Sondheim!

A summer festival showcases the wit and artistry of the musical-theater master, drawing "nuts" from all over

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Sondheim devotees will be forever grateful to Library of Congress music specialist Mark Horowitz for the interviews he conducted with Sondheim in 1997, the most extensive about how the composer works and the basis of an upcoming book, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions. The interviews help one appreciate the musicality of Sondheim’s language and the speech-like articulation of his musical notes, not to mention his pursuit of perfection. In the score of Sunday, for instance, Sondheim indicates when George should jab his paintbrush at the canvas, synching the visual act of painting with accents in the music. In Sweeney Todd, he invented some bawdy Cockney slang to go with the real stuff that he found in a book.

Horowitz asked Sondheim about the genesis of the song that Sondheim has called his favorite, an Act I number from Pacific Overtures called “Someone in a Tree,” which describes a treaty signing surreptitiously witnessed by a boy in a tree and overheard by a warrior hidden under the floor of the treaty house. (The Kennedy Center is scheduled to stage a Japanese production of Pacific Overtures in September.) But the song is really about how the mosaic of history is pieced together from fragments of memory. It has a propulsive flow, beginning as a quiet trickle and building like a river until it finally crests in some of Sondheim’s most profound lyrics:

It’s the fragment, not the day.

It’s the pebble, not the stream.

It’s the ripple, not the sea

That is happening.

Not the building but the beam,

Not the garden but the stone,

Only cups of tea

And history

And someone in a tree.

Horowitz pointed out that “very little happens harmonically” in the song.

“Until the so-called chorus,” Sondheim said.

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