If during this endless pandemic your appreciation has grown for NPR’s Terry Gross as the best interviewer we’ve got, you’re not alone. Pretty illuminating, that multipart posthumous rebroadcast of her chats with the irascible Stephen Sondheim — the intellectually undisciplined and the linguistically careless beware.
No, Terry, he wasn’t being “discordant,” as in mistaken, the great man corrected; he was being intentionally “dissonant” in that one particular composition. The clarity of the pushback was as appreciated as it was swift. It’s why people like autocrats.
Equally memorable was Sondheim’s discussion of both the good and the bad of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein — the bad coming on those rare occasions when the character onstage was dissociated from words overwritten for that character, which was part of the idea behind Sondheim’s semi-famous contempt for Lady Gaga’s performance of that “Sound of Music” medley at the Oscars a few years ago: She wasn’t connected to the words she was singing.
On the other hand, Hammerstein nailed it when he kept it deceptively simple, say, in “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ / Oh, what a beautiful day,” from “Oklahoma!” On the page, it seems banal. But there’s room in it, and sung on the stage, Sondheim pointed out, “it soars.”
Songs should be heard and not seen, you might say.
One false note in those interviews — detected by Terry Gross, too, she was simply too polite to do anything other than briefly pause over it — came when she asked Sondheim about popular music, that is, outside of the Great American Songbook, rock ’n’ roll, for instance, and essentially he replied that he’d never heard any. Growing up, it was all about the stuff of Broadway.
Awfully hard to escape it, though. So, it’s inferior and not worthy of attention, was the unstated critique. Thudding, unsophisticated. The work of hacks.
To prop up a straw man for a minute — really? Because I’d coincidentally been reconsidering Ray Davies of the Kinks lately, and it may well be that as a writer Sondheim would’ve appreciated him: the jaunty end-of-empire satire of “Victoria” (“From the West to the East / from the rich to the poor / Victoria loved them all”) or that “well-respected man about town / doing the best things so conservatively,” all written when Davies was just in his 20s.
Of course, for sheer theatrical sentimentality, there’s his myth-busting contemplation of “Celluloid Heroes” on his stroll down Hollywood Boulevard. You can almost imagine taking it in from a seat up in the mezzanine.