Exclusive Interview: Burt Bacharach and Steven Sater on Creating Their Concept Album Some Lovers
Some Lovers, now Grammy eligible, is released via Broadway Records.
"He had a wish list," the legendary composer Burt Bacharach says with a laugh, "and one wish was to find me, right?"
"That's completely right," says Steven Sater, no slouch in his own right.
Bacharach has eight Grammys and three Oscars, having penned some of the biggest pop hits of the 20th century — "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," and "I Say a Little Prayer for You," to pick a small sampling. Sater has a Tony, Olivier, and Grammy for the show that introduced musical theater to the 21st century, Spring Awakening. Together, they perhaps thought, correctly, they could make an unexpected and delightful team.
That fact is on full display in Some Lovers, a musical reimagining of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi that debuted at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2011 and is now available as a concept album from Broadway Records. Bacharach's first full theater score since Promises, Promises in 1968, this story about the tribulations of a couple caught between their present and past reunites various stage couples from recent musicals: Colton Ryan and Molly Gordon of Sater's Alice by Heart and Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele from Spring Awakening; Ethan Slater and Lilli Cooper from SpongeBob SquarePants; Katrina Lenk and Ari'el Stachel from The Band's Visit, and many others.
Sater and Bacharach, now 93, got together on Zoom to discuss the creation of Some Lovers, which is currently Grammy eligible in the Best Musical Theater Album category, and here, they describe their loving creative process.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about how you first met and started writing together.
Burt Bacharach: Steven had just won everything for his Broadway show Spring Awakening, and he called me when he came out to California. He had a wish list, and one wish was to find me, right?
Steven Sater: That's completely right. It was like the Zenith of my career, Spring Awakening, and it just so happened that my music publishing deal was up. So, all of these companies were like, "Well, you have your relationship with Duncan Sheik, who else can we introduce you to?" And I was blank, but I said "Burt Bacharach." And every company was like, "That's great, who else?" And then I was in Warner Chappell, and they were like, "Oh, he's been here for 30 years." That's how it unfolded. During our first meeting, I'd given him a lyric before he went to Sydney to conduct his first symphony, and he came back and said, "I have something for that lyric." He'd written bars of music across the lyric sheet I'd given him.
Burt: I do that sometimes when I don't have music papers. You know, a treble clef and a bass clef on the lyric sheet with what I'm hearing in my head. It's foolish of me not to carry music paper or a little pad I could write on.
Steven: That first song was "Ready to Be Done With You" and it was so gorgeous — without changing a word, he turned it into a Burt Bacharach song.
Burt: Thank you, Steven.
Steven: It's true. He played it for me, and then we got to the end and I couldn't even say anything. I was like, "Can you play it again?" And then he played it all the way through again. So anyway, we had this full talk, and as I'm walking out, he says to me, "Love songs. That's what I write, love songs." So we resolved to write a musical together.
What made you decide to musicalize The Gift of the Magi?
Steven: Burt and I were writing love songs that we were excited about, but they were not your conventional pop love songs about falling in love and "let's be together" or "you just broke up with me." They were about being in the middle of a long-term relationship and trying to make it work and all this disaffection and regret. And I think we were working on a Christmas song at the time and the thought hit me, "What about The Gift of the Magi?" What happens to those people 15 years later after you've made all those sacrifices?
Burt: The lyrics that Steven was sending my way were kind of brilliant.
Steven, I see you shaking your head in disbelief as Burt says that.
Steven: One of the first Broadway cast albums I owned was Promises, Promises. So imagine writing a piece — I'm going to start crying — I'm writing a piece of musical-theater with Burt Bacharach. And it's been hard. We worked really hard. But it's been a joy from beginning to end.
Speaking of Promises, Promises, Burt, this is your first full musical-theater score since that show in 1968. Why did you stop writing for theater to begin with?
Burt: I got turned off during Promises, Promises. There's a famous story of David Merrick, being the producer, calling me after we had done the cast album to tell me that the Sunday matinee had been done with five substitutes in the orchestra — a substitute drummer, substitute violin player, maybe the keyboard player — and that Richard Rodgers was in the audience that day. I kind of said, "You just don't get it, man." My music is not so easy; it's much more complicated than that. I go into a studio and I know what I can get in a studio. It goes on tape, it's there, and it's done. It must have been OK, because I did get a letter from Richard Rodgers telling me how much he appreciated what I had done musically. But five subs on a Sunday afternoon? It was really a turn off, and I didn't want to deal with that anymore.
Tell me about your collaborative process together and how it differs from your other songwriting partners.
Burt: Writing music to the lyrics that Steven was giving me wasn't hard. It's easier than it happens in most songs that one does. With other writers — doing the album with Elvis Costello — things took forever. I'm very proud of what Elvis and I did on Painted From Memory, but with Steven, he would give me these lyrics and the inner rhymes were there. The words are in the right place. They had pointers that were sending me in different directions: Why don't you go there? And it was not hard to go there.
Steven: In some respect, it's very traditional. I would send something to Duncan and he'd email me something back. But with Burt, I would go to his house and we would sit at the piano and Burt would play. There were times that he would play through the verse, or he would start singing something gorgeous to like "doo-doo-doos," and then he'd pull out a tape recorder and sing it into a cassette for me, and I would take it home and write words to the song. We'd also spend a lot time going through the songs and reworking them, because you have two perfectionists on your hands.
How did the Some Lovers album come about?
Steven: We'd done a run at the Adirondack Theater Festival, and one of the producers there was Louis Hobson. He was close with Van Dean, from Broadway Records, and proposed doing an album. I had had a conversation with Van about doing a concept album, too, and he said, "Well, what's your concept?" So we began talking about it, recorded one or two tracks, and then the pandemic hit. I think what Burt and I both felt was, with theaters around the world shut down, how can we bring theater to people now?
I imagine a lot of it was recorded this way, over Zoom or comparable technology.
Steven: Yes. Like, Ethan Slater was recording it in his closet to a track Lilli Cooper recorded a year and a half before. And he kept having Zoom audio issues. It took like an hour and a half, and I couldn't believe he was so patient. He was so there and heartfelt and would say repeatedly, "It's such a joy to sing this song." And we got a lot of people to agree to do it. Burt reached out to Kristin Chenoweth, because of course they worked together on the Promises, Promises revival. We did our very first workshop of it at the Taper with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, and I was just so thrilled they said yes [for this album]. They recorded it separately. I wasn't able to be there when Jonathan was there, but I was there when Lea was, and it was incredible to hear her singing this song that's so precious to us. This is a girl I've known since she was 14 when she used to babysit my children, and now she's a big star.
Burt, knowing the story you just told about Promises, Promises and not having control over the live pit musicians, what was it like for you to be working on this album over the computer as opposed to being there?
Burt: I was so removed from this that I was just a participant listening. But I must say I'm very pleased with how the songs and the orchestrations turned out. I don't think the show had the best beginnings.
Steven: We weren't really ready [at the Old Globe]. We jumped into it because it was an opportunity, but we knew we weren't ready and then we didn't have the team we needed with us. It took a long time after that to get our sea legs again. We did a lot of workshops. The Lincoln Center concert we did in 2016 was a huge opportunity for us, and then during the run at the Other Palace in London, the show was there.
What are your hopes and dreams for Some Lovers now that the album is out? Do you want it to spur future productions or is it the way it's meant to be?
Steven: In the short term, we did the album to do the album because it means so much to both of us. But, yes, yes, yes. Before the pandemic, there was a potential opportunity to do a little tour of the show, and the album could really help galvanize that. So yes, 100 percent — and I can answer for both of us — doing the show is hugely important. So getting the music known, getting people to hear it, is very helpful as an introduction, so people can say, you know, "Oh, I like that song."