Stephen Sondheim on Seven Decades Of Musical Theater, That (Misquoted) Dig on Lady Gaga and Liking Radiohead

In 2015, Billboard spoke with #StephenSondheim about Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Disney, the ­revolutionary quality of 'Hamilton' and the art of making art

Stephensondheim, Magazine Feature

11/27/2021 2:47:00 AM

In 2015, Billboard spoke with StephenSondheim about Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Disney, the ­revolutionary quality of 'Hamilton' and the art of making art

On a warm October afternoon, Billboard spoke with Stephen Sondheim about Lady Gaga, Disney, the ­revolutionary quality of Hamilton and the art of making art.

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.”

T Bone Burnett to Score Broadway-Bound Roy Rogers Bio-Musical ‘Happy Trails’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.

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Is the theater community too insular to age well?Yes. Next question.Hamiltonand 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 [Rent­creator] Jonathan Larson.Rentwas 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 withInto 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?

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Stephen Sondheim Pans Lady Gaga’s Academy Awards Performance: ‘She Was a Travesty’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 wroteVenus in Fur. We decided to take two movies by Luis Buñuel, one of the first surrealists in the 1930s.The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisieis 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.

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It sounds bleak.It’s really about the end of the world.Sondheim, at 25, was the lyricist for West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957. Hank Walker/The Life Picture Collection/Getty ImagesWhat 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 Woodsand 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.

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Travesty? Is that so? Ok. ...the better half of your thoughts jus been clouded💨 (zayata) Yeah Production by Bear DaGreat The Elephant Empire Records N Sloan Music Publishing ASCAP stream-download tiktokresso tencent AmazonMusic deezer itunesmusic Spotify qobuz pandora tidal ASCAP iHeartRadio youtubemusic YEAH napster

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