'Re-Imagining Sondheim': A Pianist And His Peers Deconstruct The Master

Oct 5, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2015 4:07 pm

Stephen Sondheim is widely viewed as the greatest living composer in American musical theater. "Send in the Clowns," from the show A Little Night Music, may be his most famous work — and yet you might not recognize the song as reimagined for solo piano by Ethan Iverson of the band The Bad Plus.

Iverson's take on the song is part of an eight-year project called Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano. Pianist Anthony de Mare commissioned 36 composers from the worlds of classical, jazz, Broadway and more to re-envision Sondheim, releasing the results as a three-disc collection. As de Mare tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, the new iteration of "Send in the Clowns" doesn't alter Sondheim's music so much as disassemble it.

"First of all," de Mare says, "the song itself, iconic as it is, it seems so many composers stayed away from it. Ethan grabbed it and said he loved the idea of what the jazz composer Ornette Coleman does: If he takes an established song, he will create some original music to sort of introduce it, and then bring it back periodically. So Ethan did that same thing with this piece, by giving us this kind of opening-bar antiphonal thing that comes back. As he said, it's like being in this club, and there's this brass band on the other side of the wall. And the pianist onstage is trying to play 'Send in the Clowns,' but he keeps being interrupted by this band that keeps coming back."

De Mare joined Shapiro at NPR's Washington, D.C., studios to chat about the project — and sat down at the piano to demonstrate how works by Sondheim, Gershwin and Paul Moravec all spring from a common theme. Hear the conversation and music at the audio link.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Stephen Sondheim is widely seen as the greatest living composer in American musical theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Isn't it rich?

SHAPIRO: This may be his most famous song, "Send in the Clowns." It's from the show "A Little Night Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHAN IVERSON COMPOSITION, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

SHAPIRO: Here is another version of "Send in the Clowns" composed for solo piano by Ethan Iverson of the band The Bad Plus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHAN IVERSON COMPOSITION, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

SHAPIRO: The person playing that for us now is Anthony de Mare. And this new version of "Send in the Clowns" is part of an eight-year project called "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano." De Mare commissioned 36 composers from the worlds of classical, jazz, Broadway and more to re-envision Sondheim. And he's just released the results on a three-CD collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHAN IVERSON COMPOSITION, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

SHAPIRO: Anthony de Mare joins us at the grand piano in our performance studio. Welcome to the program.

ANTHONY DE MARE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tell us a little bit about this new setting of "Send in the Clowns."

DE MARE: Well, first of all, the song itself, iconic as it is, it seems so many composers stayed away from it. Ethan grabbed it, said he loved the idea of what the jazz composer Ornette Coleman does - is if he takes an established song, he will create some original music to sort of introduce it, and then bring it back periodically. So Ethan did that same thing with this piece by giving us this kind of opening bar antiphonal thing that comes back, which represents - as he said, it's like being in a club and there's this brass band on the other side of the wall. The pianist on stage is trying to play "Send in the Clowns," but he keeps being interrupted by this brass band that keeps coming back.

SHAPIRO: I love that idea about not being intimidated by reinterpreting a classic song because it is something every jazz musician does every time they play a song that everyone has heard a thousand times before.

DE MARE: Exactly. Right.

SHAPIRO: One of the things I realized reading the liner notes is that what these composers are doing with Sondheim is not all that different from what Sondheim himself has done with his predecessors. The example that is in the liner notes is the famous Gershwin song, "The Man I Love," which was used as inspiration for the Sondheim song, "Losing My Mind," which is then the inspiration for the piece on this CD collection by Paul Moravec called "I Think About You." Could you play each of those, just a few bars, in sequence so we can hear the relationship between Gershwin and Sondheim and now Moravec.

DE MARE: Sure.

SHAPIRO: First let's hear the Gershwin, "The Man I Love."

DE MARE: OK. (Playing piano).

SHAPIRO: And now let's hear the Sondheim piece "Losing My Mind" from the musical "Follies."

DE MARE: (Playing piano).

SHAPIRO: And then let's hear what Paul Moravec did with this piece for a song that he called "I Think About You," which is one of the lyrics from "Losing My Mind."

DE MARE: (Playing piano).

He gives us this kind of smoky, gray shadow at the beginning that leads us into the main theme. As it accelerates, it goes into that obsession, which so much of the song and the character embodies. (Playing piano).

SHAPIRO: I love how that piece takes the obsessive nature of love, and makes it almost a musical focal point that romance can so easily devolve into madness.

DE MARE: No, it's true. And the composer, Paul, has said, I don't know about you, but obsession makes me angry. And he's had experiences with this in his own past. So he said to really go through that journey of using Sondheim's harmonies and fragmenting the melody as we hear in this as the middle section builds up only to breach this enormous climax and then bring us back to the main theme in such a simple and beautiful, poignant way, that's almost like the release of all the feelings.

SHAPIRO: The thing that always gets me about his music is that while there are so many composers who can do happiness or sadness or love or hate, Stephen Sondheim can capture the coexistence of conflicting emotions. He can capture what it sounds like to not know how you feel, to be ambivalent, to be, you know, in love and simultaneously going mad.

DE MARE: Exactly. The music and the lyrics capture the complexities of life.

SHAPIRO: Anthony de Mare, thank you so much for coming into the studio, chatting and playing for us.

DE MARE: Thank you. This has been really wonderful.

SHAPIRO: Could I ask you to go out on one of my favorite Sondheim songs, which, I confess, I sang as a teenager for more auditions than I can count - this is from the musical "Sweeney Todd," "Not While I'm Around" as re-imagined by the composer Thomas Newman.

DE MARE: Sure - my pleasure. (Playing piano).

SHAPIRO: Anthony de Mare - the three-CD collection is called "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano." And you can hear a complete performance recorded in our studio at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.