â€œA Little Night Musicâ€ is being revived on Broadway with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury at the Walter Kerr Theater with the first preview on November 24th, and an opening December 13th. But its composer Stephen Sondheim, now 79, spoke about his musical influences in an interview with The Detroit Free Press because of a current production of the musical at the Detroit Opera House.
The interview is mostly about music, classical music, opera, but even here it is hard to get away from talk of musical theater, the Broadway musical, in an interview with the nine-time Tony Award winning composer of Broadway musicals. Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II (South Pacific) from the age of 10, Sondheim wrote his first musical in high school; his career on Broadway began with a bang in 1957, as the lyricist for “West Side Story” and continued with more than a dozen Broadway shows for which he wrote both the music and the lyrics, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd”…and “A Little Night Music,” which contains his best-known song, “Send In The Clowns.”
Asked in the Detroit Free Press interview who his favorite composers are, he begins his answer with Ravel â€œwho is the father, as far as I’m concerned, of all show music.â€
Asked why he is not a fan of opera, he says â€œFor me, being brought up on musicals, swiftness is important. People who love opera are big fans of the human voice as an instrument, but for me it’s always been the song, not the singerâ€¦ I get restless quickly. Even an opera I love like “Carmen” is too long. “Porgy and Bess,” which I think is the best American musical as well as the best American opera, in its full length, is too long.â€
Asked the difference between an opera and a musical, he says: â€œan opera is something done in an opera house before an opera audience, whereas the same piece done in a Broadway house in front of a Broadway audience is a musical. It’s because the audience’s expectations are different.â€
Q: Are “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music” operas?
A: No, they’re operettas.
A: About 20% of “Sweeney” is dialogue; about 40% to 50% of “Night Music” is dialogue. The operetta style of some songs is what gives it that flavor — the ensemble pieces, the trios, etc. Those are different in flavor and style than most Broadway shows. Neither has recitative.
One more interesting comment: â€œOpera, for all my objections to it as an art form, takes music seriously, and Broadway doesn’t. Very few of the journalistic critics on Broadway know anything whatsoever about music. Whereas people connected with an opera company know what music is supposed to do and what it can do.â€