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If you like Stephen Sondheim's story, you might also like:
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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
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Stephen Sondheim Interview (page: 2 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

What books did you like to read as a kid?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: The Oz books. I was never much of a reader. So much so, that when I got to college, I took every novel course I could get my hands on, to get into the habit of reading. To this day, I'm just not a reader. I'm a slow reader, which is unusual, because I'm so into language and I love words so much. But it's hard for me to read.

What kind of student were you?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh, I was precocious. I skipped a couple of grades, so I was usually the youngest and I usually had the best grades. I found school a cinch. You know, there's a knack to school. Also, I loved learning.

Did you ever think about writing books?

Stephen Sondheim: I'm not a prose writer the way I'm not a prose reader. That's the problem..


Stephen Sondheim: No. Not particularly. I fell into lyric writing because of music, and because of Oscar. I backed into it.

You were writing musical numbers even at the George School, weren't you?

Stephen Sondheim: That was the prep school. I was writing songs there, but by that time I had already met Oscar Hammerstein.

My parents got divorced when I was ten, and I went to live in Pennsylvania with my mother, who got custody of me, and she cultivated the Hammersteins, and they had a son my age, and so by the time I went to George School, when I was 13, I was already interested in imitating Oscar.

Is it true you said that if Oscar Hammerstein had been something other than a songwriter...

Stephen Sondheim: A geologist? I would have been a geologist. He was a surrogate father. I liked my father a lot, he was a swell fellow, but I didn't see him very often because my mother was bitter about him and did everything she could to prevent me from seeing him. He remarried, and I used to have to sneak off to see them. I didn't know it, but my mother was lying to me about how often I could see him. It was very unpleasant. So Oscar was a surrogate father during all those many days, and weeks and months when I didn't see my own father.

Have you ever thought about what amazing propinquity it is that you happened to move next to Hammerstein?

Stephen Sondheim: It's not so amazing when you think of my mother, who wanted me off her hands. She was a working woman. She designed clothes, and she was a celebrity collector, and they had a son my age. So there are a series of circumstances that come together. It's not so much luck. It's my mother's ambition to be a celebrity.

Didn't they call her "Foxy?"

Stephen Sondheim: Her maiden name was Janet Fox. She was a very talented dress designer, and my father was a dress manufacturer, and I have a feeling the marriage was one of convenience. I think she was in love with him, but I don't think he felt about her the way she did about him.

Was that clear to you as a kid?

Stephen Sondheim: No, and it's all speculation. She was a difficult woman, and I don't think he was very happy being married to her.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

That's quite an assignment for a 15-year-old.

Stephen Sondheim: Well, it went on for six years, but nevertheless.

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This page last revised on Apr 28, 2008 09:43 EST
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