Broadway songwriters usually like to stay in the background and let others do the singing. But Stephen Sondheim, the acclaimed composer and lyricist of shows from West Side Story to Into the Woods, has just released a new CD, Sondheim Sings (PS Classics), made up of early recordings on which he performs his songs. He talked with TIME's theater critic Richard Zoglin.
YOU MADE THESE RECORDINGS YEARS AGO AND NEVER EXPECTED TO RELEASE THEM. WHAT'S YOUR REACTION LISTENING TO THEM TODAY?
I've never been able to sing very well. My pitch is, you know, off. But I've always enjoyed hearing composers sing their stuff. Some songwriters like Harold Arlen have great voices. But others--they may not be quite as off-pitch as I, but the important thing is the enthusiasm. And what I like about listening to the stuff was the enthusiasm of the young writer. It's genuine energy and joy in both the voice and the piano.
CAN YOU THINK OF ONE SINGER'S INTERPRETATION OF A SONG OF YOURS THAT REALLY WOWED YOU OR STARTLED YOU?
That's happened a number of times. Julia MacKenzie in Side by Side by Sondheim in London, when she did Broadway Baby, started it very tentative and quiet and timid and then suddenly opened up in a Wagnerian soprano--that was something that had never occurred to me, and it was stunning.
ARE THERE ANY SONGS OF YOURS THAT YOU GOT TIRED OF HEARING? SEND IN THE CLOWNS, MAYBE?
Frankly, not that many of my songs get played to death. But I don't listen to records of my own stuff. A friend of mine sent me statistics of the number of recordings of some of my songs. And I can't remember the number of recordings of Send in the Clowns, but I swear I've heard fewer than a tenth of them.
DO YOU HAVE AN IPOD?
No. I'll tell you why. I listen to music all the time at home. When I'm out on the street, I don't want to wear those great big earmuff earphones that cut out the ambient noise. And you can't listen to music when trucks are roaring by. It's the same thing in the subway. It's a great invention, but I would rarely use it.
IS THERE ONE LYRIC YOU'VE WRITTEN THAT YOU KIND OF REGRET?
There are legions. Particularly a number of the very purple-prose lyrics in West Side Story: "It's alarming how charming I feel." Coming from a Puerto Rican girl--what, is she studying Noël Coward?
SOME PEOPLE OVER THE YEARS HAVE CRITICIZED YOUR SONGS FOR NOT BEING HUMMABLE. CAN YOU HUM THEM ALL?
Sure. You may say I'm off-pitch, but I know what notes I'm supposed to be singing. Hummability really is a matter of repetition, and many of the songs of the so-called golden years of musical theater were hummable partly because there were four reprises in these shows, and then they got played on the air all the time. But show music does not make it to the air anymore.
WAS THERE A BROADWAY MUSICAL OF THE PAST FEW YEARS THAT YOU FELT WAS UNDERAPPRECIATED?
[Boy George's] Taboo. I thought it was inventive, and I was touched by it, and I thought it looked good. All the way through I had a good time. And a few of the songs really moved me. I got involved in it--and it's not my kind of music.
YOUR NEWEST MUSICAL, BOUNCE [BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF THE MIZNER BROTHERS] HAS HAD TWO PRODUCTIONS, IN CHICAGO AND WASHINGTON, BUT STILL HASN'T COME TO BROADWAY. WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH IT?