Stephen Sondheim sounded enchanted.
Note by note, pianist Anthony de Mare and three dozen composers had put their own imprints on songs Sondheim wrote over the past half-century, a tribute to the man who redefined Broadway.
“You don’t even have to complete the question,” Sondheim said. “What could be more flattering than to be taken seriously by your peers? And also, some of these are more than peers.”
“Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano” was released last month as a three-disc set by ECM. It features 37 original compositions by an All-Star team of composers that includes William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Wynton Marsalis, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, Duncan Sheik and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Listening to more than three hours of luminous interpolations, there’s much familiar — and much peculiar.
“They all said it was tricky in a lot of ways because the songs are already perfect,” de Mare said one afternoon at his Manhattan home.
It’s difficult to discern who feels more honored — the 85-year-old Sondheim or those commissioned to contribute. On a rainy Friday afternoon after arriving in Connecticut for a weekend in the country, Sondheim said he was.
“I just thought, gee, is my stuff interesting enough to occupy these composers’ minds?” Sondheim said.
He may have felt that in reverse. The contributors wondered whether they were up to the task of rethinking the originals.
Heggie, now 54, dedicated his 2010 opera, “Moby-Dick,” to Sondheim. He recalled seeing “Sweeney Todd” for the first time in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
“The axis of my world shifted. I just remember time stopped and I had to re-evaluate everything,” he said. “It literally blew the top of my head off, and that’s when I sort of went very deep into the Sondheim world and became addicted to his shows.”
Winner of eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim is known for more than his famous shows. He transforms, teaches and tutors. And these composers have listened.
De Mare came up with the idea of the piano project in 2007, brought on Rachel Colbert to produce and through a lawyer sent a letter to Sondheim. Within two weeks, Sondheim wrote back and suggested a chat.
“One of his tenets is less is more, so his notes were always so much said in the most concise way,” de Mare said.
Milton Babbitt, one of Sondheim’s teachers, agreed to participate and chose “I’m Still Here,” Carlotta’s great elegy from “Follies.” But Babbitt died in 2011 at age 94 just after starting his piece and was replaced by his student, Frederic Rzewski.
Some thought about it, had sleepless nights and backed off. De Mare said Adam Guettel advised he was too nervous. Elvis Costello, Sting and Tori Amos didn’t have the time.
Muhly relished the endeavor, labeling Sondheim “an insane genius.”
“My entire high school life was driving around Providence with my friend listening to everything on repeat,” he said.
For him, “Color and Light” from “Sunday in the Park With George” felt comfy and cozy.
“It’s repetitive, it’s obsessive, it’s pointillistic, it’s got everything a neurotic boy could want!” he said.
In some of the songs, such as Sheik’s soaring “Johanna in Space,” the melodic line is clear, the structure only slightly rearranged. Some were more daring, deconstructing Sondheim’s original.
“Sometimes I have trouble following the composer’s mind as to what he took and what he was developing, and then when I listen to it two or three times, it becomes clear,” Sondheim said. “Some of them are very far removed from the original, from the source material and some of them are not, and so I like to follow the track of the composer’s mind and see what it was that grabbed him and what it suggested to him.”
De Mare, 58, wrote the coda himself. Reich’s “Finishing the Hat — 2 Pianos” is the only one for multiple keyboards — de Mare recorded a track he uses when performing it in solo concerts.
David Rakowski’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in a chromatic critique of Joanne’s bender in “Company.” Fred Hersch’s “No One is Alone” moves, Paul Moravec’s “I Think About You” obsesses, and Heggie’s “I’m Excited. No You’re Not” romps.
This tribute is a sign of Sondheim’s staying power. But Sondheim himself isn’t so sure.
“I never think about that because there’s no way of knowing,” he said. “Think of it, there’s endless instances of all kinds of art that everybody thought in their day were quote immortal and now nobody ever hears. Who’s heard (Antonio) Salieri? Only people who study music — I mean, he does not get performed much. Who hears (Louis) Spohr? The most popular composer of his day. So, I find it foolish to think about that.”