In 1997, Stephen Sondheim sat down with Library of Congress Senior Music Specialist Mark Horowitz for three days, pouring over the manuscripts of many of his shows. He had agreed to bequeath his manuscripts to the library and Horowitz stood in for future researchers who might have questions about minute details revealed on those pages but wouldn’t then be able to ask them.
The sessions were both filmed and transcribed. The resulting interviews became the book Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, which was first published in hardback in 2003, but a third edition with additional material has just been issued in paperback by Roman and Littlefield (ISBN #9781538125502 – $24).
Everything Sondheim wanted to learn more about how this entire project came to be. Mark Horowitz agreed to an extended interview with Brad Hathaway. Since the project really stems from Mr. Sondheim’s decision to bequeath his manuscripts to the Library of Congress, Hathaway asked first how that came about.
Mark Horowitz: When I saw he was coming to DC to receive a Helen Hayes lifetime achievement award I wrote him a letter telling him I was at the Library and inviting him for a show and tell. I spent weeks preparing and pulled out all the stops.
I think he’d been approached by someone before, but I think the presentation is what cemented the relationship. We certainly had things related to him in existing collections, particularly Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers, but I’m not sure that was that meaningful to him. I think the fact that we had Gershwin and Rachmaninoff excited him more.
Brad Hathaway: How long did he stay at the Library for your presentation?
MH: My guess is the show and tell lasted for about two hours. Somewhere I have a list of everything I pulled. I spent a lot of time reading through everything I could think of that would give hints of his favorite other composers and specific works.
BH: On a personal note, one of my strongest memories of all my visits to your treasure trove on Capitol Hill in Washington is the afternoon I held George Gershwin’s manuscript of Porgy and Bess in my own hands. I simply sat there feeling its presence for, I don’t know, ten minutes? – before starting a detailed examination. Was there something like that for him – a connection with his heroes or the history of the art form he practices?
MH: The Porgy was definitely the one that seemed to most move him. As I recall, it actually moved him to tears…at least a welling-up. But I think he was amazed at how many things we had that few people ever suspect – Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, the list goes on.
Afterward, he’d asked me to arrange for tickets so he could see the Barnes’ exhibit that was then at the National Gallery. I got tickets for both of us and we spent a couple of hours there after the Library.
BH: Have you done a similar demonstration for other potential donors?
MH: I often learn that people whose collection I think we might be interested in are coming to DC and I’m usually able to get contact information to invite them to the Library for a show and tell, promising to “knock their socks off.” Over the years I’ve developed a lot of contacts and, I think, a bit of a reputation, so it’s usually not too hard. Among the more memorable ones was one I gave for Angela Lansbury – particularly when she began singing for me.
I try not to hard sell, but at least plant in people’s minds the importance of saving their material. Many hadn’t thought of it before. Sometimes I’m contacted because I’ve been recommended by someone else. On a few occasions I’ve simply written cold letters. For instance, when Jonathan Larson died so suddenly, I was concerned that things might get thrown away, so I wrote a letter to his parents
BH: How did they respond to your letter?
MH: They were lovely. They came to the Library along with their daughter, to talk and to see our facilities and examples from the other collections. They weren’t ready to let go immediately, but they asked for the name of an archivist in New York who could go through everything up there first. I gave them one – which ultimately made our job much easier – and the collection came to us a few years later.
BH: Back to Sondheim, you were already acquainted with him, weren’t you?
MH: I sent Sondheim a letter when I was in college and he agreed to meet with me for an hour in January 1980. He doesn’t remember.
Basically, I was asking his advice – specifically whether the BMI musical theater workshop was worthwhile – but also asking if I could meet with him. The primary thing was what should I do in order to write musicals (I wanted to be him…I was writing music and lyrics in those days).
Actually, the meeting turned out to be a horrible experience. I so idolized him and had built up the idea of meeting him as a life’s dream, but I really hadn’t thought anything through. Somehow, I thought meeting him would be life-changing on its own.
After I left, I remember walking around the streets of New York until 2:00 a.m. and going into a great funk. My life hadn’t changed. I didn’t really have a goal to take its place. I guess in a way my life did change, in that I slowly began to realize that I had to take greater charge of my life and be better prepared – know what you want and do what needs to be done to get there. I still don’t think of myself as a complete adult…but I am better.
I did ask Sondheim for feedback on my songs. He said he’d be willing to listen, but only after he was done writing the show he was currently working on (Merrily). I sent him a tape. Several months later I got a letter. The one thing I recall is he said not to try and imitate him – although he put it more nicely. I think it was vaguely encouraging, but made clear that there are no shortcuts – to learn how to write one has to write.
Then, when I worked at Arena Stage in Washington DC, I worked on their production of Merrily, and that’s where it got to the point where he knew who I was – he even borrowed my rhyming dictionary. When he handed it back to me he let me know he’d written some missing words into the dictionary. (He was re-working “That Frank.”)
I also remember getting off the fax the new intro he wrote for the act II opening, where Gussie’s singing “Good Thing Going” a’la Liza and Kander & Ebb – “He’s only a boy, why do I think he loves me…”
And during what may have been the final dress I was at the back of the house where Steve and George Furth [who wrote the book for Merrily] were standing, and after Marin Mazzie sang “Not a Day Goes By,” Steve turned to George and said words to the effect that “if anybody was ever born to sing a particular song, she was born to sing that one.”
By the way, George was there through the entire rehearsal process and he and I became quite close. And it was at the opening night party when I introduced him to my now wife, Loie, that the first thing he said was “You two have to get married” – something we’d never discussed. That started the ball rolling. He offered us the use of his house in California as a wedding present.
BH: Did you take him up on the offer?
MH: Alas, no. He died before we were able to.
BH: Did Sondheim attend either Candide or Merrily at Arena?
MH: I don’t believe Steve had any involvement with that Candide, and his relationship to Merrily was very minimal. He was there for the first read-thru in New York and then came down for the last few days before opening. Other than lyric changes to the opening, faxing us the new intro, I think the only thing he did was give notes and make some suggestions. I do remember him working with the actress playing Mary on the song “Like It Was.” They were in the green room; he had her sit across the table from him, take his hands, and actually sing it to him. It became an acting exercise.
My favorite story had to do with, during a break, while they had done the run-thru with orchestra, he was talking to the production head and one of the musicians came up, waiting patiently to the side. The producer turned to him and asked, “What do you want?” The musician said, “I was wondering if there was going to be another run-thru without orchestra before the show opens so I’d have a chance to see it.” The producer was dismissive and mumbled something like “I don’t know.” Sondheim was furious and really lit into him, saying something like: “How dare you. Here you’ve got someone who cares and wants to understand what it is they’re accompanying. You should count yourself lucky and appreciate his interest.” …or words to that effect. Now this producer was a pretty intimidating. No one ever spoke to him this way. It was delicious.
BH: Were there changes to Merrily for that production?
MH: 99.9% of the changes were to the script, and this was changing daily. As I mentioned, George Furth was there through it all and was constantly re-writing. Frankly, I don’t remember any of the details of what he did or didn’t change, and I don’t know that any of it made that much difference. But boy did they come fast and furious.
BH: How much contact between you and Sondheim was involved in establishing the Sondheim papers?
MH: To be clear, we don’t have the Sondheim papers, they’re promised as a bequest. I have always been his primary contact with the Library. I co-produced our 70th birthday concert (came up with the notion and I would get regular emails from him as songs occurred to him for the “Songs I Wish I’d Written” list.) I visited the collection to give him input on ultimately what would be appropriate to come to the Library.
BH: What do you mean “visited the collection?” Are his papers in his home or an off-site office?
MH: Actually, what I’ve seen isn’t that large a collection, at least compared to some I’ve seen. When I first visited, he kept all of his music and lyric manuscripts and sketches on three sides of a walk-in closet, floor to ceiling. As I recall, there was an average of about three boxes per project – approx.. 12” x 14” x 5”. After the fire [In 1995 Sondheim’s home in Manhattan was seriously damaged by fire] a cinderblock vault was built in the basement.
In addition to this material, the collection is to include his scrapbooks. As far as I can tell, Sondheim has never kept much personal correspondence or business correspondence. After the fire he gave us his record collection – somewhere between 11,000 and 15,000 LPs as I recall. But it’s the music and lyric manuscripts more than anything that are what I think of as priceless.
I’m hoping there will be all the various drafts of the librettos. And there may be a question about his reference library. We typically don’t take people’s book collections, but at least portions of Sondheim’s reference library might be appropriate – particularly if he’s marked/annotated some volumes and if we know they were used as primary research sources for particular shows.
I have a vague memory that he may have had discussions with the Smithsonian or other institutions about his extraordinary collection of games, but that’s not something that we’ve discussed.
BH: In the introduction to Sondheim on Music you describe the problem for musical scholars in deciphering composers’ manuscripts. You say they debate “what does this piece of marginalia mean? How should that symbol be interpreted? How was that chord supposed to function?” and that “Rarely do we have the composer’s direct commentary on how he approached his work and what his notes – both musical and textual – literally mean.” Is this the essence of the pitch you made to Sondheim when you proposed the interviews which became the book?
MH: I don’t recall making a pitch with any specifics. I don’t even think it was as much as what I put in the introduction. But I do remember having looked at his manuscripts before this grant came up and seeing things that I wondered what they meant. The project was supported by a Krasnoff Grant that paid for me to go to New York twice — first for three days to examine the manuscripts and then the three days of the filming, and it paid for the videographer and associated people to actually film and record the interviews.
BH: Tell us about the three days of interviews and how the filming was conducted. How many people were present and how long did they go on?
MH: As I recall there were three other people – camera, lights, sound – and there was a woman working on a potential Sondheim documentary and Sondheim asked if she could sit in. I said sure. I don’t remember her name and I don’t think anything came of her plans.
I would get there early, pull the boxes and folders I knew I wanted to discuss, lay things out on the table with markers and notes. Each reel lasted half-an-hour, so there would be anywhere from 5 to 15 minute breaks between. Sometimes I’d use that time to put away and set up the next batch of material I wanted to talk about.
The only really interesting thing I recall from the breaks was a story Sondheim told everyone about the time [his neighbor] Katharine Hepburn came banging on his window in the middle of the night, complaining that he was too noisy as he was composing Company.
For the original interviews, I believe we began somewhere between 10 and 11. I think I got there about an hour before to set-up and the crew probably about a half-hour before. The first day we did two-and-a-half hours of interviews, the second and third day two hours. Again, each reel of film was 30 minutes, and I’d guess an average of a 5-10 minute break between reels.
BH: Did you and Sondheim lunch together during a break? (Or, dine afterwords, for that matter.)
MH: Alas, No. We didn’t take lunch breaks. I have had dinner with him a few other times. Once with him, Marsha Norman, and Alfred Uhry. Pulitzer Prize winners all. I like to say I was the only person at the table I’d never heard of. I think they were in town representing the Dramatists Guild, testifying before Congress.
BH: For the second edition of the book, you conducted additional interviews. How did they go?
MH: The Bounce interview was done in an afternoon in his hotel room near the Kennedy Center – just me and a tape recorder. The “Encores” interview was done just with me and a sound guy (no video) – in an afternoon. I like to think they went well. I’ll let the readers of those chapters decide.
BH: The interviews were originally intended simply for Library use. How did you come up with the idea of publishing them in book form?
MH: I had no idea that it might be a book — I thought it would be too rarified. But when I decided to transcribe it (at home, just for myself) the idea started to percolate when I began to realize how much actually might be accessible and of interest to a more general audience.
BH: How did Sondheim respond to your suggestion that the interviews be published in book form?
MH: He was surprisingly amenable. I think it helped that he trusted me, and I made clear that I would run everything by him – which I did. Oh, and I did send him a sample transcript first. As I recall, I did both a word for word transcript, and then a version that tried to make it a bit more coherent, eliminating false starts, ums, repeated words, etc. He was a wonderful editor too.
BH: When he edited the transcripts did he take the opportunity to add details or stories that he’d not mentioned during the filming, or did he confine himself to cleaning up what was there?
MH: No stories were added, but he did add a few sentences to make what he was discussing clearer – usually very specific musical things. The most specific change I remember was during the interviews he couldn’t remember the “name” of the step Jerome Robbins had come up with to describe the bit where the Jets spread their arms to show they own the territory. For the transcript he remembered it was the “sailing” step. As I recall, he fixed my grammar a lot.
BH: By “your grammar” you mean your transcription of what he said, not that he corrected what you had said?
MH: I literally mean grammar – where commas, periods, semi-colons, dashes, ellipses, etc. should go. Also encouraging me to make things a bit cleaner by cutting more of the false starts and extraneous words. There was nothing about “correcting” anything that either of us actually said.
BH: Had Sondheim’s plans for what turned out to be Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat been firm in his head at the time you approached him about this project, and how did that impact the story?
MH: No. His lyric books came much later. Actually, he was just starting to work on them when I went back to do the “Encore” interview for the 2nd edition.
The “Encore” was my opportunity to ask questions about shows we’d never really had time to get to – Forum, Company, Follies and Night Music. And to get clarity on things I hadn’t really understood the first time.
Anyway, I think the “Encores” is a pretty good chapter. It’s slightly different than the others in that it wasn’t so much just looking at music manuscripts as my coming in with a list of pretty specific questions.
I actually became one of his reviewers [on Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat]. He would send me chapters as he completed them for me to look at. The thing I’m proudest of is I reminded him of some lyrics he’d left out and forgotten he’d written.
BH: Can you give me details?
MH: The biggest example I can remember is he’d forgotten he’d written new lyrics for segments on “A Weekend in the Country” and “Every Day a Little Death” for the film. In fact, at first he thought I was wrong and confused, but I sent him to links on YouTube and he was shame-faced about it and rather apologetic. There were also some things he’d added to a production of Candide (this is a production after the Prince/Chelsea one [Harold Prince directed Candide in the Chelsea Theatre Center of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973]). I also vaguely remember some cut/early versions of lyrics from a few shows – Sunday and Whistle in particular, I recall. I also brought up things like typos.
Frankly, other than the missing lyrics, I don’t think I was really giving him what he was hoping for – which was more about if he was being clear, repetitive, etc. about things. But it’s very hard for me to have the nerve to question any actual content by Sondheim.
There were a couple of places where I wasn’t sure of what he was saying, and I told him it would be helpful if he went into more detail. But, all in all it was pretty breathtakingly perfect – a fantasy of a book(s).
The one big surprise was when the first book actually came out I had had no idea there were going to be the pieces about other lyricists.
This doesn’t have to do with your question, but one added benefit that’s happened. Because he sent me each chapter as attachments in an email, I in essence have an electronic version, which means I can do word searches through his lyrics which has been enormously helpful. I’ve also had some fun, for instance, searching all the times he uses certain words.
BH: In between the time you filmed the interviews and you published the book you produced the Library of Congress’ legendary 70th Birthday Concert. The concert included the condensed version of Sondheim and Burt Shevelove’s The Frogs, with glorious new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, as well as an all-star presentation of songs Sondheim said he wished he’d written (at least in part) and others he said he was glad he did write. Can you tell us how that came about?
MH: That concert took over my life for a few months. There are so many things about the experience it’s hard to know where to begin. I was responsible for every aspect of planning for the concert – what songs would be sung, who would sing them, who would be the director, musical director, what would be newly orchestrated, how would the show be organized, what would be done with NPR.
I was thrilled when I got the notion of contacting all the songwriters of The Songs I Wish I’d Written list to get them to write things for the program. In general, it was a great excuse to contact all these people I was a fan of…and in some cases to begin a dialogue with. I remember being nervous about how the Library would take to including a female impersonator, Steven Brinberg [he performed Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh’s “When in Rome” in the persona of Barbra Streisand] … it turned out not to be a problem.
I basically wrote a “script” for the concert – having no idea what I was doing – and one of the staggering things was watching how brilliantly Nathan Lane extemporized around it – funny, clever, engaging. There were just some electric moments that are singed in my memory – “The Riddle Song,” [from the Adam Guettel/Tina Landau Floyd Collins performed by Rich Affannato and Will Gartshore from the 2000 Signature Theatre production in Arlington, Virginia] and Audra McDonald singing “My Man’s Gone Now.”
But as thrilling as the concert was, I’m prouder of all the ripples that grew out of it – The New York Times asked for a copy of The Songs I Wish I’d Written list and published it; then Barbara Cook created a show around it; “The Frogs” was recorded for the first time (and I was there). And then Nathan Lane convinced Sondheim to expand it into a new Broadway show.
BH: What was Sondheim’s reaction to your book when it finally came out?
MH: I think he’s been pleased. Certainly congratulatory. He’s recommended it to some people, and he’s asked me for extra copies with each edition.
BH: Did it come as a surprise to discover that Sondheim is so incredibly quotable? For example: “I’m someone who believes that the heart of music is harmony, as opposed to melody,” “The ear hears things that the mind does not know,” “Sometimes, you make a choice, because all the other choices seem less good,” “‘Simple’ is really hard to do,” “…without craft, I think art is nonsense” and “…teaching, which, I have said innumerable times, is the noblest profession on earth.”
MH: Until you said it, I never thought of it that way – as aphorisms – I just knew that he was a natural teacher – clear, intelligent, thoughtful, knowledgeable. I guess, if anything, I was surprised at how fulsome he would become. But if there’s one thing I credit myself for it’s the encouraging look. As much as possible, when he was on a roll, I tried not to interrupt, but just look at him, nodding and giving encouraging looks so he’d keep on going.
BH: Are the films of the interviews available for viewing at the Library or anyplace else? Or is there the possibility of them going online later?
MH: They are available for viewing at the Library. The benefit there is hearing him sing. But with the book you can actually see the music examples. They both have their pluses. At the moment there are no plans for them to go online. I hope they will someday.
BH: So do I! Has anyone done a similar project (whether or not it ended up in book form) with other artists who have deposited their papers with the Library?
MH: The Library has certainly done many videotaped interviews with people and, I myself, have done interviews with other songwriters – Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, Jason Robert Brown – but nothing like the Sondheim. The closest I’ve come was six hours (over three days) of interviews with Jonathan Tunick, but it wasn’t with his manuscripts at hand.
BH: Is the transcript of the sessions with Tunick available online or does one have to come to the Library for that?
MH: He hasn’t given permission for the transcript to be released yet. Tunick was the hardest interview I’ve ever done. He’s extraordinarily careful and measured with his words and it sometimes seemed painfully slow to me. But, I think, the transcripts read like a dream. One would have no idea that there are long pauses.
BH: How many questions had you prepared in advance and how many came as a result of the discussion? When I was reading the book, I made a note after your question about the wrong note in bar 6 of John Hinckley playing the guitar as he made up the vamp for “Unworthy of Your Love” in Assassins. Sondheim intentionally used a “wrong” note instead of the proper F-sharp in the chord to indicate that Hinckley’s character was supposed to be musically naive. You asked, “Would this be a rare example of, if somebody does do a pop recording of the song, you would actually prefer the F-sharp be used?” My note was “An example of how good the questions are.” Was that question a result of your really listening to what he was saying and thinking about it, or did you have that one up your sleeve?
MH: I always wanted to come in with a script of questions. I would have been too nervous to wing it. And especially when it came to having selected and pulled things from the manuscripts in advance. That said, once we started, I did my best not to control too much and to let him do as much leading as possible. And if he said something I didn’t understand or wanted more information about I’d certainly ask – so sometimes it really is more of a conversation.
But in your specific example, that was definitely a question I’d come in with. And that was one I hadn’t thought of myself but had come from one of the people from whom I’d solicited questions. It might not have come to me as a question itself, but something someone mentioned to me that I hadn’t noticed. It may have been someone who had actually played the show.
BH: Where did the title/subtitle Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions come from?
MH: Sondheim on Music just seemed pretty obvious. But I think it was my brother who said something that made me think of adding Minor Details and Major Decisions. It’s funny, when it came time for this third edition, someone from the publisher’s wanted to change it to Major Details and Minor Decisions – just to make it feel new, I think. I was, of course, horrified and made clear that it missed the point entirely. Just in case, you know that that comes from his lyric from “Putting It Together” –
“Every minor detail
Is a major decision.
Have to keep things in scale,
Have to hold to your vision.”
BH: Sondheim is known as a great teacher and the book includes a host of lessons on a wide range of topics relating to the musical theater and music in general. Take his discussion of the difference between the songwriting approach of Hammerstein (“song being little scenes and necessary to telling the story”) and the Shevelove approach for Forum for a song to “savor the moment.” At another point in a discussion of opening numbers he teaches that, “The whole point of an opening number is to not only lay out the ground rules for the audience, but to tell them where they are. Just like Oklahoma! did …”
There are also lessons from his own studies in preparation for shows, such as the detail he goes into on the dabs versus dots of Seurat’s technique that was so important for Sunday in the Park with George.
There’s so much more here than music … there’s a wealth of material on work habits and procedures. For instance, composing a score from start to end chronologically, or how he uses out of town tryouts – he says, “you sit with the audience. If you’re real smart, you pay no attention to applause, you pay no attention to coughing. You pay attention to concentration.”
MH: You’re touching on what was my pleasantest surprise. I really thought in advance that these interviews were probably going to be very technical and truly just of interest (or even accessible) to musicians. I was thrilled when it was over to realize the wide variety of materials that it also covered.
BH: Are there questions that have occurred to you after the fact that you wish you had asked?
MH: Yes and no. I’ve had various follow-up interviews where I’ve been able to ask him questions. I sometimes email him with questions that come to me – not for the book, just curiosity.
Doing the “Biography of a Song” articles [Horowitz wrote ten articles examining the development of individual Sondheim songs for Show Music magazine between 2005 and 2008] I got a lot of wonderful unexpected stuff. But most of the things that occur are very, very specific and aren’t, I think, really something that would have been important for the book.
I’ve always felt tension in how the word “too” is used in “Good Thing Going” – in the lyric “And if I wanted too much, was that such a mistake…”. What exactly is the “too” modifying – is it that the wanting itself was too intense, or that too much was wanted? That’s an example of some of the specific kinds of questions that occur to me. But I don’t think the book is any the less for not including things like that.
BH: Have others approached you with questions you wish you had asked?
MH: Probably. But remember Steve’s mantra – “less is more.”
BH: Is that why you subtitled the new paperback version of the book “The Less is More Edition?”
MH: Since we cut the song listing and discography (which was out of date anyway) we wanted to make sure people would know up-front that there was less in this edition — though not something truly substantive. In a way it’s “more” because it’s cheaper and easier to handle…plus it does have an additional chapter.
BH: Tell us about your current project.
MH: I’m transcribing Oscar Hammerstein’s correspondence. What I think/hope will happen now is that there will first be a book of very highly selected correspondence, and then later the Library will do a website that will include everything I transcribe.
To date I’ve done over 2,200 pages of transcription.
What I can tell you is that I have fallen head over heels in love with Oscar – for many reasons – and feel I may now know him more fully than just about anyone else does (not that there’s a contest).
I’m beginning to feel that, in some ways, this project may be the most important thing I do in my career…it will certainly be close to the Sondheim.