Curtain Call: 36 Composers Adapt Stephen Sondheim’s Most Famous Works

Pianist Anthony De Mare’s three-disc project <em>Liaisons</em> features a mix of classical, Broadway, and pop interpretations of Sondheim’s songs

In the opening song of the second act of Sunday in the Park With George, present-day George sings about the challenges of getting commissions (among other things). Nobody can relate to the hardships of brokerage better than Anthony De Mare, who has spent four years compiling various piano transcriptions of composer Stephen Sondheim’s work by a wide range of his contemporaries. The results of that work, Liaisons Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Pianowere recently released in a 3-CD package by ECM Records. Here De Mare talks about process, the people who did (and didn’t) participate on the record, and why he embarked on this project in the first place.

How did you come up with this concept?
This started with a dream of mine in the mid-1980s. I was basing this on Franz Liszt, who in his time was making opera transcriptions. People like Earl Wild made all those wonderful piano arrangements of Gershwin; Art Tatum was doing Cole Porter and Gershwinthere are composers who have embedded themselves into the musical culture and make an impact over generations. This is one of the reasons I felt it was time to do this for Sondheim.

How did you find composers for this project?
I wanted people who felt like they had a connection to Sondheim’s work or who were influenced by and felt strongly about it. Some know the canon of his work much better than others. When I worked with producer Rachel Colbert, we cast the net to other genres. It was going to start with 15 to 20 pieces, and it went up to 36. With Sondheim’s support and his ideas, it just kept expanding. It’s a project that has dictated its own path. Whether it was financial or artistic, each shift always proved a positive direction. It was a real lesson in trusting the process of creating art.

How were songs selected for inclusion?
I had a wish list, and I had run that by Steve early on. He said most of the pieces would make good piano pieces. I gave [the composers] free choice. A couple composers were going to combine two of the songs. Finishing the Hat (from Sunday in the Park with George) was a big request. Steve Reich snatched it up very quickly. I was trying to get Reich to do Someone in a Tree (from Pacific Overtures) because Sondheim said Reich inspired his writing for Pacific Overtures. One song I love that I did not put on my list, because I didn’t think it would make for a piano piece because it’s so lyric, was The Ladies Who Lunch (from Company.) When talking to David Rakowski he looked at me and said, “Has anyone chosen Ladies?” He made this really incredible version. He gets the bitterness and sadness and pathos of the character.

Were there composers you wanted who said no?
Milton Babbit, Sondheim’s teacher, he was known for his complex music. He was going to revert back to the cabaret style he did as a young man, but he died before he could. Kevin Puts was invited first and had to turn it down because he was busy. Later he said he’d love to do it, but he won the Pulitzer and had to drop out again. John Corigliano turned it down. Pop composers like Billy Joel, Elton John, and Sting were too busy. We ended up with Duncan Sheik, and we were very happy.

Did any of the transcriptions surprise you?
Ethan Iverson’s setting of Send in the Clowns (from A Little Night Music) is very unusual. At first I didn’t quite get what he was after, but he did describe it—there was this pick up band that was trying to do this piece but were interrupted by a pianist playing Send in the Clowns. He was attributing it to jazz clubs where you hear beyond the wall while trying to practice. I thought it was a very unusual setting. Some people hated it. It’s one of those iconic songs and they want to hear it they way it was written.

What do you see as the future for projects like Liaisons with other Broadway composers?
Theater and music have always been completely intertwined. In the future, we will see the composers—maybe Lin Manuel Miranda’s work 40 years from now will warrant a chamber version of pieces from his shows. The greatest songwriting composers of the day, they will always do that. I think the idea will live on. I’m just glad we have this body of work from Sondheim to put out in the world.