Sunday, October 23, 2005


Last month, the University of Michigan Press released a new scholarly examination of the work of Stephen Sondheim, How Sondheim Found His Sound, by Steve Swayne, an associate professor of music at Dartmouth College.

Several years ago I interviewed Swayne (who I know through email correspondence, though we have never met) for The Metro Herald. At the time, he was writing How Sondheim Found His Sound and I had just reviewed a production of Company that Signature Theatre had mounted in an Arlington County park. I was curious about how the creators of Company, Sondheim and his collaborator, George Furth, had made changes in the book and the score over the years.

Here is that interview, which appeared in The Metro Herald on June 29, 2001:

The Evolution of Company:
An Interview with Dartmouth’s Steven Swayne
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Special to The Metro Herald

Seeing Company in concert at the Lubber Run amphitheatre in Arlington last week, it became apparent that the show has changed – evolved – since it was first produced in 1970. To explore this evolution more thoroughly, The Metro Herald sought out a scholar who specializes in the works of Stephen Sondheim. We found Dr. Steven Swayne of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, who agreed to answer a few questions for us. The interview, conducted by e-mail, follows.

TMH: Let’s start with some basics. Could you describe your professional position, and how you became interested in the works of Stephen Sondheim?

SS: I am an assistant professor of music at Dartmouth College, where I teach a class on American musical theater, among other things. My doctoral thesis is entitled, “Hearing Sondheim’s Voices” (University of California, Berkeley, 1999). I had written on Sondheim from an academic perspective as early as 1988, but I entered Berkeley with the idea of doing a Russian music dissertation. Early on, one of my faculty mentors suggested that I work on Sondheim; he liked my earlier work on him, and the American musical has by and large been ignored by musicologists. So here I am, still working on Sondheim’s music and influence. Right now, I’m working on a book, tentatively entitled How Sondheim Found His Sound.

TMH: Most musical theatre “classics” are set in stone after their first run on Broadway or in the West End. Their creators seldom make changes after that point. One exception is the 1946 revival of Show Boat, which includes revisions by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, and which became the”authorized version” until Harold Prince’s revival a few years ago. Now Company has become another exception: George Furth, the author, and Stephen Sondheim, the composer-lyricist, made substantial revisions for revivals in New York and London some 25 years after the Broadway premiere. Why do you think they did so?

SS: First, I would have to disagree with you that these classics are “set in stone” from the first run forward. While it is true tht the creators often don’t have a hand in making changes after the initial run – more times than not, they’ve passed on by the time a revival comes around– so many variables have gone into getting to the opening night that it is not sacrilegious to continue playing with some of these variables after opening night.

The transition of many of these “golden age” musicals from stage to film also shows that the creators were far more plastic in their conceptions of “final versions” than we may be accustomed to accepting. Some may want to treat these musicals as unchangeable works of art, but in fact they are commercial works as well, and as such they may be adjusted to changes in the marketplace.

I see Sondheim’s and Furth’s changes in this way; the audience of 1995 is different than the audience of 1970, and the revival gave them a chance to revisit and update their material. And remember: Sondheim has revised several of his musicals: Follies, the film version of A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Assassins today have interpolations that come from rethinking the original versions.

TMH: The most significant – or most apparent – change in the score of Company is the addition of “Marry Me a Little” at the end of Act I. This was originally, in an early draft, the finale for Act II. What do you think of this addition? Does it enhance the score, or do you think it’s redundant?

SS: “Marry Me a Little” is one of the happier additions to the revival, I feel. Bobby is our central character, so it makes sense for him to close out Act I. “Getting Married Today” used to be the last full song for Act I, and then there was dialogue after that (and the “Bobby baby” music), so giving Robert center stage makes dramatic sense. It also frames both the act and the entire musical, with “Company,” “Marry Me a Little,” and “Being Alive” being the songs that carry the message of Company.

As for the song being redundant, in a musical where the same birthday party happens three times, can anything truly be redundant? While the song carries some of the same ideas as “Being Alive,” “Marry Me a Little” is far more tentative, far more skittish. If one wants to see progression in Robert, one can argue that “Being Alive” is much more decisive than “Marry Me.” As it is, I hear all of the songs as co-existing in time: sometimes Bobby is determined to make a go at a relationship, and those times usually occur simultaneously with Robert.

TMH: Besides “Marry Me a Little,” there are minor changes in both the music and the lyrics in other songs. At first glance, they appear insignificant, but they must have meaning beyond the surface, otherwise Sondheim wouldn’t have inserted them. Here are a few I’ve picked out; please tell me what you think.

(A) In the opening number, “Company,” the last several measures have been changed from a very long “We lo-o-o-o-o-ve you” (sorry, I don’t have my original score in front of me to give you an exact beat count) to several successive “We love ... we love ... we love you”’s. Any explanation?

SS: In the score, it indicates, at this point, a pre-recorded tape takes over the vocal lines. I’ve always liked this idea, the notion that the note is held far longer than any human can hold a note. Were I directing this moment, I would have the actors on stage carrying on as though they can effortlessly sing this note forever! Perhaps Sondheim and Furth liked the insistence of the entrances in exchange for the interminability of the note. Perhaps they didn’t like the artificiality of the pre-recorded singing. I happen to prefer the former, and I would guess that you could still get permission to do it with tape. Either way, the moment conveys the oppressiveness of Bobby’s friends, so I don’t think it’s the significant a change.

(B) In “The Little Things You Do Together,” the couplet “It’s not so hard to be married/It’s much the simplest of crimes” has been changed to “It’s not so hard to be married/It’s much the cleanest of crimes.” Why?

SS: You’d have to ask Sondheim to get an answer as to why. “Cleanest” is easier to sing than “simplest,” and “cleanest” has some assonance with “crimes.” That would be my guess as to the change, but again, you’d have to ask Sondheim.

(C) In “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” the sequence “I could understand a person/If it’s not a person’s bag ... I could understand a person/If a person was a fag” has been changed to “I could understand a person/If he said to go away ... I could understand a person/If he happened to be gay.” Is this just political correctness at play?

SS: To me, this is one of the less fortunate corrections. On the Sondheim Celebration at Carnegie Hall CD, you’ll hear the change there from “fag” to “drag,” and the audience all laughs, because they’re in on the joke. The concept of “a person’s bag” is so sixties that it truly dates that lyric, far more than “fag” would (w word that’s experiencing its own strange recrudescence). “If he said to go away” sounds rather pedestrian to my ears, but it does avoid positioning the lyric in the late 1960s. One could always write to the folks who hold the rights to the musical and ask if you could re-insert the older words.

TMH: This last question is just for fun: If you could choose just one song from Company to be recorded and stored in a time capsule to be opened 200 years from now, which one would it be, and why?

SS: “Sorry-Grateful,” without question. I marvel at how well Sondheim captures the ambiguity of marriage – and of relationships in general – in this song. The music seems at times to be indecisive, as if it cannot figure out how to go forward. And the lyrics, written by a gay man in his late thirties who hadn’t yet entered into a long-term relationship of his own, is so perceptive on the mixed blessings that marriage brings. It reminds me of an anecdote told of a man who was celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary. (My parents are celebrating theirs next month.) When someone asked him how he managed to stay married to the same woman for so long, he answered. “But you see, she’s not the same woman I married.” Nor was he the same man, and Sondheim captures that in his lyrics. “Everything’s different/Nothing’s changed/Only maybe slightly/Rearranged.” Even the notion of “rearrangement” carries with it the challenge of the “arrangement” called marriage. It’s a perfect song that describes the imperfect long-term relationships all of us – straight and gay – long for, find, sometimes leave, sometimes endure and (when we’re more grateful than sorry) ofttimes enjoy.
Dr. Swayne's book is primarily a musicological analysis of Sondheim's oeuvre, but it also contains some interesting biographical information, including a tracing of Sondheim's musical influences through a catalog of his record collection, and examinations of how Sondheim learned about dramatic structure, character, and theme from the movies and the theatre. (To be perfectly candid, the musicology in the book is a bit advanced for me, but the rest of the material is engaging enough that I can set aside the difficulties to enjoy the book as a whole.)

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