Interviews

Stephen Sondheim, The Art of the Musical

Interviewed by James Lipton

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York in 1930. He has written the music and lyrics for twelve Broadway musicals and the lyrics for West Side Story, Gypsy, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, as well as many other songs. He has composed film scores and has won an Academy Award best original song for “Sooner or Later,” which was sung by Madonna in Dick Tracy. He won the Tony Award and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best score for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Passion. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1990 he was appointed the first visiting professor of contemporary theater at Oxford University and, in 1993, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement. In 1992 he refused to accept the National Endowment’s Medal of Arts Award because he felt the NEA had been, in his words, “transformed into a conduit and symbol of censorship and repression rather than encouragement and support.” He accepted the award in 1997.

This interview was excerpted from a craft seminar at the New School in New York City, which appeared on the Bravo network as an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. The seminar ended with a classroom session in which questions were invited from the audience.

 

INTERVIEWER

When you were ten and your parents divorced, your mother moved to Pennsylvania and it was there at the age of eleven that you encountered Jimmy Hammerstein and were welcomed into the family of Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein. I understand you’ve said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, you would have become a geologist.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Yes. He was a surrogate father and a mentor to me up until his death. When I was fifteen, I wrote a show for George School, the Friends school I went to. It was called “By George” and was about the students and the faculty. I was convinced that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t wait to produce it, so I gave it to Oscar and asked him to read it as if he didn’t know me. I went to bed dreaming of my name in lights on Broadway, and when I was summoned to his house the next day he asked, Do you really want me to treat this as if I didn’t know you? Oh yes, I said, to which he replied, In that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. He saw me blanch and continued, I didn’t say it was untalented, but let’s look at it. He proceeded to discuss it as if it were a serious piece. He started right from the first stage direction; and I’ve often said, at the risk of hyperbole, that I probably learned more about writing songs that afternoon than I learned the rest of my life. He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical.

Of course when you’re fifteen you’re a sponge. I soaked it all up and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon. From then on, until the day he died, I showed him everything I wrote, and eventually had the Oedipal thrill of being able to criticize his lyrics, which was a generous thing for him to let me do.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve read that one of the things you learned from him was the power of a single word.

SONDHEIM

Oscar dealt in very plain language. He often used simple rhymes like day and May, and a lot of identities like “Younger than springtime am I / Gayer than laughter am I.” If you look at “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! / Oh, what a beautiful day!” it doesn’t seem like much on paper, but he understood what happens when music is applied to words—the words explode. They have their own rainbows, their own magic. But not on the printed page. Some lyrics read well because they’re conversational lyrics. Oscar’s do not read very well because they’re colloquial but not conversational. Without music, they sound simplistic and written. Yet it’s precisely the hypersimplicity of the language that gives them such force. If you listen to “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ ” from Carousel, you’ll see what I mean.

INTERVIEWER

He also stressed the importance of creating character in songs.

SONDHEIM

Remember, he’d begun as a playwright before he became a songwriter. He believed that songs should be like one-act plays, that they should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should set up a situation, have a development, and then a conclusion . . . exactly like a classically constructed play. Arthur Pinero said about playwriting: “Tell them what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them you’ve done it.” If that’s what a play is, Oscar’s songs are little plays. He utilized that approach as early as Show Boat. That’s how he revolutionized musical theater—utilizing operetta principles and pasting them onto American musical comedy.

INTERVIEWER

That afternoon, as I recall, Hammerstein also outlined for you a curriculum and told you he wanted you to write four things. It sounds like a wonderful fairy tale. What were they?

SONDHEIM

First, he said, take a play that you like, that you think is good, and musicalize it. In musicalizing it, you’ll be forced to analyze it. Next, take a play that you think is good but flawed, that you think could be improved, and musicalize that, seeing if you can improve it. Then take a nonplay, a narrative someone else has written—it could be a novel, a short story—but not a play, not something that has been structured dramatically for the stage, and musicalize that. Then try an original. The first one I did was a play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, Beggar on Horseback, which lends itself easily to musicalization because it’s essentially a long fantasy. We performed that at college when I was an undergraduate at Williams. I got permission from Kaufman to do it and we had three performances. It was a valuable experience, indeed. The second one, which I couldn’t get permission for, was a play by Maxwell Anderson called High Tor, which I liked but thought was sort of clumsy. Then I tried to adapt Mary Poppins. I didn’t finish that one because I couldn’t figure out how to take a series of disparate short stories, even though the same characters existed throughout, and make an evening, make an arc. After that I wrote an original musical about a guy who wanted to become an actor and became a producer. He had a sort of Sammy Glick streak in him—he was something of an opportunist. So I wrote my idea of a sophisticated, cynical musical. It was called “Climb High.” There was a motto on a flight of stone steps at Williams, “Climb high, climb far, your aim the sky, your goal the star.” I thought, Gee, that’s very Hammersteinish. I sent him the whole thing. The first act was ninety-nine pages long. Now, the entire script of South Pacific, which lasted almost three hours on the stage, was only ninety-two pages. Oscar sent my script back, circled the ninety-nine, and just wrote, Wow!

INTERVIEWER

That’s a step up from “the worst musical I’ve ever read.” At Williams your major was in music and your mentor there was Robert Barrow?

SONDHEIM

Yes. I was a mathematician by nature, and still am—I just knew I didn’t want to be a mathematician. So I decided not to take any mathematics courses. Williams being a liberal-arts college, the natural, neutral major is English. As an elective my first year, I took music, which was generally known as a gut course. Williams in those days had eleven hundred students, all male, and a tiny music department. Robert Barrow was the senior of two teachers. The students hated him because he was cold and Mary Poppinsish. He taught rigidly out of a little black book compiled over the years into which he had compressed a lot of texts. He had a completely antiromantic approach to music. I had always imagined that writing music was all about sitting in your penthouse or your studio until this lady muse twitters around your head and sits on your shoulders and goes, Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum. Instead, Robert Barrow was talking about leading tones and diatonic scales, and I fell in love. He took all the mystery out of music and taught craft. Within a year I was majoring in music. He changed my life by making me aware that art is craft, not inspiration.

INTERVIEWER

When you graduated from Williams, you received the Hutchinson Prize for music, which was a fellowship for further study. With whom did you study?

SONDHEIM

Milton Babbitt, the avant-gardist’s avant-gardist. When I started studying with him, he had already gone beyond twelve-tone music and was working up at Columbia on synthesized music, which in those days was a science fiction, the idea being that (his example) he could make a bassoon play a high C. He was a rigorous intellectual but also happened to be a frustrated songwriter. When I first met him, he was writing a musical for Mary Martin. I would meet with him once a week for about four hours and we’d spend the first hour analyzing his favorite songs—I can still analyze “All the Things You Are” according to Babbitt, which in fact I did for my students at Oxford. Then we’d spend the rest of the time analyzing Beethoven and Mozart.

I asked him if he would teach me atonal music. He said, There’s no point until you’ve exhausted tonal resources for yourself. You haven’t, have you? I said, No, and I suspect I’ll never want to. So I never did study atonal music. He taught tonal as rigorously as Barrow did. It was a similar approach: Analyze the music, look at what the music is. How do you sustain something, hold a piece together for forty-five minutes if it’s a symphony, or three minutes if it’s a song? How do you manage time? That’s what he taught me.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you hesitate when you were offered the chance to write the lyrics of West Side Story?

SONDHEIM

I wanted primarily to write music. But Oscar advised me that the job would be an extraordinary opportunity to work with men of such ability, talent, and imagination as Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents. So I took it. And he was right.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you disparage your lyrics for West Side Story, but I would give a great deal to have written “oh, moon, grow bright and make this endless day endless night.”

SONDHEIM

It’s fine until you remember that it’s sung by an adolescent in a gang.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said, “I’ve always thought of lyric-writing as a craft rather than an art, largely a matter of sweat and time. Music is more challenging, more interesting, and more rewarding.” Do you still feel that way?

SONDHEIM

Sure. Because music’s abstract and it’s fun and it lives in you. Language is terrific, but the English language is a difficult tool to work with. Two of the hardest words in the language to rhyme are life and love. Of all words! In Italian, easy. But not English. Making lyrics feel natural, sit on music in such a way that you don’t feel the effort of the author, so that they shine and bubble and rise and fall, is very, very hard to do. Whereas you can sit at the piano and just play and feel you’re making art.

INTERVIEWER

The love rhymes are shove, above, dove, glove, and of. That’s all we’ve got.

SONDHEIM

And they’re not easy to use. Live isn’t easy, either. You have give and sieve and then you’re in a lot of trouble.

INTERVIEWER

The English language has forty-two sounds in it, French a dozen, so everything rhymes with everything else. That’s why Molière was able to write those alexandrines, couplet after couplet, without ever straining for a rhyme.

SONDHEIM

But lyrics are also about open vowel sounds. The Italians have it all over us and the French because everything is ahhhh! Try to sing me on a high note. And me is a very useful word.

INTERVIEWER

Or him.

SONDHEIM

Exactly. Short is terrible. Singers will tell you that their throats close up.

INTERVIEWER

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first Broadway show for which you wrote music and lyrics and, if memory serves, when the show was out of town, you were out on the streets giving tickets away to get people into the theater.

SONDHEIM

It was a disaster out of town. It was directed by George Abbott, who was famous as a play doctor. We would stand in the back of the auditorium in New Haven and feel the discomfort of the audience; all the while we thought that what we were seeing was terrific. Finally, one evening George said, I don’t know what to do, you’d better call in George Abbott.

When we got down to Washington, we asked Jerome Robbins to come in and help. He said, It’s the opening number that’s killing it. It’s not telling them what the show’s about. You’ve got to write a baggy-pants number. So I wrote this song called “Comedy Tonight.” Jerry insisted, though, I don’t want you to tell any jokes, let me tell the jokes. Very smart of him. That’s why the lyric is so bland and dull—it’s background for Jerry’s pyrotechnics. It may be the best opening number ever put on the stage. The audience was so satisfied at the end of it that we thought, Let’s not do the rest of the show.

INTERVIEWER

You once asked Oscar Hammerstein why he never wrote a sophisticated musical.

SONDHEIM

He said, You mean something that takes place in penthouses? I said yes. He said, Because it doesn’t interest me. Most people probably think that Oscar was a hayseed and sat on a porch all the time watching cattle turn into statues, but in fact he was an urban product, a New York boy, and very—well, urbane. Sharp tongue. Pointed wit. Wonderful critic. It’s just that was not what he wanted to write about. He wanted to write about so-called simplicities. He was a morality playwright. He wrote about Everyman. And every time he tried to write something that was particularly urban or contemporary, it wasn’t very good, as in Me and Juliet and parts of Allegro. He was sharp and smart, but he didn’t feel it. That’s why he didn’t want to write about penthouses, and he was right.

INTERVIEWER

But you certainly did in Company, a sophisticated New York penthouse story. It has been called a revolutionary musical. Was it a plotless show?

SONDHEIM

Yes, because it didn’t begin as a musical. George Furth was an actor and was in therapy. His therapist suggested that it might be good for him to do some writing. So he wrote a series of one-act plays—playlets, really. A production had been set up but had fallen through, so he sent them to me and said, I don’t know what to do with these. I wrote back, Let me send them to Hal Prince because he’s very shrewd about this sort of thing. Maybe he can give you some advice. Hal said, Why don’t we make a musical out of them? It seemed impossible because they were such disparate plays, and that made it intriguing. So George came east, we spent two or three weeks talking, and gradually the form of the show took shape. It came from the fact that in each playlet there were two people in a relationship and a third person who often acted as a catalyst. We realized that what the show should be about is the third person. So we invented the character of Bobby, the outsider in five different marriages. We realized that there could be no plot in the conventional sense. A man comes home on his thirty-fifth birthday and realizes that all his friends are married; he’s an outsider. And he has a combination breakdown and epiphany. The show really takes place in one second. His friends are there but they’re not there, and they don’t know each other but they do know each other. They’re all fragments of his consciousness. That’s what made it an unusual show: it took place in a single moment of time. It wasn’t a conventional narrative nor was it a revue, because each of the playlets concerned the same characters. Also, none of the songs grew out of scenes. Each of the songs was either a comment or the entire scene itself. And all the songs, with one exception, dealt with marriage or relationships—a word I don’t much like, but I did in those days. So it became this kind of twilight-zone revue. That whole area between revue and book is something I’ve always been interested in. It surfaced in Follies, then again in Pacific Overtures and Assassins. And that’s what was, to use your word, revolutionary—at least in the commercial musical theater.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a remarkable song in Company called “Barcelona” that’s actually very well-written dialogue . . .

SONDHEIM

I’ll tell you something funny about “Barcelona.” I finished it the night before we went into rehearsal. Hal had been pushing me to get the April-Bobby song finished because it was an entire scene. So I wrote “Barcelona” and went up to his house and played it. He looked blank throughout the whole thing and said, Well, look, we can do it at the read-through tomorrow, anyway. I thought, Oh God. Then his wife Judy came in and asked if she could hear the new song. I said, I’m afraid it’s not quite . . . Well, I’ll play it anyway. I sang the opening line, “Where you going? / Barcelona,” and she laughed. I thought, All right, maybe it’s got a chance. The next day, at the read-through, we get to “Barcelona” and I play and sing it. I sing the first line and the entire cast convulses with laughter. Hal looks over at me and shrugs. He has no trouble admitting he’s wrong.

INTERVIEWER

Today the concept musical is commonplace. The British seem to have inherited it from us. Some people think they invented it. Follies was certainly a concept musical. Could you tell us its genesis?

SONDHEIM

First of all, I would hardly call the British musicals concept musicals—they seem like traditional operettas to me. And in any event, “concept musical” is a meaningless term, useful only to critics who need to categorize and directors who want to consider themselves writers. As for Follies, I went to Jim Goldman, a friend and a playwright I admire, and asked him if he had any ideas for musicals. He’d always wanted to write a play about reunions, he said, and he’d recently picked up a newspaper clipping about the Ziegfeld Girls’ annual reunion. We thought that might be the basis of a show.

It took four years to write Follies—not steadily. We wrote it first as a murder mystery—not a mystery, that’s not quite right—but a murder piece. It was about four people—two couples—who had been emotionally involved with each other a long time ago and who thought their lives had been damaged because of it. The notion was that one of them was going to murder one of the others, and the suspense, so to speak, was who’s going to kill whom. Every time we would do a draft, the atmosphere for the first few minutes would be fine, but then as soon as the plot came in it would start to get a little ratchety. So we decided to delay the plot, maybe for fifteen minutes. Again it started to get ratchety, so we delayed it for twenty-five. Finally, it struck us that maybe there shouldn’t be any plot at all, that it should be all atmosphere. That is, in fact, what it turned out to be. There’s minimal plot. It all takes place during a party. It’s about people getting drunk and their old emotions surging to the surface and interconnecting . . . all in the atmosphere of the Ziegfeld Follies. What it really is about is the loss of innocence—not only among the characters but in America between the wars, which the Follies, I think, represented.

I was much influenced in those days by the movies of Alain Resnais, and I think Follies was probably more influenced by Last Year at Marienbad than anything else. It had to do with time, and Hal gave it a surreal spin in the staging—Hal and Michael Bennett. That increased the misterioso quality of it . . . which is the best thing about it.

INTERVIEWER

When Richard Rodgers was asked, Which comes first, the music or the lyrics? he usually replied, The check. Since you’re both the composer and lyricist, what do you start with?

SONDHEIM

Two basic things: some kind of accompaniment figure and/or some sort of refrain line or central idea for a lyric. Those are the two kinds of glue for a song. The trick is to keep them going together, so you don’t get boxed in.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taken us all off the hook by admitting you use a rhyming dictionary. I think you and I use the same one, Clement Wood.

SONDHEIM

That’s the best one, and for a very simple reason: all the words are listed vertically. If you use one that lists them horizontally, your eyes start to skip over the entries. The problem with Clement Wood is that it was published in 1938, so there are very few contemporary words in it. But I’ve written a lot of words into my main copy. The book was out of print for years but luckily, I’d bought four copies so I had them all over the place. Happily, it’s now in print again. If anybody wants to write lyrics, that’s the one to use.

INTERVIEWER

The other thing that’s essential is a thesaurus. Not a dictionary but a thesaurus, because you want to know what your choices are. There I also have a favorite, by Norman Lewis. It’s a thesaurus in dictionary form. The way Roget arranged his thesaurus mystifies me.

SONDHEIM

But what’s interesting about the Roget is that it opens your mind, because in doing the cross-referencing, when you start looking up synonyms, you have to go back and forth, you come across shadings of words you hadn’t thought of, which lead to other words. The problem with the Roget is that it’s been in so many editions. The one that I think offers the best balance between the number of words and the number of cross-references is the 1943 edition. That may sound fussy but, as you know, you work with the same tools over a period of time and they become important.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you say that you don’t like to work at the piano.

SONDHEIM

Well, if you work at the piano, you’re limited by your own technique. I have a very good right hand, but a left hand like a ham hock. Also, muscle memory comes into it. You start playing the same chords, the same figurations. If you force yourself to write away from the piano, you come up with more inventive things. If you’re too good a piano player, as some composers are, the music may become flavorless and glib. And if you’re not a very good pianist, you’re limited to the same patterns. I force myself to write in keys that I haven’t written in for a while. I find that most composers consider sharp keys the enemy and flat keys the friends. Flat keys somehow are more welcoming. I often force myself to write in sharp keys just to get away from the pattern. I think it’s very important to try to write away from the piano.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve always wanted to ask you this: why on earth name A Little Night Music after Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? It had nothing to do with Mozart. And you had Smiles of a Summer Night sitting there looking at you.

SONDHEIM

Yes, and we also had Ingmar Bergman, who wouldn’t let us use the title of the film. He gave us the rights to everything else. However, when the show was subsequently done in Vienna, we realized that in German it would revert to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which would have made people think they were going to a Mozart concert. So we wrote Bergman and asked him to let us use Smiles of a Summer Night in German. He gave us permission that one time.

INTERVIEWER

Sweeney Todd was operatic, using leitmotifs, as opera does. Characters had themes and the themes assembled, disassembled, reassembled. You’ve said that you were influenced by, of all people, Bernard Herrmann.

SONDHEIM

True. When I was fifteen years old I saw a movie called Hangover Square, another epiphany in my life. It was a moody, romantic, gothic thriller starring Laird Cregar, about a composer in London in 1900 who was ahead of his time. And whenever he heard a high note he went crazy and ran around murdering people. It had an absolutely brilliant score by Bernard Herrmann, centered around a one-movement piano concerto. I wanted to pay homage to him with this show, because I had realized that in order to scare people, which is what Sweeney Todd is about, the only way you can do it, considering that the horrors out on the street are so much greater than anything you can do on the stage, is to keep music going all the time. That’s the principle of suspense sequences in movies, and Bernard Herrmann was a master in that field. So Sweeney Todd not only has a lot of singing, it has a lot of underscoring. It’s infused with music to keep the audience in a state of tension, to make them forget they’re in a theater, and to prevent them from separating themselves from the action. I based a lot of the score on a specific chord that Herrmann uses in almost all his film work and spun it out from that. That and the “Dies Irae,” which is one of my favorite tunes and is full of menace.

INTERVIEWER

Sunday in the Park with George marked a new collaboration. There was the long period in which Hal Prince produced and directed your musicals and now we enter the Sondheim–James Lapine period, which has given us a different sensibility. Lapine comes from photography and graphic design. He’s experimental, a poet.

SONDHEIM

I admired Jim Lapine’s work. I’d seen a play that he wrote and directed called Twelve Dreams. A mutual friend, a producer, got us together, and we were talking one night about theme and variations, because that’s a kind of show I had always wanted to do. I showed him a French magazine I had that was devoted to variations on the Mona Lisa. And we started talking about paintings. He had used the Seurat painting La Grande Jatte in a piece he had done up at Yale. And he said, Did you ever notice there are over fifty people in it and nobody’s looking at anybody else? We started to speculate why. Suddenly I said, It’s like a stage set, you know. It’s like a French farce, isn’t it? You know, maybe those people aren’t supposed to be seen with each other. We started to talk about how it might make a story, and then James said the crucial thing: Of course, the main character’s missing. I said, Who? He said, The painter. As soon as he said that, we knew we had a show. It would be more than a stunt, it would be a play about a man and his landscape and how he controls it. And how hard it is to make art.

INTERVIEWER

Into the Woods was another groundbreaking musical. Once again you worked with Lapine.

SONDHEIM

Well, another kind of piece I’d always wanted to do was a fairy tale, so I asked James if he’d like to write one. He said, The trouble with fairy tales is that they’re really only five minutes long. There’s one incident, maybe two, and that’s all there should be. Which is exactly the trouble with all the attempts to expand fairy tales and make them into plays and musicals. So the notion arose of mashing a number of fairy tales together. James held them together by inventing his own, the story of a baker and his wife. Some of the fairy tales got dropped on the road. We had the Three Little Pigs in there, we had Rumpelstiltskin, we had everybody—everybody was in the woods. But eventually we had to cut it down.

INTERVIEWER

There seems to be a philosophical war in that musical between the theories of Bruno Bettelheim and Jung.

SONDHEIM

It’s interesting you say that. Everybody assumes we were influenced by Bruno Bettelheim. But if there’s any outside influence, it’s Jung. James is interested in Jung—Twelve Dreams is based on a case Jung wrote about. In fact, we spoke to a Jungian analyst about fairy tales.

INTERVIEWER

The moral of your fairy tale seems to be beware of wishes, they may come true.

SONDHEIM

It’s about moral responsibility—the responsibility you have in getting your wish not to cheat and step on other people’s toes, because it rebounds. The second act is about the consequences of not only the wishes themselves but of the methods by which the characters achieve their wishes, which are not always proper and moral.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

I’m wondering what your musical influences are. I hear Debussy . . .

SONDHEIM

It’s Ravel more than Debussy. Ravel’s responsible for virtually all popular music, anyway—all those chords really started with him. My period is from Brahms through 1930s Stravinsky. I like music before and I like music after, but that’s where I live. Britten shows up a lot in the stuff I write. Sunday in the Park with George is a Britten score, I think. I’m very fond of English music. As far as American music goes, I was brought up on show tunes from the so-called Golden Era, a phrase I deplore, but there it is. You know, Kern and Gershwin. Those are influences too. So it’s Ravel, Rachmaninoff—another wonderful harmonist—Britten, Stravinsky, Kern, Gershwin, Arlen. A lot of Arlen.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

How long before the opening do you freeze a musical production?

SONDHEIM

Bear in mind that musicals are presentational plays. The whole idea of a musical is out front. Numbers go out front, no matter how intense, they go out front. Therefore the performer has to make a contact with the audience, and as a writer, out front, I have to see that contact before I start to change things. If a scene or a number isn’t working, it may be the performer, it may be the song. And it may be the performer not being used to the song. Or the performer still worrying about a costume change. Remember that in musicals, often there’s a lot of scenery changing, a lot of costume changing. If you’re smart, it takes a number of performances before you change anything in a musical because during the first couple of performances, the performers are lucky if they get away with their lives, if they don’t fall into the pit, if they don’t get run over by some of the moving scenery. At the same time, they’re performing for an audience. And because of that, freezing a show is very useful, in the sense of letting performers play the exact same thing for, let’s say, three or four performances, without our changing any of their staging, without giving them new lines or new songs or new lyrics. Minimal changes so that they can solidify what they’re doing. Then you can look at the play and say, Aha, OK, that scene’s too long. She’s doing that song wrong. Or, That song is wrong for her. Is it my fault? Shall I rewrite or shall I tell her to perform the song differently? As I say, it’s presentational. That’s what makes musicals entirely different from plays. As an actor, you can just play the scene. If you’re a performer and it’s a number, you have to make it land, if that’s what’s required. And to make it land doesn’t mean just to sing loudly. It means everything—from the acting to the voice to the presentation. Also the lights. Remember, when a musical number begins, the lights go down. That doesn’t often happen in a scene. So everything conspires to make the moment false. And your job is to make it true. And at the same time please the audience.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

You mentioned that playwrights today write great characters, they have great ideas, but very few write great stories. I just wondered what you think is a great story.

SONDHEIM

I didn’t use the word great. That’s not one of my favorite words because it implies a value judgment. I said that it’s very hard to write narratives, very hard to write stories. I happen to like strong narratives. I also happen to be a worshipper of Chekhov. His stories are going on inside the people, and the narrative pull is perhaps not very strong. But I also like Lillian Hellman’s plays where the narrative sometimes teeters over into melodrama. The Ibsen school. I’m a big melodrama fan. I’m a big farce fan. I’m a big plot fan. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have one. I mean, A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t have much of a plot. But it sure has a strong story. And by story, I mean something that takes you in a state of tension from scene to scene and moment to moment, as opposed to just inundating you with colors and moods. That’s all. Something that keeps your attention going for two hours and doesn’t let you off the hook. And that could be a comedy. That could be Chekhov. It could be a murder mystery. But it must have something to keep you going. Anyway, inventive narrative is very hard to do, so it isn’t about “great” or even “good,” it’s about whether you can do it at all. I’ll bet if you made a list of, say, twenty plays over the last five years, there might be two that had a real plot. You might have enjoyed some of the others, but I’ll bet it was the acting, I’ll bet it was a scene, a character, Wasn’t that moment wonderful when . . .? as opposed to a substantial two-hour experience.