Story posted September 22, 2011
Where do you start with one of the greatest composers and lyricists in the history of the American musical theater? Especially when you are one of 25 lucky Bowdoin College students with a private audience.
If you're talking to Stephen Sondheim, you can start anywhere.
"Do you write with actors in mind?" asks one brave young music student who has gathered in a hushed circle around him in Main Lounge.
"No," says Sondheim. "People get run over by trucks, they get movie contracts."
"What's your favorite show you've written and which one do you think is best?" asks another student.
"I don't have favorites. And best, that's an elusive term," chuckles Sondheim. "The one that comes closest to exactly what my collaborator John Weidman and I envisioned, is Assassins.
"As far as we're concerned it's unimprovable, that is to say, there's nothing in it that makes us wince. (Laughter). Whereas there's lots of winceablity going on in all the other stuff."
Self-professed "Sondheim freak" Jade Hopkins '12 said that Sondheim has been "a major theme in my life for at least eight years." The opportunity to discuss music and theater with her idol, she said, "was incredibly exciting."
Hopkins wasn't alone. The student questions came fast and furious. Sondheim answered each with humor and vivid recall, his deeply hooded eyes creasing into a smile, hands flying animatedly to make a point.
Sondheim dished backstage lore about his early days working with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins on West Side Story. (Lenny taught him the essence of creating a musical line, he said: "Make it fresh, but inevitable.")
He described his philosophy and technical approach for composing: "Take four notes and build a cathedral ... It's true for a Bach fugue or for Sweeney Todd.
"Sunday in the Park's opening arpeggios tell you the harmonic structure for the whole show. Make the most out of the least. That is the essential of what art is."
But Sondheim was at his most personal, shy almost, when he talked about the mentors who shaped his early life: In his youth, a friendship with the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, the latter who became Sondheim's surrogate father and whom he credits with inspiring him to pursue musical theater ("If Oscar had been a geologist, I would have become a geologist.").
There was a music professor at Williams College, Robert Barrow, who in one class discussion of Debussy's La Mer exploded Sondheim's romantic conceptions of composition.
"[Barrow] said, 'Does anybody in this room really think this sounds like the sea? It doesn't to me. It's about the whole tone scale,' which he then explained," said Sondheim.
"He took all the romance and blew it out of the water. It taught me that music could be written, that you didn't just sit in your penthouse overlooking New York City and go 'ya-ta-ta-dum.' There is logic to form, a set of principles and restrictions within which you write, and that's what makes it rich."
Even when the discussion moved to a much wider arena in the evening—a packed Pickard Theater—Sondheim's intimate approach reached down into the audience there.
Unbeknownst to him, a local woman was in the audience who had attended prep school with Sondheim in Pennsylvania. She had been in the cast of Sondheim's very first musical—written at the age of 15—By George, which the school had mounted.
When Davis Robinson asked the woman to stand, Sondheim called out: "Name one song that you remember."
"I'll meeeeeeet you at the donut," she sang out with aplomb.
"That's right!" exclaimed Sondheim, clapping his hands. "I'm glad you remembered it. Can you remember the next line?"
"Uh, no," she said.
"Either can I," he rejoined, as the audience roared.
In homage to his surroundings, Sondheim touted the advantages he had derived from being a music major in a small liberal arts college.
"I deliberately picked a small college, I did not want to go to a university ... I wanted that individual attention from the teacher because teachers mean so much to me," said Sondheim.
"It's a lot more likely that you will have that one-to-one quality in an atmosphere like this. There will be a relationship that you will have with your teacher and that's all-important. Education is just about learning to learn."