A Playwright in Song

Stephen Sondheim ponders his accomplishments, his way of working, and the form and future of the American musical

An interview by Rob Weinert-Kendt

Sondheim fêted by the New York Philmarmonic and an all-star cast at his 80th birthday celebration in March 2010 (photo by Richard Termine)

The career of Stephen Sondheim, like that of any path-breaking artist, has been sui generis. He has peers, in the conventional sense—he's a member of the post–Rodgers & Hammerstein generational cohort that includes fellow musical theatremakers John Kander and Freb Ebb, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman. But in another sense—when you consider Sondheim as a musical dramatist, a playwright in song—it's safe to say he has no peer in the annals of American theatre.

It's not simply that no one could have written the musicals he did over five decades, each one as different from the next as is conceivable, but that no one else would have. He has ranged in subject matter from the esoteric to the commonplace, and in form from straightforward narrative to fragmented meta-theatre (well before the term was coined). Indeed, his legacy, despite his much-noted brilliance as a lyricist and his less universally recognized genius as a composer, may turn out to be his questing fearlessness as a theatrical innovator. His true peers, it seems increasingly clear, may be non-musical contemporaries like Albee, Guare, Pinter and Churchill.

In last year's monumental lyric anthology/memoir/musical-theatre handbook, Finishing the Hat (actually, that was only Part 1; Part 2, Look, I Made a Hat, is due out next October), Sondheim is careful to give credit to the playwrights he's worked with, and to the directors and choreographers with whom he forged his signature shows and songs. But the conclusion is inescapable, after digesting not only Finishing the Hat but a mini-flurry of books in recent years about his life and craft (including Steve Swayne's How Sondheim Found His Sound, Meryle Secrest's biography, and Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music), that Sondheim can claim authorship of his musicals—and particularly of their most bravura, extended sequences—to an extent that is unique among Broadway composers. (Less so in opera, where Mozart and Puccini are the names above the title.) This isn't only because he writes both the lyrics and the music, but that both are so tightly tailored to a given show's story, character and style that, in most ways that matter, Sondheim's score is the show.

And this is why his great contribution to the American musical is, paradoxically, not likely to be in the area of music or lyrics. It is instead in the way he's carried forward the form he inherited from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who all but adopted Sondheim when he was a feisty young teen bruised by his parents' ugly divorce. If Sondheim found Hammerstein's lessons on integrating song and story invaluably instructive, he took something more important from this surrogate father: an abhorrence of rules and a restless interest in expanding the form. The young Sondheim may have cried so hard at Carousel that he ruined Dorothy Hammerstein's fur stole, but the show that haunted him was the 1947 flop Allegro, in which Hammerstein tried to use minimalist means (and a singing Greek chorus) to tell the story of an ordinary man alienated by modern life. Sondheim has said, half-seriously, that he has spent his career trying to fix Allegro.

Of course, there's much more to Sondheim's art than a single epiphany or influence. In a recent interview at his New York townhouse, the 81-year-old playwright-in-song talked about the French New Wave, hip-hop, what a musical book requires—and about the show that may be his most autobiographical (a revelation that may surprise you).

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I want to start with the notion of you as "a playwright who writes songs," which you mention in both Finishing the Hat and in Mark Horowitz's book. Do you think that when Hammerstein assigned you to write four musicals—three adaptations, one original—he was trying to turn you into a playwright?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Well, that's what he did, and that's how he thought of lyrics—as a playwright. Then Burt Shevelove [co–book writer on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum] pointed out to me that there are other ways to write lyrics—the way Cole Porter did, or Irving Berlin did, the way many people did. You know, sometimes lyrics would tell little stories, but quite often they just played with an idea. And that's something, unfortunately, as I say in the book, that Hammerstein sort of spoiled for the rest of us. After the success of Oklahoma!, nobody wanted to just come onstage and sing a song like "Let's Do It," and that whole kind of songwriting went out the window in the theatre.

But you know, you can't be rigid about these things. There are things that Hammerstein wrote in Oklahoma!—"I Cain't Say No" doesn't go anywhere; it states its point in the first quatrain, and then Ado Annie just does variations of that. So Hammerstein didn't entirely forswear that form. But you'd be hard put to stop a show with a real narrative to sing a delightful song—in something like Sweeney Todd, the audience would get impatient if "Adelaide's Lament" [from Guys and Dolls] were in there. The preponderance of songwriting for the stage after the Oklahoma! revolution tended to move the plot forward, tended to tell stories, and that's because there were plots. The plots in the old Rodgers & Hart shows are not plots; they're situations.

But a good number of your shows have also avoided traditional plotting—Company, Assassins, Follies.

Well, that's just breaking the form—I wanted to experiment, and say, Hey, wait a minute, this is one way, maybe this is another way. That's the fun.

Was Rodgers & Hammerstein's failed Allegro what gave you the taste for experimentation?

I'm not sure it's that specific. The first overtly experimental show that I wrote was Anyone Can Whistle, which you could say is in the tradition of Of Thee I Sing, only for its own time. It certainly told a story in a conventional way, but its tone—or its attempt to mix tones—I think that was in its way experimental. One could say that West Side Story is experimental in the sense that it uses dance in a different way, but is essentially conventional.

"Experimental" is one of those words that's tossed around a lot. Company is overtly experimental, in that it's an attempt to blend the revue and the book forms, although you could say that Weill and Lerner's Love Life had that in it, too. The whole point about experimental shows—and I tried to make the point in the book; maybe I didn't make it clear enough—is that they are only important if they are successful in some way and influence what goes on after. If they're failures, nobody picks up on them, because nobody gets a chance to see them. If Love Life or Allegro had been smash hits, the musical theatre might very well have accelerated in terms of experimentation.

As great as your music and lyrics are, I think your greatest influence has been in opening up the dramatic language of musicals—the idea that all bets are off, and you can do or say anything with a musical.

Yeah—that you can deal with any subject matter, and you can screw around with the form, and an audience may still be able to accept it. Again, a lot of it has to do with the history of the culture. I keep referring to the nouvelle vague [the New Wave cinema of the 1950s and '60s], which is just as important in the development of musicals as anything else. Because the nouvelle vague influenced American playwriting—you've got a whole generation of American playwrights, John Guare and Edward Albee, people like that, who started screwing around with the form—so naturally it echoes, and the musical theatre catches up a little later, because it's popular theatre. I remember that Hal Prince said he wanted to do a show like the movie 8 1/2—this was long before the show Nine—in other words, take the same kind of liberties with storytelling that the movie took.

It often seems that every musical has to create its own rules of a world where people sing, and I feel like it's an increasing problem—that there was some mythical time before now when audiences accepted the convention of people singing and dancing, but now every show has to make the case anew.

That's interesting; I suppose that's true. God knows, Rodgers & Hammerstein created their own world when you came into the theatre. It was all about the opening number setting up the ground rules. What you say is probably true of almost everything since 1943—that every musical is up to bat for the first time. But I don't know that it's increasingly true—I don't know that it's getting any stickier. It may be getting stickier to make something fresh, but freshness doesn't sell, anyway, or doesn't often sell.

Your musicals coincide with the rock era, but that's not something you've ever had any affinity for.

Rock didn't come in until I was in my mid-twenties, so I'm a generation out of it, which is why I don't write it and why it has no meaning to me. What means something is the music of one's childhood, what you're brought up on, and my musical tastes are back in the '40s and '50s.

So you didn't share Leonard Bernstein's enthusiasm for pop and rock, even though he was older than you?

Oh, I don't think his enthusiasm was for pop and rock. I think that was an attitude. He was, as Burt Shevelove once said of someone else, "Rip Van Withit." When I hear his attempts at rock in Mass, I find it actively embarrassing, because it doesn't come from his gut. You know, I could imitate rock, I could write a rock score, just the way I wrote Americana for Assassins. I could imitate a Carpenters song, and did. Anybody can imitate. Jule Styne tried to write a rock song in Hallelujah, Baby!, and you could tell it was inauthentic. It has to come from the gut. The rock scores that are written today, good or bad, they come from people for whom that's their music—the music that expresses what they feel.

For the generations after you, who grew up loving musicals and loving rock, trying to put them together still seems to be an issue. I'm just not sure that rock is dramatic.

I couldn't agree with you more. It's very unpopular to say, but I don't think that rock lends itself to theatre, to storytelling. It lends itself to concerts, and that's what a lot of musicals are today: concerts. The range of expressivity is very limited, so you're limited to certain kinds of emotions and songs.

And certain kinds of stories: Tommy, which is about pop culture iconography, somehow works.

Sure, and Next to Normal is an attempt to tell what would have been told in a different way a generation or two generations earlier, and to tell it with rock. It's a question of whether for some people it has that expressive range. Generally, I think rock is limited. First of all, how about comedy songs? Give me a rock comedy song.

Not many, but David Yazbek can be pretty funny.

Is it rock, though? I think it's closer to pop. And pop can do it; rock can't. I shouldn't say "can't," it's a generalization. But it's rare, 'cause it's hard.

Along those lines, you open Finishing the Hat with a spirited defense of perfect rhyme and prosody. But since you broke so many other rules of the form, why insist on such rigid rules about lyric writing? In the same way that audiences have learned to read narrative in much more complex ways, don't you think they're prepared to follow lyrics that don't necessarily have that neat click of rhyme to them?

They can follow them, but what kind of pleasure are they getting from them? I constantly go back to the joke-telling thing: If it doesn't rhyme well, the joke isn't going to be very funny. I think that's still true.

In the book, you call that "pattern recognition," and that's certainly important for comedy songs—setting up expectations and playing on them. But, for instance, hip-hop uses a kind of pattern recognition to subvert it, to use unexpected and "wrong" rhymes and mis-accented phrases in interesting ways.

That's right, and I think Lin-Manuel Miranda [In the Heights] knows how to write funny in that form. It's about attitude.

And there's verbal pleasure in the imperfect or strained rhymes of hip-hop; it's playing with the language.

Absolutely right, I couldn't agree more. Again, I don't know its range of expressivity—that's the problem in the theatre. But within any given song, absolutely—it's playing with the language, taking delight in the language.

Incidentally, when you were writing the witch's rap in Into the Woods, did you listen to some rap to imitate it?

I listened to a little and just thought, I'll do a bit of imitation, because the audience will think it's funny.

Switching gears: Do you need a great playwright to write a good musical?

Watch out with the word "great." A good playwright, yes. You need somebody who knows how to write concisely, and knows how to tell a story—and also, with any luck, has a gift for dialogue and character. I mean, you need exactly what a playwright needs. Any good playwright could write the book of a musical if he has any sense of how music can operate to help the play.

Apart from the book writers, would it be fair to say that your directors and choreographers—Hal Prince, Jerry Robbins, Michael Bennett—were equal collaborators in creating these shows?

Only to an extent. I'm a firm believer that the writer is where it comes from, and the director is an interpreter. Now, the director can sometimes certainly edit—say, "This is going on too long"—and sometimes make suggestions, but not very often. The suggestions that directors make are, in my experience, not very useful. They're good in terms of sort of reining you in, and making you look at your work. The best thing about Hal is his enthusiasm—a combination of enthusiasm and patience which becomes a form of energy, so that you feel encouraged to write all the time, and so that when he does have a criticism or a caveat, you take it much better, because it comes from the same well of enthusiasm. It's not sitting back. Whereas with Jerry Robbins, there was something hostile about his objections; it's like you had done him an injury. But most directors are simply not very good storytellers. The writers are.

And then there's James Lapine [Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion]...

He's the exception. He's the only guy, as I say in the book, who can write and direct with equal skill—in the theatre, anyway.

After Merrily We Roll Along flopped on Broadway, you worked for the first time Off Broadway, and a good number of recent revivals of your work, even the ones that do make it to Broadway, have originated in small spaces—in London or in regional theatres—so that audiences seem to be rediscovering your work in a newly intimate way. That's actually how I first saw most of your musicals, in small theatres in Los Angeles, including East West Players. Do you think your work thrives in small spaces in a way we may miss in a larger space?

I think it's about character. A lot of the shows I've been connected with have been very character-driven. The characters created by the book writers I've worked with have all kinds of subtleties, and they come across better, I think, when the camera is close in on them. It's not so much necessarily that they suffer on a larger scale; they are larger than life, but they are filled with subtleties. They are closer to characters in straight plays than other musicals. And if they're rich characters, then they're very good close up.

You see, there are playwrights who condescend, and they don't even know it—they condescend when they write a book for a musical. They start flattening out the characters because they don't have the space that they have when they're writing a straight play. That is not something that Lapine and [John] Weidman and [George] Furth do—they know how to "smallen" their compass. I was impressed with Angela Lansbury when we were taping Sweeney Todd—she was the one in the cast who really knew how to gauge her performance for the camera. It was still that big, blowzy Mrs. Lovett, but she had somehow "smallened" it for the camera. It still was a musical comedy character. That's what Lapine can do; he understands that. It's something Weidman also understands. It's something Arthur [Laurents] does. I said to him once about the characters in Gypsy, "This is a good play, it doesn't need songs." And he said, "Oh, yes, it does. If I were writing this as a straight play, it would be a whole lot different; I'm painting them in broad colors." Well, they're broad, but they are filled with richness, those characters.

Another unique contribution of yours is the big musical scenes you've written. I don't know any form of music-theatre until you came along in which—as in the "City on Fire/Kiss Me/Johanna" sequence in Sweeney—that much content is coming at us, except in opera. But in opera it's not as dramatic. The composer is going crazy, but the librettist has usually stopped.

Right, it's static; it's the Lucia di Lammermoor sextet.

The phrase I came up with for what you've done is "opera at the speed of theatre." You're using operatic techniques but you're actually giving us information at the speed a play might.

That hadn't occurred to me. I'm sort of glad to hear that. Maybe you're right. It's what Lenny used to call (laughing) a musical "scena"—every now and then he would drop words like that into the conversation. I suppose there's the quintet in West Side Story, which is actually a quartet.

Maybe you took a little bit from there.

Nah, I always thought that way. I'll tell you what it is about the point you bring up: A "number" that does what you say reaches applause. Certainly, if you look at Wozzeck or at a lot of Puccini, when you take in the recitative, then scenes are musicalized—but they don't reach a hand. They're not "numbers." And what I write are numbers. "God That's Good!" from Sweeney is a number; "Chrysanthemum Tea" from Pacific Overtures is a number. And I just love doing it, as you know. It's really fun to try to make a 10-minute scene a number, not just a 10-minute musical scene.

Indeed, in the book you say that writing those makes you feel like a playwright.

Right, it's plotting—it's my murder-mystery genes coming out.

You've also said that you approach playwriting-in-song from an actor's point of view. Is that always your main way into the material?

Yeah, getting to know the character the playwright's created, and then becoming the character. I'm sure that's what every songwriter who writes my kind of stuff does. I mean, you have to be an actor—how else do you get inside a character? You act the character, even if you're just doing it in your living room, even if it's just in your head. Somebody sets up the pattern of the way the character talks, then there's a situation: "Okay, this is who she is, now her house has caught fire." You become that character, and what do you do when a house catches fire?

What interests me is, how do you get from inhabiting that character to writing her music? How do you get from behavior to song?

It's just that's the way I think. I don't really think like a playwright; I really think like a playwright who writes songs. A lot of it has to do with sitting with the book writer and getting the idea of how a scene could be all musicalized, so that by the time I get to writing it, it's already been plotted to some extent. I don't even remember how "Chrysanthemum Tea" came into being, but we decided we needed a scene that told what happened after the warships sat in the harbor waiting for a reply. There's no scene to be written there; in the movies, it would be a montage; and, in fact, what you're talking about in all these cases is montages, the way you'd do it in a movie. That's exactly what "God That's Good!" is, and "Chrysanthemum Tea" and "A Weekend in the Country" [from A Little Night Music]. These contain scenes that take place over a period of time and occur in different places.

Since you bring up film technique—and you've talked about how the first thing you come up with in a song is the accompaniment, not the vocal melody—I wonder if what you're doing is essentially imagining these scenes like they're in a movie, and then you start scoring it. Is that a way to think about it?

I think that's it. Until this conversation, it hadn't occurred to me. I'm not so much thinking like a playwright, but like somebody writing or directing a movie. That's exactly right. It's because I was brought up on movies.

In the book you say you don't mind unsympathetic characters because you trust the author...

...to tell me why they're worth studying.

That's an argument you may never have resolved with Hammerstein, because he reportedly didn't like the characters in your first original musical, Climb High.

My God, you're right. I never put the two things together. His daughter Alice said she thinks he would have hated Sweeney Todd. I said I don't think so.

He might not have loved it, but I think he would have admired it.

Billy Bigelow in Carousel was the first character in a musical like that—after Pal Joey, but that's not a serious book, it's a series of jokes, and people criticized it because it was the first vaguely successful musical with a really unpleasant central character. Oscar was doing the same thing with Billy Bigelow, but he was—I won't say filling him out, but giving him some sympathy. You're not supposed to care about anybody in Pal Joey, that's not what John O'Hara was interested in, but in Carousel, you are supposed to care.

One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should.

It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.

Coming out of the theatre in London a few years back, I heard someone saying, "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim."

(Laughs.) Well, that describes exactly the British attitude.

Are you hopeful about the theatre?

If you're talking about the musical theatre, I don't think in terms of hopeful or not hopeful. I wish there were more variety. I mean, musicals are really falling into two or three categories these days: There are jukebox musicals; so-called meta-musicals—i.e., musicals that make references to the fact that they're musicals, or what a friend of mine refers to as "musicals that eat their young"; and musicals that take musicals seriously. That doesn't mean solemn musicals, just musicals that don't scavenge, like jukebox musicals, or hide behind anything, like the meta-musicals. It's hard to go to a musical these days and not have seen it before. That was not true 30 years ago, because there were so many places to explore. But as the economic situation gets worse, and producers are less willing to try new things, it's shrinking. In that sense, it's not a hopeful sign.

But I know there's a lot of new work out there; it's just not getting heard very widely. Some of it I see through chairing the committee of the Richard Rodgers Production Award—stuff comes in that really is thinking in new ways. There are writers with ideas, fresh ways to look at things, or even in a conventional form interesting things to say. So I know the work is out there.

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