A Candid Conversation with Stephen Sondheim

September 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown sits down for a candid conversation with the celebrated composer and songwriter, Stephen Sondheim. The conversation took place at the prestigious MacDowell arts colony. In its 106 years, MacDowell has honored the likes of Aaron Copland, Philip Roth, and Edward Albee, but never before an artist from musical theater.

MICHAEL CHABON: Hello! Welcome all you raging Sondheimians who have made the pilgrimage here today to bask in the radiance of the master.

JEFFREY BROWN:  A glorious August day in southern New Hampshire… and the prestigious MacDowell arts colony is giving its annual medal to musical theater’s most celebrated living composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.

In its 106 years, MacDowell, which has given countless artists a place to do their work, has honored the likes of Aaron Copland, Philip Roth, and Edward Albee, but never before an artist from musical theatre.

Sondheim told us he’s grateful for the honor… but he admits to at least some ambivalence about the ‘elder statesman’ treatment. 

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: As you get older, you get — a lot of — a lot of awards, yeah. You get venerable.

JEFFREY BROWN: You get venerable?


JEFFREY BROWN: How do you feel about being venerable?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Well, it’s good and bad.  You start believing your own notices, and that’s not so good.  

JEFFREY BROWN:  And so at 83, Sondheim isn’t simply enjoying the admiration of his many fans. He is taking on new challenges.  He’s working on a project debuting in the fall with jazzman Wynton Marsalis, that’s billed as a celebration of New York and a re-imagination of Sondheim’s work.

Disney is producing a film version of his musical “Into the Woods.”

He spread pitch on the stairs.
I was caught unawares.
And I thought: well, he cares

And he’s also working on a new musical called “All Together Now”, with playwright David Ives.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: As other people have said before me — if it isn’t dangerous, it isn’t worth doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you’re in that process, are you running up against doubts and uncertainties.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM:  Oh, all the time. Come on. Everybody faces a blank piece of paper no matter what they’ve written or painted or composed before. I can’t imagine approaching every single new project with-without doubt. In fact, I think if you do, it’s not going to turn out that well.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re trying to do something dangerous?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM:  Something that scares you — exploring new territory; something that you are not smug about; that you’re not certain about.  You want to surprise yourself.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Sondheim’s been surprising audiences and critics for nearly 60 years now.  

He’s won a Pulitzer, 8 Tonys, 8 Grammys and an Academy Award.  It all dates back to the 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story.”

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America

JEFFREY BROWN:  But even this early success was more complicated than Sondheim had imagined.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I certainly wanted my name in lights. I wanted my name on a marquee. I wanted recognition on Broadway. And then once I had my name on a marquee on Broadway with “West Side Story,” suddenly ‘gee, that’s all that is?’


STEPHEN SONDHEIM:  I felt in a way deflated. Yeah. Because it was exciting. But, ‘ok, now what?’ And then you realize that you do that because you want to write something that you like, as opposed to write something that’s going to get your name in lights or be successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the next decades, as Broadway arguably went lighter…

Sondheim went deeper, using language and music to explore complex ideas:

Adult relationships in “Company”…

You don’t live for her 
You do live with her,
you’re scared she’s starting
to drift away,
and scared she’ll stay.

The artistic process itself in “Sunday in the park with George”…Studying a face,

Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window.
But to see–
It’s the only way to see.

And murderous vengeance in what many believe to be his masterwork, “Sweeney Todd,” set in Victorian London. 

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.

FRANK RICH (at podium): In show after show Steve kept pushing the boundaries of the musical.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich introduced Sondheim at the MacDowell ceremony… and spoke to us.

FRANK RICH: I’d argue that he singlehandedly has kept the modern musical theater in a serious place. It could have gone in a way where it could’ve just petered out or just been all frivolous, lowest common denominator. Sondheim kept the path of saying, ‘you know you can do Sweeney Todd. You can do Pacific Overtures and you can do Sunday in the Park with George. It doesn’t have to be all Cats and special effects and chorus girls and boys.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you ever in your career have times where you were afraid to write because of the high expectations that were placed around you?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: The older I get, the more that’s true. Absolutely.


STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Sure, absolutely. Because what that means is suddenly you’re not thinking about yourself. You’re thinking about the audience. And as soon as you think about the audience from that point of view, you’re dead.  Suddenly, you’re thinking of yourself as an icon, as a figure or something like that.  And that’s deadly.  That’s just deadly.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM (SPEECH): That’s the trouble with awards for a body of work.  They always come at both a good time and a wrong time.  Good because they tell you what you’ve been doing was worth the doing and wrong because they ought to come when you’re young and excited and hungry for assurance that what you’re doing is worth the doing.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Age, doubts and, yes, new honors are part of his life now. But, Sondheim says the challenge, and the work, keep him going.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: That’s why I don’t like the word ‘career’. When somebody says to me, ‘oh, you’ve had such a wonderful career’, I think, ‘career — that’s after you’re dead.’ I just don’t think that way.

JEFFREY BROWN and how do you think?  I mean just day to day?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: That’s it. One show at a time.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Piece to piece and show to show. That just keeps you excited?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Absolutely, sure. Then I’m 20 years old again. And what you want to do it get back to what you were like at 20. You’ve got to get hungry again. And the older and more venerated you get the less hungry you get. But as soon as you get hungry, then it’s fun again.