What's New on the Rialto
Mark Eden Horowitz:
Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions
Interview by David Levy
"There was a couple who were donors to the library who decided they wanted to give money for curators to propose projects," he said. "It was literally one of those lightbulb-going-off moments. I thought, what would be better, knowing that Sondheim's papers would be coming and being able to interview him with those papers and try to answer questions that future scholars might have."
While the initial vision for those interviews was to make them available to future researchers, in creating transcripts of the videos Horowitz realized they'd make a good book as well. His instinct was correct, and the resulting Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions was published in 2003. With a third editionthe first in paperbacknow on shelves, Horowitz joined me via videoconference to reminisce about those interviews and reflect on the ongoing appeal of Sondheim's work.
David Levy: What's your professional training?
Mark Eden Horowitz: I have my bachelor's degree in theater with a minor in music. When I was studying music, it was mostly, as much as possible, composition, and I wanted to write musicals. In college, and just after, I wrote a couple. And I think I realized I'll never be as good as my ambitions, or I'm too lazy to be as good as my ambition, and I also realized what a tough life it is.
The idea of working in a library never occurred to me, but I used to do research at the library. I was working at Arena Stage, which is a regional theater in DC, but all my days off I used to spend at the library. I got a call one day from a friend of mine who worked there, saying they're hiring a bunch of people in the music division, and they're looking for somebody with an expertise in musical theater. I think you'd be perfect for the job. And in those days the library would often hire people not with library degrees but with subject specialties. I don't think that happens now, but it did then, to my benefit.
DL: Did the Sondheim papers that are coming to the library (that spawned the interviews that spawned the book)did that come about because Steve came to the library, or did you propose it to him?
MEH: It was mostly my convincing him. I think before I started at the library, he'd been contacted by somebody else, but it hadn't taken a serious form. When I was at Arena Stage, close to the last thing I did was work on a production of Merrily We Roll Along that George Furth and Steve were involved with. George Furth was at Arena every day, and he and I became pretty good friends, and Sondheim only came somewhat intermittently, but I was sort of his liaison, for lack of a better word. He borrowed my rhyming dictionary, which is something I'm very proud of.
When I got the job at the library, I saw that he was being given a Helen Hayes Tribute. So he was going to be coming to DC. I sent him a letter saying, I see you're coming to DC. I'd love to do a show-and-tell for you. I think I can promise a moving experience, I'll knock your socks off. And he said yes.
So I spent I don't know how long preparing. I covered a room with manuscripts that I knew would be meaningful to him. He was on [the BBC Radio program] Desert Island Discs, and we had the original manuscripts of so many of his favorite piecesBartók and Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Not to mention the Bernstein collection, and the Rodgers, and their manuscripts for their collaborations with Sondheim. If I remember correctly, when he saw Gershwin's manuscript for Porgy and Bess, he started crying.
Pretty quickly after that I think he made the intellectual decision that he would leave his papers to the library and then made it official.
DL: How did you prepare for these interviews?
MEH: As part of the grant I went up to New York a month or two before the interviews and spent three days going through the manuscripts. I photocopied things that I wanted to talk to him about again and made notes. I then also contacted friends who were musicians or who had worked with him to get their suggestions for questions. Sometimes I would show them some of the things I found and ask them to give me advice about what I should ask.
DL: When you first set out to do these interviews, what kind of researchers did you have in mind as the intended audience?
MEH: My greatest fantasy, and something that I think has been realized, is that it would influence other songwriters. I've heard from a number of younger songwriters who read the book and have been influenced or changed by it.
DL: As someone who is not only a scholar but also a fan, how does being a fan affect how you conduct these conversations?
MEH: I'm not a big fan of the word "fan," but I guess I am one. I'm so in awe of him, and that's a little problem. I think he's aware of it, and sometimes he teases me about it, saying "you admire me too much." I think the big benefit is that I appreciate the work on more than one level. It's one thing to be a musicologist and be very scholarly, and I think sometimes that way you miss the forest for the trees because you're forgetting the emotional impact.
It's not just a technical thing, it's an artistic thing. I think you have to deal with both the craft and the art, and that's something that's more than technical. I can say "this page, this measure makes me feel this way," and I don't think that's something a musicologist might typically bring up. I hope that's the benefit of being both.
DL: One of the things I love about the book is that he speaks with great candor. Without asking you to tell tales out of school, did he have hesitations about anything or were there parts of your conversations that he asked you to leave out?
MEH: Well, after I did the transcript, I sent it to him, and that's the intimidating thing because he's an amazing editor. Transcribing involved deciding where do you put the commas, where do you put the semicolons, that kind of thing, and I really didn't expect him to review that. But he did that, too, and he actually added and clarified a few things that he couldn't remember while we were conducting the interviews.
There were a couple of minor things he asked me to leave out, but they really wouldn't have been appropriate for the book anyway. (We did catch him on camera telling an anecdote about the middle of the night when his next-door neighbor, Katharine Hepburn, came pounding on his windows because he was making too much noise while writing "The Ladies Who Lunch.")
I think he's a very forthright, honest, no BS kind of guy.
DL: For the new edition, which has very little that wasn't in the second edition, did you go back and reread your previous work?
MEH: I didn't want to. I wrote a new introduction. I added the new five-page interview at the end. And for the new introduction and the added pages I did re-index. But other than that, it's almost like not wanting to look at a photograph of yourself or listen to a recording of yourself. It's a little emotionally uncomfortable. So I didn't do that.
DL: Now that you've done these interviews with Sondheim, have you done a similar project with anyone else?
MEH: Yes, no and maybe. I did three days of interviews with Jonathan Tunick. I think they're pretty wonderful. They were videotaped, too, and he is such a tough interview. He's very self-protective, but then afterwards I transcribed it and it reads great. I'd love to publish that. It clearly wouldn't be as long as the Sondheim. But he has to approve it first, and it's been years now.
I've done for the library other videotaped interviews that are online: Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, and Jason Robert Brown. I'm proud of them, and I think they're very good. But they're different, and they weren't based on looking at the actual manuscripts. They're based on inculcating myself in their works, listening to songs, and looking at the music itself, but they're by no means technical in the way the Sondheim interviews are.
I've asked a couple of other people when they're in town if I can do a videotaped interview with them. I certainly hope to do more. I don't know that I'll ever do anything like what I did with Sondheim.
DL: Are there lingering questions you wish you had the time to ask him? Are there gaps you wish you could fill in?
MEH: I think I'm fine with what I got, in conjunction with what he's done [with his own books of annotated lyrics: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat]. Also, for ten years I was a contributing editor to The Sondheim Review, and I came up with the series of articles called "Biography of a Song" where I would identify a song, and his assistant would send me scans of all his music and all his lyric manuscripts. I would try and figure out how they evolved, how they got created, working backwards through the process. I would write these pretty long articles, and I would send them to Steve, and then he would call me with his edits. And, often, I would get a piece of information I had no other way of knowing. I got a lot of stuff there, so in addition to the interviews in the books, there are ten of them, and that filled in a lot of the gap for me.
Every once in a while, I hear something or look at something and have a question or think, oh, I wish I could ask him this, and sometimes I actually send him emails saying, what did you mean... but in general, I love hearing him talk because I always learn something from him, but I think I'd be hard pressed to come up with hours worth of interview questions.
DL: As a final question, when you initially wrote this book, did you ever imagine it would have a third edition nearly 20 years later?
MEH: I thought it would be a bestseller! Remember, again, I didn't think it would be a book. I mean, that was a total surprise.
I really wanted it, more than anything, to be used by people studying composition or musical theatre. I hoped that that was where its longevity or impact would be strongest. But I always felt guilty because of how expensive it was. (By the way, because it was done through the Library, I don't get any royalties, so I was never concerned about sales for that reason.) Now that it's finally in paperback I just hope more people will find it and use it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions By Mark Eden Horowitz