Interviews with Stephen Sondheim

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz.

In November 1997 I had the rare privilege of interviewing Stephen Sondheim over the course of three days in his Manhattan home. Now, twenty-four-plus years later, the Library has put the videotapes of those interviews online.

Here’s the background. In March 1996 Abraham and Julienne Krasnoff, founding members of the Library’s Madison Council, donated funds to support Library curators in projects that would enhance the Library’s collections and the work we do. Curators were encouraged to submit proposals. I did. Mine was one of three proposals approved that first year.  Although Sondheim had been interviewed innumerable times before, what was rare about my proposal was its focus—not on his biography, his life in the theater, or his lyric writing, but on his music and his compositional process.

There is an aspect of scholarship that involves assumptions about a creator’s intents and methods and the shorthand they use. My primary goal with this project was to anticipate what future scholars looking at Sondheim’s manuscripts would wish they could have asked him. By way of example, as the story is told: about 40 years ago when Sondheim and James Lapine were writing Sunday in the Park with George, they visited the Art Institute of Chicago.  They stood with three of the museum’s curators in front of their musical’s inspiration, George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Pointing to an indistinct object in the middle distance, Sondheim or Lapine asked what the object was. The three curators immediately responded…with three different answers. If only Seurat had been interviewed about it during his lifetime.

My project involved two three-day trips to New York. The first trip, in February 1997, gave me the luxury of studying Sondheim’s manuscripts alone, making notes about and photocopies of sections of the scores I found interesting and intriguing. Sondheim’s manuscripts were kept in a recently-built cinderblock vault in his basement. When I’d seen them previously, they were stored in a closet off the second-floor office where his assistant, Steve Clar, was stationed. In 1995, a major fire had come inches and seconds from destroying Sondheim’s manuscripts entirely (singe marks remained in the bottom of some of the boxes, outlining where the manuscripts had sat). I was set up in the first-floor dining room. I had free reign to go to the basement, pulling out boxes of manuscripts and taking them up to the table for study. Using acid-free paper as markers and after completing the review of the manuscripts in a given box, I would bring it to the second-floor office of his assistant to photocopy the marked pages. As I recall, the manuscripts for each show filled two or three of what we in the Music Division call sheet music boxes—somewhat wider but shorter than shoe boxes.

I made one decision up-front that I’m still unsure about. Since part of my focus was on the more general question of how Sondheim composed his music, I thought it might be wise to start by focusing on his then-most recent show, which was Passion, and which had opened on Broadway in May 1994. I assumed that his memories of writing that show would be freshest in his mind. I also guessed that, if there had been an evolution to his method, his most recent show would represent the synthesis of what had come before.

As a result, I spent a significant amount of time looking at the manuscripts for Passion. And because of this, there was not enough time to review the manuscripts for all of his prior shows. I was only able to go as far back as Pacific Overtures (1976). I also made a decision I now regret—to skip Merrily We Roll Along. I knew the failure of the show’s original Broadway production and the viciousness of many of the reviews had been a bitter experience for Sondheim, purportedly leaving him to consider, at least temporarily, abandoning the writing of musicals altogether (and possibly taking up the designing of computer games).

Back at the Library, I spent several weeks reviewing my notes and photocopies, typing up questions, and reaching out to others, seeking their suggestions regarding questions they would like me to ask. I received surprisingly little response.

Returning to New York to conduct the interviews in November, each day I would arrive at Sondheim’s home about an hour early to pull the boxes and prepare the manuscripts I wished to discuss that day. Sondheim is a natural teacher and explainer and I quickly decided that it was better to give him as much free reign as possible (encouraged by frequent nods on my part), as opposed to marching through my prepared questions. And besides, I was mesmerized. I did get through most of my questions, and when Sondheim said something I didn’t understand, I did ask follow-up questions. Overall our conversation was far more wide-ranging than I anticipated.

Some may notice that I wear white cotton gloves throughout. Truth be told, this was primarily intended to telegraph to Sondheim the care with which we would handle his papers if and when they were to come to the Library. At a later date the Library’s conservation office changed their recommendations regarding the wearing of gloves, mostly limiting their use to the handling of photographs.

Videotape had to be reloaded every 30 minutes, which broke up the interviews in discrete units. A total of two hours the first day, two-and-a-half the second, and two on the third. I submitted the high-quality Beta-cam copies to the Library’s moving image section for preservation. I thought that the project was, for all intents and purposes, complete: just waiting for some unknown date when the interviews would be viewed by researchers.

In addition to the copies for the Library, I had asked the videographers to prepare a set of cassette tapes for me. It seemed smart to transcribe them so I’d have a record of exactly what was discussed when. This would also serve as a crib or index to the six-and-a-half hours of interviews. But reading the transcription when I was done, a larger plan took shape; I became convinced that the transcripts should be published as a book. Yes, there was a lot that was technical about music, but there was even more that was accessible to a regular reader—at least a reader interested in Sondheim in particular, or musical theater in general. And one benefit a book would have over the videotapes is that musical examples transcribed from Sondheim’s manuscripts could be included. A publisher was found, Sondheim agreed. I should add that in reviewing the transcripts Sondheim made a handful of minor changes for the sake of clarity, so there are a few places where the book and the videotapes don’t exactly match. Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions was published in 2003. It went on to win an ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award. A second edition was published in 2010 that included transcripts of new interviews (that were not videotaped), and a third edition was published in 2019 in paperback.

But now, finally, the actual videotapes of the interviews have been made available online by the Library, on both the Library’s own website and our YouTube channel. Although one can’t read from the manuscripts we’re discussing, I believe that is more than made up for by actually seeing and hearing Sondheim. It’s thrilling to see his eyes light up, to sense the wheels turning, to watch the myriad expressions, to hear his inflections, his singing, his laughter, to feel his enthusiasm for the subject. I envy those of you who will see these for the first time—Stephen Sondheim, on music.

One Comment

  1. Fran Morris Rosman
    March 22, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    Here at the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, we are very, very grateful to Mark Horowitz and his insanely great knowledge of musical theater. Mark helps us understand Mr. Sondheim’s genius. Thank you.

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