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If you like Stephen Sondheim's story, you might also like:
Carol Burnett,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Quincy Jones,
Johnny Mathis,
Audra McDonald,
Trevor Nunn,
Harold Prince,
Lloyd Richards,
Bernie Taupin,
Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
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Stephen Sondheim Interview (page: 4 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

What was Leonard Bernstein like to work with?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: Fun. A lot of fun. We had numerous shared tastes, particularly British crossword puzzles -- which in fact I introduced him to -- and anagrams. We played cut-throat anagrams, which is the way we'd get off any kind of hidden hostility. There was never any overt hostility at all. And he liked working with somebody who knew music, who was a musician. He had never written with somebody who was a musician before. And so the main difference was he liked to work together in a room and I liked to work separately. So we compromised. We'd separate for two days and then we'd get together on the third day. We talked on the phone a lot. It could not have been a better and more stimulating and good collaboration. A great time.

He was already conducting at this time?

Stephen Sondheim: He was conducting, but he was to take over the Philharmonic in the fall of '57, and we had intended to go into rehearsal in July, so there would be no problem, no conflict. But...

The producer, Cheryl Crawford, dropped out at the last minute. She'd been the putative producer for over a year. But she suddenly got cold feet. And so there we were, knowing that we had to get the show on by September because Lenny was unavailable starting in September. I had urged them to give the show earlier to Hal Prince and his partner, Bobby Griffith, but though they had done two successful shows, Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, Lenny and Jerry and Arthur didn't feel that they were experienced enough. So they preferred Cheryl. When Cheryl dropped out, I called Hal myself, who was out of town with a show called New Girl In Town, which was not going well, and so he was more than anxious to start a new project. However, I had played him the score before and he did not like the show, West Side. But because of that moment, catching him -- vulnerable -- in the last couple of weeks in Boston, and knowing that the minute the show opened in New York he would have something else to work on, it softened him up.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And so he and Bobby also brought in another producer, Roger Stevens.

Tell us about the opening night of West Side Story. Was it an instant hit?

Stephen Sondheim: No. No.

The audience sat there in dead silence for the first half hour, because the reviews from out of town had made it sound like some kind of masterpiece. And so the audience was awestruck when they came in, instead of remembering that they were at a musical. And so there was virtually no response. They just sat there as at a temple. And then "America" came on, and Chita Rivera lifted her skirts and danced all over the stage, and the audience suddenly were reminded they were at a musical, and from then on they had a very good time.

Generations have grown up knowing and loving your lyrics for that show, but you've said that you don't care for them. Would you want to rewrite them?

Stephen Sondheim: No. I don't want to rewrite them. They're just not very good. That's a difference. They're very self-conscious lyrics. You can smell the writer, instead of the characters. They're obviously coming from the writer. Now the whole play -- the book, which I think is brilliant because of how much it accomplishes in such a brief time -- is also arch. Very stylized language. So I was justified. But as I said before about lyrics, music blows lyrics up very quickly, and suddenly they become more than art. They become pompous and they become self-conscious. I like "Something's Coming," and I like "The Jet Song," and a couple of other moments, but that's about it.

There's a moment you've described in the genesis of West Side Story when Robbins wanted you to tell him what Tony was supposed to be doing. What was that about?

Stephen Sondheim: Lenny was away. We'd finished the song, "Maria," and I went up to play it for Jerry, and Jerry said, after he heard it, he said, "Yeah, that's all fine, but what's he doing?" I said, "What do you mean what's he doing?" He said, "What's the character doing?" I said, "He's singing a song. You know, he's standing there like you do in musicals, and you sing a song." He said, "Well, how would you like to stage it?" he said, 'cause he was always quite hostile. And I said "What do you mean?" He said, "Tell me, stage it." And I realized what he was saying is that there should be some kind of stage action built into a song. That you should, as a songwriter, choreograph it yourself, in some way, even if it's just a so-called static love song. And it was a very important lesson. I've always done that, which is why directors like working with me. Because I always give them a blueprint, which they can either ignore, or which they can use as a springboard. But there's always a blueprint. I never say, "Well, here's the number." I will say, "Here, he's sitting on a chair, he gets up, he pours himself a cup a coffee, he sings the first..." whatever it is. And often, particularly when I worked with Hal Prince, I would get the dimensions of the set, so I would know how long it took a character to get from X to Y, and write accordingly. So the director isn't suddenly stuck with saying, "I need eight more bars."

We'd love to hear about some of the music that has inspired you. You've mentioned Ravel.

Stephen Sondheim: I did my junior thesis in college on the Ravel left-hand piano concerto. I've always been a fan of his. And I did my senior thesis on the Copland "Music For The Theater." I've always been a fan of his. My music probably has less evidence of Copland than it does of Ravel. There are certain composers whose music I love, like Stravinsky, Britten, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and they show up all the time in my stuff.

Did Bernstein's music have any influence?

Stephen Sondheim: No. Although I have to qualify that. Though he was, by jazz standards, a very square composer, he was, by musical theater standards, a not square composer, and he taught me to be less square. I tend to be square.

Was it that military school training?.

Stephen Sondheim: No, I think it's lack of imagination.

You wrote lyrics for Do I Hear A Waltz? to the music of Richard Rodgers. You had already written a lot of your own music by then, but he was Hammerstein's old partner. Was it an interesting experience working with him?

Stephen Sondheim: No, it wasn't very interesting.

He (Richard Rodgers) was sort of at the end of his creative career. It was very difficult working with him because he was afraid to rewrite. He was afraid that he'd reached the bottom of the well. I'm one of those believers that writing is a matter of rewriting, and he would resist any change in a song, because he was afraid that if he tried to rewrite something he'd come up empty. He also was a very paranoid man, so that was another problem. Because Arthur and I were great friends, we collaborated a lot -- Arthur Laurents -- and it was based on a play of Arthur's. Rodgers was the producer, so he had the whip hand. So it became this kind of feud. It only surfaced, as such, a few times, but it was always there. When I first started to work with him, he had a great time working with me because, again, I was a musician and he had never worked with a musician, and so we had a common language. And the kind of lyrics I was writing had an echo of Hart in them, because they were kind of hip, but the story's a sentimental one. So over a period of time... And particularly, we got out of town and the show didn't work very well, and then he went berserk.

What do you mean, he went berserk?

Stephen Sondheim: At one point he tore up a lyric of mine that I had worked 36 hours on, in front of the whole cast, and called it a piece of shit.

How did you handle those kinds of professional disappointments, and rise above it and keep going?

Stephen Sondheim: Everybody does that. It's your living. I'd written a show, Anyone Can Whistle, which only lasted nine performances, but I liked the show. Forum had been a big hit. That was my first show with music on Broadway. And then came Do I Hear A Waltz? after Whistle. I thought I'd be devastated the first time I had a big flop, but I wasn't. You're disappointed and it sounds mealy-mouthed to say but it's true. My main disappointment is that people I want to see it aren't going to get a chance to see it. That's my main disappointment.

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