Stephen Sondheim joined us for an intimate spoken word event here Monday night. Well, it was “intimate” in the sense that it featured the legendary composer in a free-flowing conversation with KCRW’s literary luminary and admitted musical-theater lover Michael Silverblatt and not-so-intimate in the sense that there were about 1,600 fans watching it happen.
Sondheim was all charm, some self-deprecation and just the right amount of self-aware egoism. His piercing intellect and sieve-like memory played well against Silverblatt’s fanboy demeanor and played right into the audience’s expectations.
Good-naturedly and with the wisdom of hindsight, Sondheim plunged right into discussion of works widely thought of as flops, such as his first introduction to Broadway working on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and his collaboration with Arthur Laurents in Anyone Can Whistle, during which Sondheim said he discovered “the difference between being smart and a smart-ass.”
He talked about the joy and freedom that comes from working on off-Broadway productions versus the harsh audience- and producer-expectations from Broadway itself, sharing starkly honest opinions and recollections from his vast career, which are also peppered throughout the recently released book Finishing the Hat, the first of a two-volume anthology of his lyrics.
When asked about his writing process he said he tries to write “away from the piano,” especially as he gets older, because while writing at the piano is fun, “you’re limited by your own technique,” and often apt to fall into old habits, use the same chords out of sheer muscle memory.
Sondheim turned 80 this spring and during his appearance at UCLA Live, recalled how the New York Times helped commemorate his 70th birthday, with this article discussing a selection of songs Sondheim says he wishes he’d written.
Sondheim and Silverblatt had a chuckle of the inclusion of “Silverware,” on that list. It’s an incongruously themed ditty from We Take the Town, a musical version of Viva Villa, based on the life of Pancho Villa. With lyrics from dentist-turned-songwriter Matt Dubey and music from Harold Karr, it is sung by a group of bandits.
“It’s one of the greatest songs ever written,” Sondheim replied to Silverblatt’s dubious question about why that song made the list. “It’s completely unique.”
” But, it’s a Mexican Salsa song sung by bandits on a raid” Silverblatt clarified with a chuckle.
“Yes,” Sondheim agreed gleefully. “It’s a happy song about killing.”
It’s more difficult to write a funny song than a dramatic one, Sondheim said later in the evening.
“It’s easy to write a clever song, but to get a laugh in a song, that’s hard.”
When pressed as to whether he’s been successful at that Sondheim said: “I say with no modesty at all, I can write a funny song.”
And he surely can, just like he can charmingly entrance a packed-house audience while seated on a dark stage with just his ruminating mind and a fellow lover of musicals to bounce thoughts off of.
No accompaniment necessary.