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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 StoryGypsy, 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 CompanyFolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney ToddInto 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.