Stephen Sondheim on Writing for Musicals
“Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.”
– Stephen Sondheim
A dwarf can see farther than a giant if the dwarf stands on the giant’s shoulders. With that idea I turn to the mind of Stephen Sondheim for insights into creating new works for musical theater.
I also have the great gift that one of my current co-workers has worked with Sondheim and will purportedly give me more insight into his work habits and ideas.
Here are my favorite excerpts from the Stephen Sondheim interview posted at:
BEGIN SONDHEIM INTERVIEW
As a composer, I wonder if there’s a sense, because you’re a lover of games and puzzles, that there’s always some solution to a given problem.
Stephen Sondheim: I’m sure that’s part of it.
Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos, and certainly puzzles. The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is you know there is a solution. I also like murder mysteries for the same reason. Again, the puzzle murder mysteries, the Agatha Christie kinds of things where you know that it’s all going to be neatly wound up at the end and everything’s going to make logical sense. I think that’s why murder mysteries are popular, is this defense against chaos.
You’ve said you were already writing musical numbers at the George School. Did you show any of your work to Mr. Hammerstein?
Stephen Sondheim: Yes. I wrote a show at George School called By George, and it was all about local campus activities. I was 15. I thought it was so terrific I was sure that Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were producers as well as writers, would want to produce it immediately, and I would be the youngest songwriter on Broadway.
I asked him (Oscar Hammerstein) if he would read it and he said sure, and so he called me the next day and I went over, and I said, “Now, you know, I want you to really treat this like a professional, as if you didn’t know me, as if it just crossed your desk.” And he said, “All right, in that case it’s the worst thing that ever crossed my desk.” And I was shocked, and he knew how disappointed I was, to put it mildly. He said, “Now I didn’t say it wasn’t talented,” he said, “but if you want to go through it, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” And he started right from the first stage direction, and he treated me like an adult. He treated me as if I were a professional, and by the end of the afternoon I was on my way to being a professional.
It must have been a long afternoon.
Stephen Sondheim: It was a long afternoon. Well, it was probably two and a half hours, but the packed information I got in makes it seem longer. And you know, at that age you’re a sponge, you just absorb everything. And he (Oscar Hammerstein) gave me the distillation of 30 years of experience. Now, not all in that afternoon, because then he set up a course for me, so to speak. He said, “If you want to learn to write musicals, why don’t you take a good play, one that you like, and make it into a musical? And then, after you’ve done that, then take a play that you like but you think is flawed, and see if you can improve it and turn it into a musical. Then take a story, not one that you’ve written, but that is not in the dramatic form, like a novel or something like that, make it into a musical. And then make up your own story and make it into a musical.” He said, by the time you get all those four done, you’ll know something. And that’s exactly what I did.
In another interview, you used the example of “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” that it sounds kind of silly if you just read the words.
Stephen Sondheim: Yeah. His kind of lyric writing was very understated. His lyrics don’t read very well. They sing, when they’re good, they sing great. Whereas, if you read Cole Porter’s, they’re very entertaining. “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” when you put it on paper looks vapid, but it’s not when it’s sung. That’s another thing he understood, which is how rich music is, and lyrics have to be underwritten. That’s why poets generally make poor lyric writers. Not always, but generally they do, because the language is too rich. It’s like what they call in England “over-egging the cake.” It’s over-enriching something, so that you get drowned in it. I firmly believe that lyrics have to breathe and give the audience’s ear a chance to understand what’s going on. Particularly in the theater, where you not only have the music, but you’ve got costume, story, acting, orchestra. There’s a lot to take in. The whole idea of poetry is denseness, is concision, is abutment of images, and that sort of thing. You can’t do that when you’ve got music going, and expect the audience to take it in.
Wasn’t there also something distinctive in Hammerstein’s approach to natural speech in a song?
Stephen Sondheim: Yes. I’ve never been a fan of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, Rodgers and Hart, because I find them lazy and forced. You know, there are people who care about the musical theater, who will argue, some of them, that Rodgers and Hart were much better than Rodgers and Hammerstein. That Rodgers and Hammerstein were simplistic, and Hart and Rodgers were so sophisticated. Oscar, on the other hand, used to defend Lorenz Hart to me. He said Hart was one of the very first to try to make natural speech a part of lyric writing. The sound of conversation. And he’s right. He’s not exactly a pioneer but he was certainly one of the first.
There’s a moment you’ve described in the genesis of West Side Story when Robbins wanted you to tell him what Tony was supposed to be doing. What was that about?
Stephen Sondheim: Lenny was away. We’d finished the song, “Maria,” and I went up to play it for Jerry, and Jerry said, after he heard it, he said, “Yeah, that’s all fine, but what’s he doing?” I said, “What do you mean what’s he doing?” He said, “What’s the character doing?” I said, “He’s singing a song. You know, he’s standing there like you do in musicals, and you sing a song.” He said, “Well, how would you like to stage it?” he said, ’cause he was always quite hostile. And I said “What do you mean?” He said, “Tell me, stage it.” And I realized what he was saying is that there should be some kind of stage action built into a song. That you should, as a songwriter, choreograph it yourself, in some way, even if it’s just a so-called static love song. And it was a very important lesson. I’ve always done that, which is why directors like working with me. Because I always give them a blueprint, which they can either ignore, or which they can use as a springboard. But there’s always a blueprint. I never say, “Well, here’s the number.” I will say, “Here, he’s sitting on a chair, he gets up, he pours himself a cup a coffee, he sings the first…” whatever it is. And often, particularly when I worked with Hal Prince, I would get the dimensions of the set, so I would know how long it took a character to get from X to Y, and write accordingly. So the director isn’t suddenly stuck with saying, “I need eight more bars.”
You’ve said writing is a matter of rewriting. It’s interesting to read about the evolution of some of these shows, where songs are dropped, songs are added, and some of these songs that are dropped are great songs.
Stephen Sondheim: But that’s part of the process, isn’t it? Something might not fit in the show.
Musicals are — particularly musicals — plays also, but musicals particularly are… the last collaborator is your audience, and so you’ve got to wait ’til the last collaborator comes in before you can complete the collaboration. And when the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you’ve written. Things that seem to work well — work in a sense of carry the story forward and be integral to the piece — suddenly become a little less relevant or a little less functional or a little overlong or a little overweight or a little whatever. And so you start reshaping from an audience.
Is that a really important part of the process, being able to let go of some of your children?
Stephen Sondheim: That’s something I learned from Oscar. He and Rodgers had written a ballad for Oklahoma! called “Boys And Girls Like You And Me,” and they played it in the overture, and they sang it in the first act, and they did it in the entr’acte, and reprised in the second act. It was their big “plug” number to be a popular hit. And they dropped it in New Haven because it didn’t serve the function in the show that it could, and that’s ruthlessness, and I learned that from Oscar.
But sometimes you also have to write new songs for a show when it’s already in previews out of town, don’t you? Wasn’t that the case with “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music?
Stephen Sondheim: What happens is, when you’re out of town or… yeah, out of town is what it amounts to — although that one was written during rehearsals — you know your cast well and you know their strengths and weaknesses, and you can start writing for them. Just the way Shakespeare wrote for his actors. And I’ve said it with heavy humor, that I really don’t want to write a score until the whole show is cast and staged, because… that’s why so many good songs get written out of town, and written fast, because you know exactly what’s missing, you know exactly what has to work or happen, you know exactly who you’re writing for, you know exactly what the audience is starting to feel. And so the more restrictions you have, the easier anything is to write, and when you’re out of town and you’re restricted by all those factors, it’s much easier to write them than when you just have a tabula rasa and say, “Gee, we’ve got to have a love song here.” You know, it’s not the same thing.
You’ve said that, in a way, writing a song is like acting because you are exploring your character.
Stephen Sondheim: Writing a song in a musical that tells a story, sure.
The way you get into the character — the way you get in the song, both musically and lyrically — is to become the character. It’s the only way. I don’t know how else you do it, unless you’re the playwright who created the character in the first place. But I’m always writing for characters that somebody else has created, my collaborator, and so the only way I can get into… I’ve said — and it’s probably an exaggeration, but not much — that by the time I get through writing a score, I know the book better than the book writer does, because I’ve examined every word, and questioned the book writer on every word. Why does she say this? Why doesn’t she say that? And that’s getting to know the character. And then writing the song is acting it. So I can start ad libbing. It’s exactly like improvisatory acting. So here’s the character Blanche. We’re hiring you to play Blanche. Okay. Just veer from the Tennessee Williams script and just start ad libbing as Blanche. If you’re thoroughly in the character, you can do it. You may not have the poetry yet, but everything you say will be in the character of Blanche. That’s what I do. I take off from what the book writer has written, sometimes using a line of his as a springboard, and ad lib, and improvise as that character. That’s what I’m doing.
Does the playwright sometimes provide you with more than what’s written in the script, like descriptive things about the character?
Stephen Sondheim: Sometimes. Not so much descriptive things, because that comes out of conversation. I talk for weeks to the book writer to discuss just such matters. Sometimes I’ll ask the book writer to write a monologue, not to be performed, just as if they were notes for the character, because nobody knows the characters better than the guy who creates them.
Arthur Laurents wrote that you’re a master of writing a lyric which can only be sung by the character for whom it was intended.
Stephen Sondheim: That’s the idea. It’s that character’s song. You don’t write a line for Stanley that’s supposed to be said by Blanche.
Could you tell us a little bit about the circumstances under which you compose? Do you create a particular environment that works for you?
Stephen Sondheim: No. I have a studio. I now have a house in Connecticut as well as a place in New York. So I have a studio in each place, and that’s where I live my life.
Is it easier to work where it’s quiet?
Stephen Sondheim: That’s interesting. It’s pleasanter to work in the country, where it’s quiet and where you can wander out among the trees. But I don’t get as much work done. In the city there’s more pressure. You don’t want to leave the room because there’s all that chaos going on. So it’s more like a monk’s cell, in the sense that you’re isolating yourself from the world. I think that leads to more work. It’s like doing homework, if you’re forced not to leave a room. Of course I’m not forced, but I think of it as a force, as something keeping me in the room. You eventually get bored enough so you put the pencil to paper.
They locked Rossini in a room to get his overtures.
Stephen Sondheim: I didn’t know that. Well, Rodgers was famous for locking Larry Hart in rooms to get the lyrics.
In Meryle Secrest’s biography of you, you’re quoted as saying that you found writing music easier than writing lyrics. Is that true?
Stephen Sondheim: I just said that lyric writing is harder than writing music. In the sense that your resources are so much more limited.
One of the hardest things about writing lyrics is to make the lyrics sit on the music in such a way that you’re not aware there was a writer there, and it sounds natural. Well, that means things like inflection, the elongation of syllables. Now I’m talking about a certain kind of songwriting. You know, opera librettists and opera composers will take a word and do a whole melisma on it, because it’s not about the language. It’s about the voice and the music. But if you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story that is like a play, and particularly if you’re trying to tell a contemporary one, or something from the last 50 years, it’s got to sound like speech. And in order not to sound so songlike that you lose the scene. At the same time it’s got to be a song in the sense that — I loathe recitative — and so it should have a form, and I think the form is what gives it power, and the more formal, in a sense, the song is. You have to juggle all those things, and that’s hard work. That’s really hard, and usually it doesn’t come out quite the way you want it. Maybe all writers would say it never comes out the way you want it. It’s particularly noticeable in a lyric because the form is so short. You know, you’ve got 50 words. One of them out of place is like having a novel with one out of 50 chapters out of place. But you’ve got 49 long chapters so that — but in a short period of time it stands out, the wrong word, and because each word becomes so important.
John Updike was quoted in a New York Times article as saying that every time he walks into a bookstore he sort of snickers because he can’t believe somebody would buy one of his books. He feels like such a fraud. Do you recognize that feeling?
Stephen Sondheim: very writer that I’ve ever spoken to feels fraudulent in some way or other. You don’t feel it all the time, but particularly if you’re successful, or rather if people admire you a lot and it’s not even success. That increases the sense of fraudulence. “Hey, I’m not that good! Stop comparing me to so and so.” And then you do feel fraudulent.
I guess if you weren’t self-critical, the stuff wouldn’t be as good.
Stephen Sondheim: No, probably not. Sometimes you can be so self-critical you take the blood out of a piece, and that is often a danger. Or you can be Thomas Wolfe and just collect all the stuff in a box and have Maxwell Perkins edit it for you. So there are extremes. Those books are good and rich and full of life, and he had an editor who really took what he had and helped form it. They’re full of blood and life. Maybe if he’d been self-critical it wouldn’t be as good.
At Oxford University, you told the students they should not be critical, at least at the beginning.
Stephen Sondheim: The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. It’s particularly true in lyric writing because things become… You know, it’s easy for a novelist to say, “I love you.” You know, it’s three words out of 300,000. But if that’s in your lyric and you think, “Oh Jesus, I can’t. No, that’s just too flat, and it’s too…” Well, if you start thinking that way, you won’t write anything. And so yeah. I know it for myself. That’s why, in teaching, I always emphasize it, ’cause it takes one to know one. It’s that moment. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can possibly put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, no matter how clichéd it may seem, you’ll do yourself a service.