make a mess of them, pay the Puerto Ricans back, make a mess of them. If you let us take a crack, there'll be less of them. There'll be less of them.

GROSS: And then there's another song that you wrote lyrics for called "This Turf Is Ours."

SONDHEIM: That's the one we wrote in Washington. And that was because people felt that "Mix" was too violent. So we wrote the "Jet Song," which is very mildly threatening and menacing. 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. This turf is ours, got to hold our ground, or we'll turn around, and we've lost it. And so we eventually decided the "Jet Song" was the best of the bunch, and that's what we kept.

GROSS: Now, the song ends with, you know, we're going to beat every whole - every whole bugging gang on the whole bugging street on the bugging whole ever-loving street. Did you want to use the F-word there?

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. I wanted this to be the first musical to use [expletive]. In fact, I first used it in "Krupke". I wanted the last line of "Krupke" to be - gee, Oficcer Krupke, [expletive] you. And we played the song for the head of the record company, Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson, who was going to do the album, and also for a lady who was raising money for the producer at the time. And she blanched visibly and clearly was upset by it. She didn't complain. She just was sort of shocked and unhappy. But then Goddard told us that if we use that word, we couldn't ship the record across state lines because it would be in violation of the obscenity laws. So we changed it to Krup you. Of course, I had wanted in the "Jet Song" to be when the [expletive] hits the fan, not when the spit hits the fan and on the whole, mother-loving - mother-[expletive] street. And - but the audience understood exactly what we were saying. It did kind of make it a little kid-like.

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. And along those lines, I thought, well, if it's going to be more realistic, then let's use [expletive] and [expletive]. And the trouble is that the rest of the script doesn't - is not in that style. When the dialogue is going on, they never use four-letter words. Therefore, for the lyrics to have used four-letter words would have been completely out of style and a sort of showing off for its own sake. If I had my choice, we would have used it just once in the original, just on [expletive] you instead of Krup you, and everything else would have remained the same. I wanted it to be sort of just the one shock moment. But as I say, we couldn't have shipped the record across state lines in those days.

GROSS: Right. So after "West Side Story," you wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy" to music by Jule Styne. A song from "Gypsy" I'd like you to talk about is "Some People," which Ethel Merman sang in the original production. You know, I love the opening line - some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. Can you - do you remember how that image came to you?

SONDHEIM: No. 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. So the knitting and sitting becomes a pattern for the song. So, no. But the image itself? Sure. You try to imagine, what does an angry lady who wants to get out of a small town feel about the small town life around her? And what would her image of inert conventional people be?

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. But still, I mean, she has such a distinctive delivery.

SONDHEIM: No. I mean, we knew we were writing for that kind of outsized personality that she's got. We assumed that she couldn't act because she had played all her life just low comedy and brassy songs. 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 so I thought, if she can't act that moment because it's, you know, it's a huge moment. You know, a woman facing a horrifying crisis and bulling her way through it - it's a big emotional moment. 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.

And then the effect would be made because Ethel wouldn't have to act, but you would get the idea of the moment, which is this express-train woman is now going to run over her other daughter. And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act. 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. It's a real Ethel Merman song. It requires no acting.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Some People." Just tell me one more thing here. You talk about in your book how writing into a song, you know, from the dialogue - that transition into the song is the most difficult part. How did you solve the problem with "Some People"?

SONDHEIM: I wrote a verse - well, actually, I didn't solve it, and the speech that leads into it reaches a high pitch, and then she starts it on a low note. 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. And she wouldn't sing it because in the verse - in that verse, I - she, meaning Rose, tells her father to go to hell because she's trying to get $88 from him and he won't give it to her. And so she tells him to go to hell, and Ethel said her public would not tolerate her telling her father to go to hell. So what happens now is she reaches a high pitch, and then she starts on a low note. And I think it's a real clunky connection, a real clunky transition.

GROSS: So you were never happy with it?

SONDHEIM: No, still not.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's just hear the song (laughter).


GROSS: So this is Ethel Merman from the original cast recording of "Gypsy," with lyrics...

SONDHEIM: Yeah. The line - I paraphrase slightly. 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. And then she starts. Sorry about that. I've just - I think I blew the ears off the engineer.

GROSS: (Laughter)

SONDHEIM: I'm terribly sorry. He's being taken to the hospital.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SONDHEIM: He's bleeding from both ears. No, but anyway, she reaches that kind of pitch, and then she starts to sing.

GROSS: OK, so here it is.


ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. That's OK for some people who don't know they're alive. Some people can thrive and bloom living life in a living room. That's perfect for some people of 105. But I at least got to try. 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. That's peachy for some people, for some humdrum people to be. But some people ain't me.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010, after the publication of his book "Finishing The Hat." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH 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.


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 what surprised me the most was to read your criticisms of your mentor Oscar Hammerstein. And had you shared those criticisms in public before, or is this kind of, like, the first time?

SONDHEIM: No, no. No, I never - no, I never in public - and no, not at all. But since I was writing a book that is critical of my own work, I wanted to show the standards by which I, you know, write my own lyrics. And it seemed to me - curious enough, I had thought when I first began the book - I thought, I will not criticize anybody else. I will only criticize my own stuff. Well, that is in its own way the mirror image of self-aggrandizement in - self-depreciation is just the other side of the coin. It's all about me, me, me, me, me. 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. And also they can't fight you back, but...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SONDHEIM: But mostly it - you know, I really disapprove of people who criticize - particularly practitioners who criticize other practitioners while they're alive. I think that's really bad form 'cause it always hurts. But I thought, you know, I've got to - I can't just criticize myself. 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.

GROSS: Well, let me choose a couple of Hammerstein examples that you cite in the book. Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. You like that?

SONDHEIM: Well, it's not that. I point - that's not a question of whether you like or not. That's an example of how you underwrite a lyric. He knows that that doesn't read very excitingly on paper. But he also knows that when Rodgers puts it to music, it soars. That's a perfect example because lyrics are not poetry. They have to have air. They have to give music room to give them life. They can't just be self-contained. That's why they're lyrics and not poetry. And they're not light verse, either. Lyrics are not meant to be read. They're meant to be sung.

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. And - but you are very critical of Hammerstein's lyrics to the song, such as the line you are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long.

SONDHEIM: Take the next line. Go ahead. Read it again. Read the second line because that's the one that clinches it.

GROSS: Oh, OK. You do it.

SONDHEIM: You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

Those are all very pretty words, but what do they mean? Take a look at that image - those images. I don't know what they mean. And I also don't know how they apply personally to anybody. Oscar did a lot of poetic lyric writing, which I would call poecy (ph), using images that I think are not germane to what's going on. I think it's just a writer trying to be poetic. And that's an example.

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. And some of the songs you wrote for the show are reminiscent of the shows that come out of those revues, revues of the '30s and '40s, probably the '20s, too. Was it fun in a way to write in a style that wasn't yours?

SONDHEIM: Oh, always, always. It's great fun to imitate people you admire.

GROSS: And, like, the opening line - what will tomorrow bring, the pundits query - I can't imagine you writing that (laughter).

SONDHEIM: No, no, but - no, but that's exactly the style. You've hit exactly the right style. That's precisely the kind of thing that Ira Gershwin wrote. If you look through his lyrics, you'll find that - because it was the style in those days was to use kind of fancy-ass words and play with them. The playfulness of lyrics is something that's sort of gone out of - not out of fashion. 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.

There are people today who think that that's what musicals still should be. There are critics today who deplore everything that has happened from Hammerstein on. And they're always taking potshots at him because they want the musicals to be mindless and playful. Well, I like mindless and playful, but there are other kinds of musicals to write. And the ones that interest me in writing are not the mindless, playful - playful, yes, mindless, no.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" from "Follies." This is from the original cast recording.


KURT PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) What will tomorrow bring, the pundits query.

VIRGINIA SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) Will it be cheery?

PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) Will it be sad?

SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) Will it be birds in spring or hara-kiri?

PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) Don't worry, dearie.

SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) Don't worry, lad.

PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) I'll have our future suit your whim - blue chip preferred.

SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) Putting it in a synonym - perfect's the word.

VIRGINIA SANDIFUR AND KURT PETERSON: (As Young Phyllis and Young Ben, singing) We're in this thing together. Aren't you glad? Each day from now will be the best day you ever had.

PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) You're going to love tomorrow. You're going to be with me. You're going to love tomorrow. I'm giving you my personal guarantee.

SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) Say toodle-oo (ph) to sorrow. And fare thee well, ennui.

PETERSON: (As Young Ben, singing) Bye-bye.

SANDIFUR: (As Young Phyllis, singing) You're going to love tomorrow as long as your tomorrow is spent with me.

SANDIFUR AND PETERSON: (As Young Phyllis and Young Ben, singing) Today was perfectly perfect, you say. Well, don't go away 'cause if you think you liked today, you're going to love tomorrow. You stick around, you'll see. And if you love tomorrow, then think how it's going to be. Tomorrow's what you're going to have a lifetime of with me.

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. We'll hear more of that interview as we continue day two of our three-day tribute to Stephen Sondheim. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're continuing our tribute to Stephen Sondheim, the groundbreaking Broadway composer and lyricist. He died Friday at age 91. Before we return to the interview, let's hear more Sondheim music. This is a torch song I love called "Losing My Mind." We'll hear Dorothy Collins from the original cast recording of his 1971 musical "Follies."


DOROTHY COLLINS: (As Sally) The sun comes up. I think about you. The coffee cup - I think about you. I want you so. It's like I'm losing my mind. The morning ends - I think about you. I talk to friends. I think about you. And do they know it's like I'm losing my mind? All afternoon, doing every little chore, the thought of you stays bright. Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right. I dim the lights and think about you, spend sleepless nights to think about you. You said you loved me. Or were you just being kind? Or am I losing my mind?

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. It also has sidebars in which he shared his opinions of other lyricists.


GROSS: Now in your sidebar about Ira Gershwin in your book, you describe him as rhyming poison (laughter). So...

SONDHEIM: No, I don't describe him as rhyming poison. I describe - that is an aspect of his writing.

GROSS: OK. And you say he makes you feel the sweat. He's often undone by his passion for rhyming, for which he sacrifices both ease and syntax. And you offer, as an example, an excerpt of the song "How Long Has This Been Going On."

(Reading) 'Neath the stars, at bazaars, often I've had to caress men. Five or $10 then, I'd collect for all those yes-men. Don't be sad, I must add, that they meant no more than chess-men.

Comments on that?

SONDHEIM: Well, I don't need to comment on it. It's complete nonsense. It makes the ear tired to listen to it's so jammed with inner rhymes. And it is so oblique a way of saying something apparently simple, though I'm not even quite sure what he means by it. But it is all - you just feel the lyric writer sweating over every line with his rhyming dictionary. You can - crossing out - I mean, that is such effortful writing. And then, when it's sung, it's - it makes the listener work as hard as the lyric writer did. Yes, I find that, you know, all too common in his lyrics.

GROSS: You loved Dorothy Fields and knew her, didn't even realize she was a songwriter until you were in your teens. And your father introduced her to the man who became her husband.

SONDHEIM: Yes, it was his best friend.

GROSS: And you love lyrics of hers that are very colloquial, like "Sunny Side Of The Street" (ph).

SONDHEIM: Yeah. Again, simple - it seems so simple. You hear lyrics like that and you think, oh, I could write one of those. Well, you couldn't. And it's all the effort that goes into making something sound effortless, which is a kind of art that I like. Not all art has to seem effortless. You know, you see "Guernica." It's not effortless. But - you read "War And Peace." It's not effortless. 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. I think you should be aware of the character and not think of the songs as written. Dorothy had a wonderful line in what I would call simple lyrics. I mean, her lyrics are so clean and so uncluttered and so seemingly effortless. And as we all know, it takes a huge amount of work to make something seem like there was no work in it at all.

GROSS: Let's get to your musical "A Little Night Music." And I want to play "Send In The Clowns." And I'll confess to you, this is a song - I love your songs. This is a song I never really felt much warmth for. I just never connected with it. 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 you tell a very interesting story about how you wrote this song for her, playing to her strengths and weaknesses. Can you talk about that?

SONDHEIM: The leading lady in the show is supposed to be charming and beautiful, beautiful enough, even though she's entering middle age, to be a rival to a beautiful young 18-year-old girl. That's the idea of the triangle of the show. 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. And the chances of finding somebody like that were slight. So I put all the vocal weight on Fredrik, the hero, and on Anne, the young wife, the 18-year-old. And Desiree, the middle-aged lady, I had her take part in two numbers in the first act, both of which are essentially comic and do not require any heavy singing. I knew the Glynis had this lovely smoky, silvery voice, but she couldn't sustain notes. She's not really a singer. She's an actress who can sing very nicely, but not with a capital S Singing.

And so I decided to write a series of short musical lines so she wouldn't have to sustain notes. And that suggested questions, little phrases. And then I wanted not to have any open vowel sounds at the sounds at the end of the opening line so that it wouldn't seem like she couldn't sing. But you take a word like rich, it cuts itself off and has a short vowel sound. 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. Rich can't be sustained without ruining the word. So it sounds like it fits the short phrase and it fits her voice. So it was tailoring it that way.

GROSS: So this is Glynis Johns from the original cast recording of "A Little Night Music" singing "Send In The Clowns."


GLYNIS JOHNS: (As Desiree Armfeldt, singing) Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air. Send in the clowns. Isn't it bliss? Don't you approve? One who keeps tearing around, one who can't move. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Just when I'd stopped opening doors, finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours. Making my entrance again with my usual flair. Sure of my lines, no one is there. Don't you love a farce? My fault, I fear. I thought that you'd want what I want. Sorry, my dear. But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. Don't bother. They're here.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH 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.


GROSS: I want to move on to "Sweeney Todd," and I want to ask you about the writing for the chorus. There's a chorus that opens the show and they kind of - it's almost like a Greek chorus, in a way, 'cause they tell you what the story is going to be about. They narrate some of the action. 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. Like, you ask, did everyone in the Navy and South Pacific think there is nothing like a dame? You say, what about the misogynists in the group? Or if there were no misogynists, are there no homosexuals? So how did you write for a chorus in "Sweeney Todd?"

SONDHEIM: Well - but they're telling a story. They're not having an emotional thought. They're telling a story. It's quite a different thing.

GROSS: So this was the time when you thought you could write for a chorus effectively.

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure, absolutely, absolutely. 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. When they sing all at once, they all do have the same thought. Everybody at that table thinks the meat is good, so they come together on the phrase, God, that's good. But the other phrases of the song are sung by different people because, you know, one of them is trying to sneak out without paying. Another one is drunk, et cetera, et cetera. They're all characterized; same thing is true of "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." When they sing all at once, they're singing a thought that all of them do have. So it's legitimate.

GROSS: So the first line in the lyric is attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. And you say that that's an example of how God is in the details, which is one of your prime rules of lyric writing. What's contained in that phrase?

SONDHEIM: Well, first of all, attend is an old-fashioned word. 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. And tale tells you right away this is not going to be a realistic story. This is not - you're not meant to take this at face value because if you do, you'd scream with laughter. I mean, you know, that's an outrageous story if you try to treat it seriously. It has to be treated as a melodrama. It has to - you have to tell the audience we are not - this is not supposed to be real, folks.

Now, of course, it's a musical, so it's never real in a musical. But you can get - you know, "West Side Story" does not say that at the beginning. 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. Two gangs are at war, and murders and deaths occur as a result and - whereas "Sweeney Todd" is strictly about, in a sense, cartoon figures. I - at the end of the chapter, what I say is what "Sweeney Todd" really is is a movie. And so it's - attend the tale tells you all of those things or implies them. Obviously, it doesn't spell it out, but it implies them.

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. Well, right away, it's a style that's been set for an audience. It's tells them not to take the show seriously, and it implies that it's all going to be narrated, which in fact it is.

GROSS: So here's the opening chorus from "Sweeney Todd."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd. His skin was pale, and his eye was 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: (As character, singing) He kept a shop in London Town of fancy clients and good renown. And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved by Sweeney, by Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hold it to the skies. Freely flows the blood of those who moralize.

GROSS: That's the opening chorus from "Sweeney Todd." My guest, Stephen Sondheim, wrote the words and music. Now, you point out that none of your musicals elicited as extreme reaction, both extravagant accolades and contemptuous rage, as "Sweeney" did. Do you have a sense of why that was so?

SONDHEIM: No, I really don't. Over a period of time, of course, that's become less true. There is much less contention about it now because it's been - it sort of has settled into the canon of musicals and it's been done a number of times. And then a movie has been made of it, so it has been sort of accepted. 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.

But I think what put people off on "Sweeney" was that it had a semi-operatic feeling to it. I think that - I don't think they were put off by the story. 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. I think it was the semi-operatic feeling of it. And when people went to - and it's still true - go to a musical, they want songs. They don't want semi-opera.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Stephen Sondheim in October 2010. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH 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. The book covers the years 1954 to '81.

Let me move on to "Merrily We Roll Along." There's a beautiful song in "Merrily" that's sung twice, and I'm thinking of "Not A Day Goes By." And both versions - each version has a different meaning because one's at the beginning of a love affair and the other's during a divorce.


GROSS: Can you talk about writing that song with two different meanings in mind?

SONDHEIM: Well, I wrote the whole score knowing that it was going to go backwards in time. And I thought, what does that imply? Well, it implies that something that you and I sing today, 20 years from now, will have a different meaning to both of us. It doesn't have to be that we get divorced. Maybe it'll be memories of something. 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. That is to say, start with the variation on the theme and then go back to the theme. And that's what happens here.

It happens with a lot of other songs in the show, too. But this one very specifically with the lyric because it applies to two very distinct and distinctly defined situations, one a divorce and one when they got married. So you're taking two high spots of their lives, their marriage and their divorce. I did that throughout the show. 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. So I never wrote blind, so to speak. I wrote knowing, OK, this will be useful when this - because we had plotted out the show, and we knew what was going to happen in the second act. In other words, we knew what had happened in the past. And, so yeah, so I was writing to that kind of plot.

GROSS: So we'll hear both versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from the 1994 York Theatre Revival.

SONDHEIM: But that's the way to illustrate it.

GROSS: Yeah.


ANNE BOBBY: (As Beth, singing) Not a day goes by. Not a single day. But you're somewhere a part of my life, and it looks like you'll stay. 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. And no, not a day goes by, not a blessed day. But you're still somehow part of my life, and you won't go away. So there's hell to pay. And until I die, I'll die day after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, till the days go by, till the days go by, till the days go by. Not a day goes by, not a single day, but you're somewhere a part of my life, and it looks like you'll stay.

MALCOLM GETS: (As Frank, singing) As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end?

BOBBY: (As Beth, singing) That it can't get much better, much longer, but it only gets better and stronger and deeper and nearer...

ANNE BOBBY AND MALCOLM GETS: (As Beth and Frank, singing) And simpler and freer and richer and clearer and no, not a day goes by.

BOBBY: (As Beth, singing) Not a blessed day, but you somewhere come into my life and you don't go away.

BOBBY AND GETS: (As Beth and Frank, singing) And I have to say, if you do, I'll die. I want day after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, till the days go by, till the days go by.

BOBBY: (As Beth, singing) Till the days go by.

GROSS: That's two versions of "Not A Day Goes By" from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along." And my guest is Stephen Sondheim. 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. Jule Styne was one of the few who had it in spades. Do you feel like you have that superhuman confidence to keep writing?

SONDHEIM: No, not really, not really. I mean, I'm - I want to get back to the piano as soon as I finish the second volume. 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. I would love a little of that.

GROSS: But you do plan on keep writing - on keeping writing.

SONDHEIM: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR and for talking with us again.

SONDHEIM: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Congratulations on the new book.

SONDHEIM: Oh, OK, thank you for that, too.

GROSS: The interview we heard with Stephen Sondheim was recorded in October 2010 after the publication of his book "Finishing The Hat." He died last Friday at the age of 91. 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. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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