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'Re-Imagining Sondheim': A Pianist And His Peers Deconstruct The Master

Stephen Sondheim is widely viewed as the greatest living composer in American musical theater. "Send in the Clowns," from the show A Little Night Music, may be his most famous work — and yet you might not recognize the song as reimagined for solo piano by Ethan Iverson of the band The Bad Plus.

Iverson's take on the song is part of an eight-year project called Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano. Pianist Anthony de Mare commissioned 36 composers from the worlds of classical, jazz, Broadway and more to re-envision Sondheim, releasing the results as a three-disc collection. As de Mare tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, the new iteration of "Send in the Clowns" doesn't alter Sondheim's music so much as disassemble it.

"First of all," de Mare says, "the song itself, iconic as it is, it seems so many composers stayed away from it. Ethan grabbed it and said he loved the idea of what the jazz composer Ornette Coleman does: If he takes an established song, he will create some original music to sort of introduce it, and then bring it back periodically. So Ethan did that same thing with this piece, by giving us this kind of opening-bar antiphonal thing that comes back. As he said, it's like being in this club, and there's this brass band on the other side of the wall. And the pianist onstage is trying to play 'Send in the Clowns,' but he keeps being interrupted by this band that keeps coming back."

De Mare joined Shapiro at NPR's Washington, D.C., studios to chat about the project — and sat down at the piano to demonstrate how works by Sondheim, Gershwin and Paul Moravec all spring from a common theme. Hear the conversation and music at the audio link.

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