On the New York street where Stephen Sondheim lives, utility workers are ripping up a slab of sidewalk and the dry cleaner on the corner has a 2-for-1 deal on men’s shirts advertised on a sandwich board outside. It’s just another block in Midtown East, not an exclusive enclave or a pied-a-terre in the clouds befitting someone of Sondheim’s stature. And that’s just how the born-and-bred New Yorker likes it.
“I’ve lived my entire life in 20 square blocks,” he says, reclining in his apartment on a khaki couch that’s covered with a sheet, conceding its possession to his two very social black poodles, Willie and Addie.
The composer-lyricist, lauded as a living legend of theater, splits his time between this quiet brownstone and a Connecticut country home. In seven decades on the job, yielding 18 musicals (15 as both lyricist and composer), he’s not close to retiring. In fact, he’s in the midst of writing a new show with playwright David Ives.
Sondheim got his break at the age of 25 as the lyricist for West Side Story on a creative dream team that included Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins. His work is known for avoiding the bombast of musical-theater tropes, focusing instead on the inner lives of the characters. He himself calls his style “intelligent and literate.” (“That’s not a boast; it’s just a fact.”)
That style opened up musical theater to different fans and creators; Hamilton‘s Lin-Manual Miranda, Rent‘s Jonathan Larson and even Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, The Book of Mormon) are all obvious descendants.
At 85, Sondheim has lived to see his body of work celebrated: a Kennedy Center Honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Tony Award for lifetime achievement (plus seven more), not to mention a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards — the list goes on.
His antiheroes have been played onscreen by Johnny Depp (2007’s Sweeney Todd) and Meryl Streep (2014’s Into the Woods), with more films to come — Sondheim says there’s active interest in adapting Follies, Company and Gypsy.
On a warm October afternoon, Billboard spoke with Sondheim about Lady Gaga, Disney, the revolutionary quality of Hamilton and the art of making art.
He may have sent me those, but I’ve heard them occasionally on the radio. I’ve never been into pop music particularly. I have friends who are and play things for me. That’s how I got into groups like Radiohead and, in the 1960s and ’70s, The Association and Steely Dan.
You like Radiohead?
Oh, yeah, very much. Because, see, most pop music’s not about harmony, and for me all music is about harmony. Pop music is primarily about rhythm and sound, the combination. But if you listen to [Radiohead composer] Jonny Greenwood, it’s about the music as a whole. It isn’t “Oh, what a great tune” or “That’s a great rhythmic idea.”
Was theater once more linked to pop culture?
Pre-TV and pre-film. Theater was a major form of entertainment, and theater music was a major fountain for hits. Then, starting in the ’50s, when television started to take over, there went the hit songs. It’s not because of the songs; it’s because by the 1960s rock’n’roll had come in. Then the singer-artist, then the singer-songwriter. And as soon as the singer-songwriter came to the fore, that was the end of theater music.
Fans seem to react to you like you’re a singer-songwriter. They hear something personal in your music and recognize themselves in it.
I write personal because I get into characters who are real people, the playwright’s invention. They’re not just vessels to sing A-A-B-A songs. If you get inside a good character, you will always write something that touches people universally. It doesn’t mean it will be a hit, but people can identify because you know that girl, you know that guy. You know who they are and what they’re about.
Is the theater community too insular to age well?
Yes. Next question.
Does the success of Hamilton and works like it help with that insularity?
Yes, yes. But you don’t get a lot of those because, first of all, producers don’t take chances on new stuff. Most new stuff is new but not as skilled as Hamilton. Lin knows how to write a song, and so did [Rent creator] Jonathan Larson. Rent was the perfect example of a guy with one foot in the past, one foot in the present and a third foot in the future, but it’s mostly in the present. In other words, they’re not just into their own stylizing. And therefore they can write a good, fresh musical. Because with any art form, you’ve got to know the past to be any good. You have to know what has been done before you.
How did Disney do with Into the Woods?
I thought they did swell; the atmosphere of the movie was fine. Dealing with them and making the script — there are rules that you can’t break. Because “our audience doesn’t like that.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong. If you’re going to do a movie for Disney, you know that going in. And if you don’t, you are really dumb. You try to persuade them. You try to be sure that at least the basics you agree on. And the basics, the reason they bought it and the reason we let it be made, were all kosher. But the details?
You were quoted as calling Lady Gaga’s performance of “The Sound of Music” at this year’s Oscars “a travesty.” What was wrong with it?
That was a misquote, of course. I was inveighing against the producer for giving her that material to sing. I said that made a travesty of it because it’s not exactly what she’s used to or feels comfortable singing. Maybe she does, but she doesn’t seem comfortable. So the entire thing was about the producer and not about her.
Are you working on anything new?
Yes, I’m writing a show with David Ives, the playwright who wrote Venus in Fur. We decided to take two movies by Luis Buñuel, one of the first surrealists in the 1930s. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about a group of upper-middle-class people trying to find a place to have dinner. Odd things happen in the restaurant; there’s a wake being held right in the kitchen. That’s the first part of the show; the second part is another movie that he made called The Exterminating Angel. It’s about another group of people, also upper-middle-class, who arrive at this elegant mansion for a large dinner and they can’t leave. They get their dinner, but something … it’s not like a glass wall; it’s a reluctance to leave. They stay in this one room for weeks, running out of food and water. They’re trapped within their own desire.
It sounds bleak.
It’s really about the end of the world.
What is appealing to you about that?
I love the Buñuel style. Actually, I think the seed was planted by [director] Hal Prince a long time ago. We were going to dinner and he said to me, “You know what the latest form of entertainment is? Dining out.” That was about 20 years ahead of it, but boy, what a shrewd observation. That stuck in my head. I already knew both movies, but when David and I were talking about ideas, suddenly it clicked.
Have you ever met an unlikely fan, someone you would never think would be a Sondheimian?
I get a lot of letters from people who are surgeons or heads of insurance companies and things like that. Often it’s because of their kids. They’ve been fans of mine, and they play the music for their kids, and their kids like it. So that gives them an excuse to write me and say, “I’ve loved your songs since I was in college, and now my 9-year-old girl is skipping around the house singing Into the Woods and I just had to write you.”
And how does that feel?
Wonderful. Oh, wonderful. Sure. Oh, sure. Whenever I appeal to anybody under 50, I feel a triumph, seriously. Seriously! Look, popular music changes every generation. And to know that people — a generation or two in this case, or even three generations after you — still like what you did, that’s a big compliment.
Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91 on Nov. 26, 2021.