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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: 6 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

You've said that, in a way, writing a song is like acting because you are exploring your character.

Stephen Sondheim: Writing a song in a musical that tells a story, sure.

The way you get into the character -- the way you get in the song, both musically and lyrically -- is to become the character. It's the only way. I don't know how else you do it, unless you're the playwright who created the character in the first place. But I'm always writing for characters that somebody else has created, my collaborator, and so the only way I can get into... I've said -- and it's probably an exaggeration, but not much -- that by the time I get through writing a score, I know the book better than the book writer does, because I've examined every word, and questioned the book writer on every word. Why does she say this? Why doesn't she say that? And that's getting to know the character. And then writing the song is acting it. So I can start ad libbing. It's exactly like improvisatory acting. So here's the character Blanche. We're hiring you to play Blanche. Okay. Just veer from the Tennessee Williams script and just start ad libbing as Blanche. If you're thoroughly in the character, you can do it. You may not have the poetry yet, but everything you say will be in the character of Blanche. That's what I do. I take off from what the book writer has written, sometimes using a line of his as a springboard, and ad lib, and improvise as that character. That's what I'm doing.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Does the playwright sometimes provide you with more than what's written in the script, like descriptive things about the character?

Stephen Sondheim: Sometimes. Not so much descriptive things, because that comes out of conversation. I talk for weeks to the book writer to discuss just such matters. Sometimes I'll ask the book writer to write a monologue, not to be performed, just as if they were notes for the character, because nobody knows the characters better than the guy who creates them.

Arthur Laurents wrote that you're a master of writing a lyric which can only be sung by the character for whom it was intended.

Stephen Sondheim: That's the idea. It's that character's song. You don't write a line for Stanley that's supposed to be said by Blanche.

Could you tell us about your show Company? It seemed so innovative when it came out, a real departure from what came before. What was that leap about?

Stephen Sondheim: The leap came about through the form.

What's innovative about Company is it blends two traditional forms for the first time: the revue and the book show. It's a revue, but it tells a story. Doesn't have a plot, but it has a story. Revues up to that time were just collections of songs by the songwriters. That whole generation -- Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter -- they all wrote revues, just collections of their songs. Sometimes with a theme, as in As Thousands Cheer, which was a revue, but each number was preceded by a headline from the newspapers. But nobody had ever tried to blend the two. And we didn't try. It's just that George Furth had written these one-act plays. George was supposed to go in rehearsal. There was a production set, it fell apart. He said, "What shall I do with the plays?" I said, "Hal (Prince) will know what to do with the plays. He's really good at this sort of thing." And so George sent the plays to Hal, and to our surprise, Hal said, "I think they'd make a musical." And so we sat and tried to figure out how to tie these disparate plays together. But George had unconsciously written all these plays -- not really unconsciously because the production was to use the same three actors for all the plays. Each play that he had written, and they're short plays, was a couple and an outside figure, varying ages, varying sexes. It wasn't always the guy who was the outsider. And we suddenly, in examining them, realized that you could use that outsider as a central character and have all these plays. And about two-and-a-half of those plays are still in the show, and the others were written specifically for Company. And that's what it is, it's a collection of playlets. But they're held together by a character who changes, or who observes, and who is not just like an MC but somebody who is integrated into all these plays and then turns out to be the leading character.

Your collaboration with Hal Prince, the producer and director, lasted for such a long time and was so successful. What was he like to work with?

Stephen Sondheim: Stimulating and funny, and we were friends for a long time too, and still are.

The primary thing about Hal (Prince), for me, is his enthusiasm, and impatience. I'm a low flame and he's a high flame, and that's one of the things that makes us a good team. Coming away from any meeting with Hal, or a discussion on the phone, or anything like that, I always want to write. And in the case of Company... Some of the shows I did with Hal, he was very much responsible for the building and the growth of the show. Some, like Sweeney Todd or Night Music, were just shows that were sort of brought to him. But Company... Follies was brought to him. Jim Goldman and I brought it to him. But then he had a take on how to stage it, which then affected the writing. So the thing is, it's primarily about stimulation, and of course his theatrical imagination. I mean, apart from the skill too. But in terms of the personal.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Was it Hal Prince who came up with the idea of the ghosts who hover over the action in Follies?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: No, we always had that, Goldman and I. But the idea of the pervasion of the ghosts, that came about later. James and I had limited theatrical imagination. We were afraid of flashbacks because of the scenery suddenly coming on and all. Hal said there's no need. He said, "I would like to stage it with just light, like a ballet, so you can have simultaneous scenes going on." That meant that we could have figures from the past that we had dealt with in another way, on the stage simultaneously.

Then Michael Bennett suggested that the ghosts of people who were not characters in the show should go through the show, atmospherically, with the combination of the lighting that Hal was talking about that allowed us to play scenes simultaneously. So while you and I are talking, our younger selves are talking over there, and you don't need a different set. And while we're doing that, behind you there are shadowy figures who are pieces of scenery. The showgirls' ghosts were pieces of scenery. The characters' ghosts were their younger selves. So there are two levels of old figures in it.

That musical changed quite a bit over the years, didn't it?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh yeah. Before we brought it to Hal, it started out as sort of a "who'll do it," not a "whodunit," in which we brought four characters together to a party who'd had a complicated relationship in the past, and their old angers and insecurities and passions are reignited at this reunion, and at the end of the first act, they each had reason to wish one of the others was dead. So the so-called suspense was: who's going to attempt to kill whom? And then we gradually realized that every time, in each rewrite, we would read each version and it was too plotted, and so we would take out a little of the plot and just have the party, and then it still was too plotted. We finally woke up to the fact that we should have no plot at all. It should just be these emotional relationships at a party. They all get drunk, they resolve or don't resolve their problems, and they go home.

That was pretty daring for its time.

Stephen Sondheim: Yes, it was. It's interesting. That's what it shares with Company. Neither of those shows have a plot. They're entirely different as structures, and in every way, except neither of them has a plot. They both have stories but no plots.

That was somewhat difficult for some people to take.

Stephen Sondheim: To put it mildly, yeah. Hal agreed to do Follies, but he only agreed to do it if we did Company first. Follies had started years before Company came up. And so in a way, the plotlessness of Follies helped us have the courage to have a plotless Company.

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