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Radio 3's Donald Macleod meets Stephen Sondheim

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Donald Macleod Donald Macleod | 12:13 UK Time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

stephen_sondheim_bbc_1990sm.jpgWhen it comes to interviewing living legends, I am something of a novice. But Stephen Sondheim, the master of music theatre and the great luminary of American showbiz, certainly is a living legend to those who admire his work - and they are legion.  One of the interesting things about Sondheim is how sharply he divides people. In the other camp from those who idolise him are those who think he's just too clever by half, and prone to sentimentality.

In my job I get to interview a good few awesome figures from the world of music, but this assignment had me worried, I have to say.  The last time I can remember being that wound up about an interview is when, as the most verdant of greenhorn reporters (very briefly!) for BBC News and Current Affairs, I was dispatched to interview Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. I was very nearly sick before having to face the Iron Lady! Fortunately it was only a local Finchley constituency matter and I emerged unscathed (and, I think I can honestly say, completely unnoticed). 

It's quite an intimidating business meeting a composer face-to-face and talking them through their entire working lives, from first steps to latest work, trying to remember every tiny detail I've swotted up on about them, as well as trying to keep all the music I've listened to over the previous week - that's how long I have to prepare - in my head. This often puts me on edge, I have to admit. But in Sondheim's case, my nerves went into overdrive.

Awaiting Sondheim's arrival, I stood in the reception of Broadcasting House, anxiously pacing up and down. This time there were no police outriders ahead of my interviewee, no security with ominous bulges in their jackets scouting the foyer. Out of the Mercedes sent to scoop Sondheim up from his habitual Covent Garden hotel when in London, steps a distinguished looking man, a little older than the last photo I'd seen of him, and carrying a few more pounds. As he came through the preposterously ponderous and slow-moving automatic bronze doors of Broadcasting House, everything about him was modesty and affability. He stuffed his newspaper in a much-travelled canvas shoulder bag. Comfortably dressed in chocolate-brown polo neck and matching trousers, carrying a mac over his arm, he smiled - I thought at the time a tad nervously - as he warmly shook my hand.

Sondheim rarely gives interviews, so this was a real privilege, for me and for the programme. He had made space in a very full programme of theatre-going in the four days he was in London, taking in a matinee and an evening performance every day. Not much sign of flagging energy for a man pushing 80. The big birthday is on Monday the 22nd of March - perfectly launching these five programmes of his music. 

In the studio, he was all business, very much concerned that his responses shouldn't sound routine or off-pat, just because he'd been asked virtually all of my questions - many times - before! Rather disconcertingly from my point of view, he was concentrating so hard on what he was saying, on getting everything precisely right, that he kept his eyes closed a lot of the time.

He was generally tolerant and forbearing of my clod-hopping ignorance and ineptitude, but if he disagreed with a line I took, or thought I'd made a mistake, he left me in no doubt whatever - and fair enough! You'll hear me get my knuckles rapped more than once in the course of the week, and beginning with my introduction to the entire week, which I had imagined was completely inoffensive.

Sondheim was remarkably generous with his time, giving me a full three hours out of his busy schedule, when there was no doubt that I had his entire attention and concentration. My equally exacting, thorough, ever-thoughtful and resourceful producer, Chris Barstow, had laid in some (very) light refreshments for a suitable break in the proceedings. Sondheim would not eat a crumb, did not have so much as a sip of water during all that time - I think I drank about two litres.

Sondheim was wonderfully focussed and engaging - and honest - in those three hours, particularly around such issues as the acrimonious break-up of his parents' marriage when he was only ten, which led to the opening of a door which would change his life.

I hope you'll enjoy these five programmes as much as I did making them, as I'm guided through the astonishing trajectory of Stephen Sondheim's life in musical theatre, by the ultimate authority of the man himself. 

  • You can hear Composer of the Week - Stephen Sondheim on BBC Radio 3 at 12 noon and 10pm, from Monday 22 to Friday 26 March. 
  • The picture (copyright BBC) shows Stephen Sondheim recording an interview for Omnibus in 1990.


  • Comment number 1.

    I always find meeting living composers odd, I have recently been to a few new music things, so met living ones, doing their music, is interesting the way that new technology allows them to send a cd, to a musician, to say 'this is what I meant', as the written medium of scores still contains some restrictions.

    btw, I would like to take the opportunity to say, thanks for doing cotw and having such high standards, it is a great program that I always try catch, though, having been rather busy at the moment, i have missed a fair few recent ones.

    also, rather liked the detour into bebop jazz, was very interesting stuff

  • Comment number 2.

    And many happy returns of the day to Stephen Sondheim!


  • Comment number 3.

    Donald, I am glad you were patient with Sondheim. I am guessing that one of the most difficult things you are called upon to do when you do interview is being patient. We here in the US love your show. I listen to it every day on the internet. Your show means a lot to me because we don't get such intelligent and thoughtful fare over here. I hope the BBC doesn't try to fine tune Radio 3!

  • Comment number 4.

    The webpage -- https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rjycs -- mis-sppells Richard Rodgers's name. Also, its worth noting -- under "music played" -- that Jule Styne was the composer on "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Richard Rodgers the composer of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and Mary Rodgers the composer of "The Boy From ..."

    Looking forward to the series. Sondheim -- aside from being one of the great artists of the American theatre -- is also one of the great teachers. The ability to do and to teach do not always coincide, as anybody who hoped to learn playwriting from the talks of Tennessee Williams would know.

    Saw him on the street yesterday, emerging from a preview of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM in New York. Looking forward to the show. And my birthday wishes to a remarkable man.

  • Comment number 5.

    I always 'harrumph' when some friend says they saw such-and-such non-celeb in the street, but when the person in the seat of front of you ('Company' c.1996) is the composer, then that is different.

    Thank you for the words and music, Mr.Sondheim!

  • Comment number 6.

    Bravo, Donald, the interviews were excellent - it was wonderful to hear SS talking so candidly and in such detail about each musical - you obviously put him at ease. I thoroughly enjoyed every programme.

  • Comment number 7.

    A belated thanks for this interview. Thoroughly informative and enjoyable, with fine musical selections


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