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Composer Stephen Sondheim’s Life, Times and Rhymes

December 8, 2010 at 6:04 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim about his life, career and the art of writing music, lyrics and rhymes that stand the test of time.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a master class from a musical master.

Jeffrey Brown talks with Stephen Sondheim.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: From the opening lines of “West Side Story,” Stephen Sondheim has been rhyming his way into theater history. Today, he’s widely seen as the most important writer of musicals in the last half-century. Among his many renowned and often revived works, where he served as both lyricist and composer, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Company.”

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: “A Little Night Music.”

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: And the dark tale often considered his masterpiece: “Sweeney Todd.”

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, at age 80, he’s looked back at his words and works in a book called “Finishing the Hat,” which also promises “Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.”

That’s all there, but what this really is, as we discussed during a recent visit to the Music Center at Strathmore in Maryland, is a tutorial on the craft of lyric writing.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM, composer: Lyrics go with music. And music is the richest of the arts because it’s the most abstract. And it is so filled with emotion. If the lyric is too packed, then the ear, the audience’s ear, can’t take everything in. It’s like an over-egged cake. It just is too rich.

On the other hand, if the lyric is too sparse, it’s dull. So, it’s always a juggling act to get — have the lyric just rich enough and just full of ideas enough and just full of surprises enough and just full of images enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sondheim grew up in New York and had the great fortune of being taken under the wing of family friend Oscar Hammerstein, he of “Oklahoma” and other shows written with Richard Rodgers that revolutionized musical theater.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: He taught me to examine with laser-like focus on every word in a lyric and what the thoughts are, and what are you doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: Every single word?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Every single word, because there’s so many — so few words in a lyric. It’s you — I have often said, if you think of a lyric as a little one-act play, then each line is a scene. And a quatrain becomes an entire act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Each line is a scene.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Each line is a scene. And you have got seven words in a line. So, we have got somewhere — so let’s say each word is a speech.

Well, if you’re writing a play, and something’s wrong with a speech, you cut or change the speech, the same way you have got to do it word by word. It is as focused as that.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: And the greatest focus is on words that rhyme.

Sondheim writes lying down, better for a quick nap when things aren’t going well, he says. He uses an old rhyming dictionary and a 1946 edition of “Roget’s Thesaurus.”

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A rhyme draws the ear’s attention to the word. So, you don’t make the least important word in the line the rhyme word. So, you have to — and also a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger. If you tell a joke in rhyme, it’s twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, as if it was just a speech, the same words, but the rhyme goes:

(CLAPS HANDS)

It does that to it.

And that is the use — one of the uses of rhyme, is not only to focus the attention on the word, but to strengthen what you’re saying. Now, sometimes, you avoid a rhyme, because things — you don’t want to draw the ear’s attention to…

JEFFREY BROWN: Because the ears expect it.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Exactly right, so you want to fool them, because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, from something happening between the ear and the brain.

For example, he believes words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I think we see words on — as if they’re on paper, sometimes when you hear them. I don’t mean it’s an absolutely conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially see what they’re hearing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, I’m hearing rougher and suffer rhyme, but I’m…

And then I quickly think…

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: And you think…

And that’s a surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I have got a rhyme in “Passion,” colonel and journal. Now, you look at them on paper, they seem to ha

ve no relation to each other at all. So, when you rhyme them, it’s, ooh, you know? It’s — it — I really may be wrong about this. It’s just something that has struck me over the years.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: But, sometimes, the lyricist can try too hard and end up fooling himself.

One of the delights of his book is when Sondheim pokes fun at his own work, most memorably when he collaborated with composer Leonard Bernstein as a song known and loved by millions.

ACTRESS (singing): I feel charming, oh, so charming. It’s alarming how charming I feel, and so pretty, that I hardly can believe I’m real.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: It’s just — it’s far too sophisticated a kind of phrase for a Puerto Rican girl to say. It just — it sounds like there’s a writer in the room.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say the lyricist wants to show off his rhyming skills…

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Yes, right. Well…

JEFFREY BROWN: … meaning yourself.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: So, all — all — most of the rhymes in “West Side Story” are very simple rhymes, go and so, and may and day, and things like that.

And it was my first Broadway show, and I wanted to show that I could rhyme skillfully. So…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but people love it.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Yes. Well, they love it, but they shouldn’t.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: We love it, but we shouldn’t?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: What I mean is, you would love it more if it was more true to the character. That’s all. I mean, who uses a phrase like that, “Oh, how alarming to see you”? I mean, no — that’s a — it’s a literary word. It’s a literary word. But…

JEFFREY BROWN: But don’t we go to the theater to get a little bit extra?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Sure, of course, but you have got to be true to the character.

No, I think what you go to the theater for these musicals, the kind I like, is to be lost in the story and to be lost in the characters.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Finishing the Hat” takes Sondheim through “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981. The second volume, still to come, will bring the story up to date.

But what of that story and what of the enormous changes on Broadway and musical theater? Sondheim fears that the economics of Broadway have forced producers to go for the big spectacle and away from smaller and more challenging works like his.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: I can understand that — that safety play on the part of producers, but it’s terrible, because young writers aren’t getting a chance.

And the major thing is you cannot write shows just on paper. You learn to write by writing in front of an audience. That’s the difference between writing for the theater and writing books or painting paintings. You learn by doing, and you can only do it that way.

Nobody writes a sensational show the first time out. They just don’t, because they have to learn the craft. And the craft is not just the craft of writing. It’s the craft of doing. It’s the craft of putting it on. It’s the craft of the combination of the orchestra and the singers and the final collaborator, the audience, because the audience is the final collaborator on every show. And until you work with that collaborator, you haven’t written a show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Sondheim, writer of many Broadway shows, has spent much of this year being feted as he celebrates his 80th year. He told us that, once that’s out of the way, he will get back to his writing couch and piano and work at writing some more.