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Stephen Sondheim would be considered a genius of musical theater if he had written just the music for his shows, but not the lyrics, or written the lyrics, but not the music. That he did both puts him off the charts. Who does he consider a genius? Sondheim himself suggested an answer at an event I attended last week.
The event was held on Valentine's Day at the Jerome L. Greene Space, the small studio/performance space of WNYC/WQXR on Varick Street in SoHo, NYC. The occasion was the current revival of Sondheim's Tony-winning 1994 show, Passion, his most operatic, "sung-through" score. Incredibly beautiful music with, from beginning to end, barely a pause for applause.
The first part of the event was a conversation with Sondheim conducted by WQXR host Elliott Forrest. Then three members of the Passion cast sang music from the show, with music director Rob Berman at the piano.
When he was still young enough, decades ago, Sondheim realized he was drinking, smoking and eating himself into an early grave. He cleaned up his act and started taking care of himself. He looked quite fit at his televised 80th birthday celebration in 2010.
When he entered the studio and took a chair beside Forrest—the first time I've seen him in the flesh—he looked a little infirm. Puffy faced, a baggy beige sweatshirt not quite concealing a paunch, and a slight limp. From my seat, about 20-30 feet away, it appeared his left eye was barely open.
But he was sharp, lively and witty as ever.
Now, to the genius question.
Sondheim profusely praised his long-time orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. I don't remember if he specifically used the word genius, but that was the import. Sondheim said that he writes very detailed piano scores, and that Tunick—far from merely assigning a given line on the piano score to a given instrument—translates and transforms the whole into full orchestral sound that always nails, and elevates, the mood and style of the given number and the overall show.
Asked for an example, Sondheim laughed. Then he said that when he gave Tunick the piano score for A Little Night Music, the orchestrator asked, how do you imagine this sounding?
"Like perfume rising from the orchestra," Sondheim responded.
"Oh," said Tunick. "You mean strings."
It was a great event. You can watch the whole thing on video here.
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