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Stephen Sondheim talks childhood, staying 'step ahead' of audiences and more ahead of SLU award

Hours before being honored with the 2018 St. Louis Literary Award, Stephen Sondheim spoke at length with "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh.
Provided by Saint Louis University

Stephen Sondheim hesitates to settle on a single beginning point from which his now 70-year-long career in musical theater took off. There were the piano lessons he began taking as a young child, something he acknowledges may have “infiltrated” him early on. Then there’s the show he wrote at age 15, a script family friend Oscar Hammerstein gave an unsparing critique. He also credits his enjoyment of films growing up.

“The music that most influenced me at first was movie music,” the renowned composer and lyricist said Thursday on St. Louis on the Air. “I was a big movie buff, so it was the scores of people like Franz Waxman and Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann that got me going.”

But one particular moment that stands out as an early turning point for Sondheim was his first day of class in a Williams College music course, taught by Robert Barrow.

“He played for us ‘La Mer,’ the Debussy piece,” Sondheim told host Don Marsh. “And he said, ‘All right, this is called “The Sea.” Does it sound like the sea to you? Doesn’t sound like the sea to me.’ And he said, ‘What this is about is not about the sea – it’s about the whole tone scale.’

“He took all the romance out of music and just taught what music was made of as a craft, and I fell in love … by taking the romance out, he made it so romantic, I couldn’t wait to do it.”

And Sondheim is still doing it. Widely considered to be one of musical theater’s most accomplished composers and lyricists, the New York native continues to create. And on Thursday evening the Saint Louis University Library Associates will honor him with the St. Louis Literary Award.

He’ll add that to an already illustrious collection: one Academy Award, eight Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, eight Grammy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

Behind such works as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Sweeney Todd,” “West Side Story” and many more, Sondheim noted that he aims to keep his compositions fresh – a feature that has sometimes earned him a reputation for writing difficult music.

“But if you talk to the performers who have sung my stuff, what they will generally tell you is, ‘It sounds difficult until you start working on it,’” Sondheim said. “I pride myself on being meticulous about giving places to breathe, ways to use the lips and the teeth to pronounce things at speed of speech, all that, and what sounds difficult quite often turns out to be not.

“Sometimes the musical aspect of the songs I write is difficult in the sense that there are leaps and little surprises – that the tunes don’t quite go where you expect them to. I don’t do that perversely. I try to keep things fresh.

“I think it’s very good, not just in songwriting but in theater writing or any kind of narrative art, to be a step ahead of your audience. If they know what you’re going to say next, they’re very likely to get bored. And if they don’t know what you’re going to say next, they may be startled and a little discombobulated, but that’s the way to do it. So sometimes I do that in a musical phrase.”

Among other topics, the conversation touched on the dynamics of his childhood. When Marsh inquired about the idea that Sondheim was a lonely child, the composer said that’s a common misconception – something he’s often surprised to hear said about himself.

“I went to boarding schools and summer camp, so I was surrounded by peers all the time,” Sondheim said. “I was popular, and I enjoyed virtually every aspect [of those times], from academics to sports. So I was not aware that I was lonely. Everybody who’s ever talked about my childhood has said, ‘He was lonely.’ I guess I must’ve looked lonely. But when I think back, I didn’t feel lonely at all.”

When asked about protests related to concerns about cultural appropriation within the contemporary world of musical theater, Sondheim said he finds that kind of protest “sort of silly.”

Related: Legendary lyricist Sondheim dismisses protests calling for color-conscious casting as 'ridiculous'

“If you carry that to its extreme, then you’d have to say that an actress couldn’t be played by anybody but an actress and that a mother couldn’t be played by somebody who hadn’t been a mother,” he added. “I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.