West Side Story in China
Despite language difficulties and cultural barriers, Joanne Gordon directed the first production of West Side Story in China
News & Notes
Saturday Night to premiere in London; new life for Murder, a Woods reunion concert, a new book of essays
Jo Anne Worley plays Mama Rose again in Pittsburgh
A tiny college brings Sondheim to an Oregon town
Sondheim is well represented at the Fringe Festival in Scotland
An acclaimed Assassins in a small production in North London
A young group in Montreal shines a new light on Night Music
The revised Company may be new, but is it better?
A director finds even less to like in Bobby in the new Company
Davis Gaines jumped at the chance to be Bobby in Boston
As Sondheim’s music administrator, Paul McKibbins protects and promotes his works
What is it like to sing Sondheim’s songs? We hear from a range of actors
A cigar? But we can find some subtexts in a simple word that appears in many Sondheim shows
Five new CDs: Another offering by the Side by Side trio; a benefit concert from Los Angeles, Sondheim at the Movies; a jazz Night Music and the revival cast of Candide
For your amusement
Identify a dozen actors who played Bobby over the years; the solution to last issue’s Sondheim puzzle
The Sondheim Scrapbook
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Protecting and promoting Sondheim’s songs
By Paul Salsini
Ideally, a composer should have two people around: someone who can protect rights to the music and someone who can promote the music. Stephen Sondheim has both in Paul McKibbins, the genial, classically trained music administrator who has been with Sondheim for years. McKibbins was interviewed in his office high above midtown Manhattan.
TSR: What’s it like to work for Stephen Sondheim?
PM: Sondheim’s a great man to work for. He has let me explore different ways to exploit his music and to treat it in creative ways. But he doesn’t micromanage the business. In fact, we only speak periodically. Of course, he’s always available if I have a question or an issue to raise. And of course, I’m always available to him.
Steve has given me a wonderful opportunity to make his music business grow. In the five years I’ve been working directly with Rilting’s catalog, we’ve been very successful. There have been a few disappointments, but overall we’ve had good success, both critically and economically.
TSR: How are you employed by him?
PM: Technically, I guess I’m “employed” by Rilting Music, Inc., which is Steve’s exclusive music publishing company–most of the copyrights underlying his music are owned by Rilting. While my office is in Warner/Chappell Music’s New York office, I don’t work for them but I do have a very happy alliance with this company. Rilting has a worldwide administration agreement with Warner/Chappell and they collect the income earned by Rilting’s songs. Additionally, their staff has been extremely helpful in our search for creative uses for Steve’s songs, especially in their worldwide territories.
TSR: How did all this start for you?
PM: When I got out of college in 1980, I was a free-lance musician. I went to Manhattan School of Music, where I earned bachelor and master’s degrees as a composition major. I was a “serious” classical musician and played trumpet, piano and some violin. But the fact is, some of that is about as useful as underwater basket weaving when it comes to making a living in the music business.
But I do have a lot of arranging skills, so I shopped myself around to music companies and got a job in 1981 with (the music publisher) Tommy Valando as his music staff. I began my relationship with Steve as the editor of the vocal selections to Merrily We Roll Along. It was my first experience with a Broadway show–from backers’ audition to opening to closing to cast recording–and it was memorable, to say the least.
While working for Valando, my responsibilities grew to include project supervision for any recordings our song catalog generated. We recorded everything from song demos to cast albums to symphonic arrangements. It was during this time that Book-of-the-Month Club Records released their multidisc release Sondheim. This was a beautifully recorded collection of Steve’s songs that included a wide variety of approaches to his music. Steve oversaw all of the recording sessions; watching him direct, coach and inspire the performances was a fascinating and insightful set of master classes for me.
One criticism of Steve’s music I’d heard–but never understood–was that he isn’t very melodic. Since I’m a pianist, I tend to play music rather than sing it–my wife is very thankful!–and I’ve always thought his music to be beautifully lyrical. So we included half a dozen instrumental treatments in the record, from full symphony orchestra to chamber strings, several of which I orchestrated and conducted, as a demonstration of this melodic quality.
The next show was Sunday in the Park in 1984, followed by Into the Woods in 1987, and during this time I supervised all the folios and scores of Steve’s music. And then in 1992, Steve and I decided to set up the current arrangement with Rilting and Warner/Chappell Music.
TSR: So your job?
PM: I’m the music publishing administrator for Rilting. When you are your own publisher, you have to act as a publisher, and that goes beyond filling out copyright registration forms and notifying ASCAP. It means keeping your ear to the ground, making phone calls, pitching songs to advertising agencies, pitching songs to recording artists. These are the proactive things that a publisher should do, and there’s such a tremendous opportunity with Steve’s music because he has had such a great variety of output. Paul Gemignani said, “Look at Dick Tracy and Sweeney Todd. Look at the breadth there. Who else could have written that?”
Let me explain what music publishing is and what it means. It’s actually something of a misnomer, since printing music is only one small part of the business: Copyright administration and song exploitation better define what a publisher does. Generally, the publisher is the owner of the underlying copyright to a song. As music is intellectual property, there isn’t any physical property involved. When Steve writes a piece of music, he (actually Rilting) owns the copyright. We then register this copyright with the Library of Congress, notify ASCAP and the other collection agencies and update our catalog. Then the challenge begins.
Securing a recording of a song is the primary focus of any publisher. Since most of his songs are from productions, the first commercial release of a Sondheim song is usually on a cast album or soundtrack recording. After printing the song in either a folio collection or as a single sheet, we use these combined elements as promotional tools to find other opportunities for the song. I send the music to singers and musicians who are currently performing or recording and try to stay apprised of what projects are in development.
Additionally, we do quite a bit of business in licensing Steve’s songs for use in movies, television shows, commercials, industrial films and videos, books and publications and other products. When someone wants to use one of his lyrics for a T-shirt, they get the license to use his copyright from the publisher. If someone wants to use one of the songs in a film–whether a big-budget Hollywood picture or a student film–we issue them a synchronization license. And if a singer wants to record one of his songs, we (or our agent, the Harry Fox Agency) issue a mechanical license. (They’re called mechanical licenses because when they were first established, they were for player pianos.) All licenses involve some negotiation and the parameters are wildly varied. But the principle remains the same: artfully presenting Steve’s music and confirming his equitable compensation.
When it comes to licensing, Steve’s perspective is clear: We try to accommodate any use that isn’t debasing to the song and ascertain that Steve is equitably compensated for the use of his property. Quite frankly, I’d like to see the broadest possible exposure for Steve’s music because it’s wonderfully expressive music and it’s good for business!
TSR: What are the rules for recording a song?
PM: Anybody can record any song that’s been written with two provisions. One, you don’t change the lyrics, and two, you don’t do something that’s detrimental to the song. You can do a polka arrangement of “A Weekend in the Country” if your heart’s set on it.
TSR: Have you stopped a recording?
PM: Yes, because they were singing the melody wrong or changing the lyrics, but most artists know they’re dealing with the greatest living composer.
TSR: What happens if you hear of somebody changing a song?
PM: I’ve gotten anonymous faxes saying, “They’re doing Anyone Can Whistle and they’re doing such and so.” I’ll call them up and tell them if it’s wrong they’ll hear from our licensing agent. If you want to perform Sondheim’s music, why would you want to change it?
The word copyright means the right to copy. And copy means anything from printing to performance to recording. If you present a performance, you have to get the right to do that presentation. Songs are not free as the air. They’re the personal property of the writer. If you want to perform it, you have to get the performance license from ASCAP or from the publisher. But most people know the rules.
TSR: Changing the subject, how do you promote Sondheim’s music?
PM: I always keep my ear to the ground in search of ideas for opportunities with these songs. I speak with producers and A&R executives to stay apprised of which artists are looking for musical material to record and perform. I make song pitches to advertising people–usually they have their own ideas of what they need. I send cassettes of songs to film music supervisors.
To find different opportunities for songs, I sometimes make demo tapes that take a different approach to a song. For example, “Happiness” has always felt like a “power pop ballad,” you know, with the electric piano accompaniment and the big snare drum hits during the second chorus. I’ve got something I’m working on, but it hasn’t clicked yet–we’ll see.
Basically, I’m after any opportunity that brings Steve’s music to a new audience. If you can find the core of that audience, you can build the bridge outwards from that core. It’s like mathematical Venn diagrams where distinct groups overlap and the overlaps provide the avenues to new directions, to new opportunities.
TSR: What if, say, Cecilia Bartoli wanted to record a Sondheim album. Do you see that as an opportunity ?
PM: Sure. Cecilia Bartoli is a tremendously huge opera star and if she wanted to do a recording of Steve’s music, we’d help her in every way we could. It may not be a platinum recording, but most recordings provide new opportunities to reach other people who don’t know his music.
If Pavarotti wanted to do a record, we’d love it. I don’t listen to a lot of country music, but that doesn’t mean that Tanya Tucker couldn’t do one of Steve’s songs. She’d be great. I’d love to have a Clint Black record, he’s a great singer, a great performer.
TSR: Some Sondheim fans would find that sacrilegious.
PM: Steve is not a religious icon and his music is not immutable. It’s tremendously effective music that has a great amount of expression in it, and with that expression comes a great number of interpretive possibilities.
TSR: You don’t seem to set any limits on who can perform his work.
PM: Let me rephrase that. Stephen Sondheim doesn’t set any limits on who can perform his work! And why should we? The beauty of the music is that we don’t have just one thing. We now have a broad palette, more avenues to disseminate his music. On the one hand, creators want to express their inner feelings, and on the other hand, they want to make a living and reach an audience.
I don’t think Steve is a purist. He’s the consummate artist, but he’s also a tremendously savvy businessman. He set up his own music company back when nobody else was and he’s had tremendously smart counsel and advice throughout his career. Steve has a keen understanding of the business issues.
TSR: What about using his songs in commercials?
PM: When Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album featured “Putting It Together,” Xerox was developing an advertising campaign that used a similar phrase. They changed their campaign, licensed the song and used it for over six years in all of their advertising. This was a tremendous opportunity for the song as it had a terrific recording and then great success as a commercial.
The fact is that the commercial collected a tremendous amount of money not just for the fees that Xerox paid but also for the performance fees collected by ASCAP. This is the key: Is the song damaged? The answer is no, it’s not damaged. The lyrics weren’t changed, the context of the use was not derogatory and it was selling a good product.
TSR: Are there other examples of that?
PM: About fifteen years ago, “Comedy Tonight” was licensed to Stovetop Stuffing for use in a commercial, and they did use a parody lyric– “Something nutritious/Something delicious/Something for everyone/Stovetop tonight.” They paid a good fee for that, but the song briefly became a jingle.
TSR: Some people say that Sondheim has had only one hit, “Send in the Clowns.”
PM: Well, there’s “Putting It Together.” The song had a tremendous recording with Streisand. “What Can You Lose?” from Dick Tracy is a tremendous song, we’ve had a number of recordings of that. Of course “Sooner or Later” has had a number of recordings. “Good Thing Going” has had a number. “Johanna.” “Move On.”
TSR: Sometimes, there seems to be a proliferation of Sondheim CDs, music books, videos and so on.
PM: Steve’s agent, Flora Roberts, made this point to me, and I think she’s right: If we have too many Sondheim events–whether they are concerts, records, revivals or new music books–too frequently, we detract from the bigger picture of his career. Certainly, there is a wide enough range to find new opportunities.
And you have to be careful with timing. Last year, Hal Leonard Publishing Corp. released an all-new edition of the songs from Company. It’s a beautiful folio and the engravings were made from Steve’s piano copies. So we waited a year to release a new Warner Bros. publication which will have the music Steve composed for films and television. Many of these will be on a new Varese Sarabande recording that Bruce Kimmel has just completed.
TSR: We’ve heard complaints that the recent concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music wasn’t recorded .
PM: This probably would have been an ineffective record because it wasn’t different enough from the existing recordings. It featured many of the same performers and repertoire from other events. So the record companies weren’t clamoring to record it.
Another example of this selectiveness is with cast recordings. Many productions feel that they have a definitive performance of his work and wish to document it. Steve’s attorney is John Breglio, who is one of the smartest people I’ve met, and he offered three reasons to re-record a cast album: The score has changed, as in the York Theater’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. Second, for archival reasons, as in the Follies in Concert album because the original recording was incomplete and this was a special performance. Third, if it provides a unique economic opportunity.
If there are too many recorded versions of a show’s score, the reality is that the average consumer will be confused and the typical record store will stock the lesser-priced recording. This would detract from the primary recordings.
On the other hand, it made sense to record the Carnegie Hall concert. It represents exactly the diversity that I’m after with Steve’s music. From the Sebesky symphonic arrangements to the Tonics’ jazzy interpretation of “Good Thing Going” to the Boys Choir of Harlem to Bernadette and Liza and Betty–both the group and Buckley–this recording shows the diverse strength of his music.
Betty’s (the group) rendition of “I Never Do Anything Twice” might not be everybody’s cup of tea but it certainly was something different. And of course Liza premeried the new song, “Water Under the Bridge.”
TSR: How early do you get involved in a new show?
PM: Usually, as soon as Steve has written some music. It’s fascinating to watch his shows take shape. In an early reading of a piece, there is often as much missing, musically and dramatically, as the material you do see. While Steve and his collaborator(s) know what they are looking for, you do not and the experience is somewhat like looking at a portion of a jigsaw puzzle where you can see the outline and maybe the overall architecture, but the functions of some details are not yet clear. Plus, you know his work is going to challenge you to think!
What I try to do is listen to the story and feel the tone or style of the show. Then I listen to the songs in context and later as “absolute” music. Then I wait expectantly for the next step and often some of the most effective work is done toward the end of the process. I remember the first time “Loving You” was put into Passion during previews. For me, that song is a killer since it nails Fosca’s surrender to her love for Giorgio, plus it’s beautiful and romantic and melodic! I was so pleased when Peabo Bryson recorded it on the Color and Light album.
TSR: How many songs are there in the Sondheim catalog?
PM: We have a catalog of about 880 copyrights with Steve’s name on them. But there are some multiple titles there. Let’s say there are about 500 individual songs, and out of the 500 a lot of work is fragmentary, scene work, reprises, or so specific to the action that they would never stand alone as a song.
TSR: What do you personally think of Sondheim’s music?
PM: It amazes me when people say that Steve’s songs are cold and cerebral and without warmth. You know every one of his songs is about yearning, people wanting something better or different in their lives. His songs are filled with passion or humor–they are always filled with emotion.
By any measure, whether artistic or economic, I believe that Steve is the most successful living composer. His music is performed in every venue from the stage to the concert hall to public schools to recordings, radio, television and films. He never compromises–I imagine this part of his creativity must be tremendously difficult–yet his language is accessible. And his work, even when its tone is somber, always entertains and stimulates thought.
Paul Salsini is the editor of The Sondheim Review.