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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: 3 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

What do you think you learned from Oscar Hammerstein?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh goodness, virtually everything. Structure. People underestimate what he did in the way of musical theater. He was primarily an experimental writer, and what he was doing was marrying the traditions of opera and American musical comedy, using songs to tell a story that was worth telling. The first real instance of that is Show Boat, which is a watershed show in the history of musical theater, and Oklahoma!, which is innovative in different ways. But it's only one way of writing songs. He believed in dramatic song writing.

So what I learned from him was how to tell a story and so on, which is not what Cole Porter was doing, or Rodgers and Hart. There are other ways to write songs, and other uses of them. Now, because of the success of Oklahoma!, and subsequent shows, most musical theater now tells stories through songs. But that was not true prior to 1943, the year of Oklahoma! So he was teaching me that. But he also taught me how to structure a song. He taught me the use of a rhyme, and oh, everything. And about character. Inconsistencies. What is effective on the stage? Concision. All kinds of things. He was technically very, very good. His writing today, particularly, seems somewhat naive, but not if you look at it technically, and certainly not from the use of the imagination. His imagination, his creative imagination was far more sophisticated than the work itself, and has affected the theater permanently.

In another interview, you used the example of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," that it sounds kind of silly if you just read the words.

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: Yeah. His kind of lyric writing was very understated. His lyrics don't read very well. They sing, when they're good, they sing great. Whereas, if you read Cole Porter's, they're very entertaining. "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," when you put it on paper looks vapid, but it's not when it's sung. That's another thing he understood, which is how rich music is, and lyrics have to be underwritten. That's why poets generally make poor lyric writers. Not always, but generally they do, because the language is too rich. It's like what they call in England "over-egging the cake." It's over-enriching something, so that you get drowned in it. I firmly believe that lyrics have to breathe and give the audience's ear a chance to understand what's going on. Particularly in the theater, where you not only have the music, but you've got costume, story, acting, orchestra. There's a lot to take in. The whole idea of poetry is denseness, is concision, is abutment of images, and that sort of thing. You can't do that when you've got music going, and expect the audience to take it in.

Wasn't there also something distinctive in Hammerstein's approach to natural speech in a song?

Stephen Sondheim: Yes. I've never been a fan of Lorenz Hart's lyrics, Rodgers and Hart, because I find them lazy and forced. You know, there are people who care about the musical theater, who will argue, some of them, that Rodgers and Hart were much better than Rodgers and Hammerstein. That Rodgers and Hammerstein were simplistic, and Hart and Rodgers were so sophisticated. Oscar, on the other hand, used to defend Lorenz Hart to me. He said Hart was one of the very first to try to make natural speech a part of lyric writing. The sound of conversation. And he's right. He's not exactly a pioneer but he was certainly one of the first.

Didn't you do some work backstage on some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows?

Stephen Sondheim: On Allegro I did.

When I was 17, it was their third show. They'd written Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Oscar asked me if I'd like to work on it, because they were rehearsing over the summer, which was between college terms for me. So that's exactly what I did. I was a gopher. You know, fetched coffee and typed script. And he just wanted me to inculcate myself. And I learned a great deal watching because, particularly, the show was highly experimental and it was a failure. And both those things were very important to me, because one of the things I learned was to be brave, and the other thing, not to expect that everything's going to come out perfectly.

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Also, the show was very much hurt by the director, Agnes de Mille, and I learned something about that. Gotta watch out for directors.

Could you tell us about the first show you wrote for Broadway, Saturday Night?

Stephen Sondheim: By the time I'd done the four musicals that Oscar had sort of urged me to do, I was really, at the age of 22, a professional. A young and flawed professional, but not an amateur. And there was a play called Front Porch in Flatbush that had never been produced, was going to be produced by a man named Lemuel Ayers, who had had a huge success recently producing and designing Kiss Me, Kate. And a couple of other things, but that was his big hit. So he wanted to produce this as a musical. It takes place in Brooklyn in 1928, this play, and it was written by two brothers who were primarily screenwriters, Philip and Julius Epstein. They'd written about their childhood and about their own brother, a third brother, who was something of a scapegrace. Lem had approached, I think, Frank Loesser, and somebody else, and they'd turned him down. And I happened to meet Lem, we were ushers at a wedding together, and he asked to hear some songs, and so I played him some songs I'd written, and he commissioned me to try three songs for this thing, which was to be retitled. Julie Epstein came in from California and I got the job. I came out to California and worked with Julie out here for five months, staying at Lem's house. Lem was designing a movie. Then we went back East and we did eight backers' auditions and we raised about half the money. And then Lem died. Unbeknownst to me, and to most people around him, he had leukemia. He died at an early age, early 40's, and the rights passed to his widow, Shirley, and she wanted to go on with it but she had no experience and she couldn't do it. So the show never came to fruition. But it was a professional score, and now I had a real portfolio to play. So that's the importance about that show, to me.

What were the circumstances of your meeting Arthur Laurents?

Stephen Sondheim: My first paying job was here in California, as an assistant writer to a man named George Oppenheimer on a TV series called Topper. We alternated writing scripts. George had a friend named Martin Gabel, who was an actor and a producer in New York. Martin Gabel and a guy named Henry Margolis were going to produce a musical of the James Cain novel, Serenade. It was originally to have been written by Bernstein and directed by Jerry Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents. Bernstein and Robbins had dropped out. They were looking for a composer, so George brought me up to Marty's house and I played some of the songs from Saturday Night. Arthur Laurents was to be the book writer, so he heard the songs. Then, shortly afterwards, Warner Brothers announced their plans to do Serenade. They had the rights. Warner Brothers came out with the movie, so the project was dropped. But Arthur had heard my stuff. Then, many months later...

I was at an opening night party that Burt Shevelove had invited me to. That's the man who wrote Forum, and was a good friend. He had been to the opening. I didn't go, but he said if you'd like to go to the opening night party afterwards, show up at such and such an apartment. And so I did, and I got there before Burt, so I didn't know anybody, except suddenly there was this familiar face, it was Arthur Laurents, and we chatted just to make small talk. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was about to start on a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. I said, "Who's writing the score?" He said, "Leonard Bernstein and, I think, Betty and Adolph," meaning Comden and Green, "Except they're not sure they can get out of a Hollywood contract. We'll know in a week." And he said, "You know, I never thought of you. If they don't do it, would you like to audition for Bernstein? 'Cause I loved your lyrics," he said. "I didn't like your music very much," he said -- Saturday Night -- "But I loved your lyrics," he said. And I said sure, and I didn't really want to write just lyrics, but I wanted to meet Leonard Bernstein. And so I met him the next day and I played for him, and he said, "I'll call you in a week and let you know about Comden and Green." First of all, I assumed that Comden and Green would be able, easily, to get out of their contract, and secondly, I didn't want to write just lyrics, because music was always the first reason I was writing songs. And sure enough, the phone rang, and I said, "Oh, well, let me get back to you," and I went to Oscar and said, "You know, I really want to write music but..." He said, "Take the job." He said, "First of all, these are really experienced and talented men, Bernstein and Robbins and Laurents, and you'll learn a lot, and so you write music later." And that's exactly what I did, and his advice was very good.

The credits for West Side Story say "Conceived by Jerome Robbins." What was Robbins's role in the genesis of that show?

Stephen Sondheim: It depends on what account you read. The point is that he wanted to do Romeo and Juliet. I think he was coaching Montgomery Clift in a scene or something, and he got the idea of doing Romeo and Juliet, and to do it between Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side, and he enlisted Arthur and Lenny. Arthur felt -- this is Arthur's account anyway -- that it would just be Abie's Irish Rose set to music. And so then they were all out here in California, sitting around the Beverly Hills pool, and they picked up a newspaper and there was a headline about gang warfare in New York and Puerto Rican street gangs. And the figurative light went on, or something like that. I don't know what the gap of years was between that and when they started to write it.

In the biography of you by Meryle Secrest that recently came out, it says that you originally agreed to be a co-lyricist on West Side Story.

Stephen Sondheim: Yes. Lenny wanted to write lyrics too, and he was afraid of taking a chance on an unknown. So we worked together, but by the time we opened in Washington all the lyrics were mine, with some one or two-line exceptions. And so he very generously took his name off the lyric writer list.

Is it true that he offered you a little more percentage?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh yeah.

There was four percent of the gross for lyrics and music. In those days, it was six percent for book, music and lyrics: two, two and two. In point of fact, because Bernstein and Laurents and Robbins had such clout, it was a slightly larger percentage. For the music and lyrics, it was four percent. Lenny was to get three, I was to get one, and Lenny said, "We'll even out, because you deserve..." buh-buh-ba, and I foolishly said, "Oh, don't be silly. All I care about is the credit." Somebody should have stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth, because it would have been nice to get that extra percent.

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