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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,
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Bernie Taupin,
Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
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Stephen Sondheim Interview (page: 7 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

Your show Sunday In The Park With George won a very well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. That conception started with a painting. Can you tell us how that came about?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: It started with James Lapine. I'd seen a play that he wrote and directed called Twelve Dreams, and was knocked out by it and wanted to collaborate with him. By coincidence, he wanted to collaborate with me, and we were brought together by a producer named Lew Allen. James was of a generation below me, and not just in age, but in approach to theater. He came from Off-Broadway, where his plays had been done, a much looser approach. I won't say improvisatory, because his plays are very carefully written, but in not-for-profit theater, you don't worry so much about how the audience is going to react. You want to make them absorb the piece.

So we had to get to know each other, and we discussed movies we liked. We realized that we operate on the same levels in many ways. He had been a photographer and a graphics designer, and he would bring up photographs, some which he'd taken, some which he'd taken out of magazines, and just spread them out on the floor, just to see how they abutted, which is exactly the reverse of how I'd been trained, to start with a story and begin at the beginning. What he was doing was taking off from his imagination and seeing what would suddenly strike us.

One evening we got to discussing this Seurat painting James had used it in a play he had directed, by Gertrude Stein, called Photograph. It's actually just a one-page scenario for a possible play. We started talking about the painting. And I said, "The whole thing's always looked like a stage set to me." And it also had started because he asked me what kind of show I might want to write, and I said, "I want to write a theme and variations." That was the kind of show I always wanted to write. And I brought him a magazine called Bizarre, with variations on the Mona Lisa. So we started talking about variations, and we started talking about this set, and James said, "Do you realize, nobody in that picture..." -- and there are 48 people or 50 people -- " looking at anybody else? Why is that, do you suppose? Perhaps they're hiding from each other. Perhaps they've having illicit affairs." Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. And then he said, "The main character's missing." I said, "Who?" and he said, "The artist." And once he said that, the light bulb went off and we knew we had a play in mind, because it's about a man who controls the landscape, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That's how it started, and we just wrote.

It's hard not to hear some of those lyrics as music about the act of creation.

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: Once you say the artist is the main character, then you know at least one of your themes is going to be about creativity. The other interesting thing, was that pointillism does exactly what we were trying, or we were trying to do what pointillism does, which is take this image and that image -- meaning emotional images, character, et cetera -- and make them so they all finally come together and make a whole that tells a story.

Were you surprised to win the Pulitzer Prize? Because the Tony Awards that year were a bit of a disappointment.

Stephen Sondheim: Yeah. Very few people liked the show. We were sneered at a great deal by the newspapers and by the public. Frank Rich, the critic for The New York Times, liked it a lot. He did not give it a rave on the opening night, but he was stimulated by it, and he kept coming back to see it, and kept writing about it. So it became a sort of pet in The New York Times, which also raised a lot of hackles. Audiences were baffled by it, many were. We had a number of walk-outs. You know, the Tonys ignored West Side Story. The Tonys ignored Gypsy. They're worthless and they're useless, except when they sell tickets, which they don't do any more. So we were disappointed by the Tonys, because it's a kind of public humiliation. But no, I had no idea. You have to be submitted for the Pulitzer, and unbeknownst to us, a choral director whom I know had submitted us.

How did you hear that you won?

Stephen Sondheim: James was doing a... we were planning a revival of a revised version of Merrily We Roll Along, which he was to direct, 'cause Merrily We Roll Along had been this gigantic failure and James had liked it -- liked the score anyway, and also the book -- and he had some ideas as to what George Furth, the book writer, and I should do to clarify and improve things, in the first half-hour particularly. So he arranged to have it done out at La Jolla, and we were planning it one afternoon. We were having a production meeting, and the phone rang, and my informant, whoever it was, said, "Guess what? You've just won the Pulitzer Prize." And I wrote it on a piece of paper, because James was talking to a set designer and all that. I just slipped it in front of him. I wish I could say there was some great dramatic reaction. There wasn't. He just opened it and he said something, "Oh, that's nice," or something, went right on.

Could you tell us a little bit about the circumstances under which you compose? Do you create a particular environment that works for you?

Stephen Sondheim: No. I have a studio. I now have a house in Connecticut as well as a place in New York. So I have a studio in each place, and that's where I live my life.

Is it easier to work where it's quiet?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: That's interesting. It's pleasanter to work in the country, where it's quiet and where you can wander out among the trees. But I don't get as much work done. In the city there's more pressure. You don't want to leave the room because there's all that chaos going on. So it's more like a monk's cell, in the sense that you're isolating yourself from the world. I think that leads to more work. It's like doing homework, if you're forced not to leave a room. Of course I'm not forced, but I think of it as a force, as something keeping me in the room. You eventually get bored enough so you put the pencil to paper.

They locked Rossini in a room to get his overtures.

Stephen Sondheim: I didn't know that. Well, Rodgers was famous for locking Larry Hart in rooms to get the lyrics.

Do you use any special kind of paper or pencil?

Stephen Sondheim: I use Blackwing pencils. Blackwings. They don't make 'em any more, and luckily, I bought a lot of boxes of 'em. They're very soft lead. They're not round, so they don't fall off the table, and they have removable erasers, which unfortunately dry out.

And paper?

Stephen Sondheim: Yes. Yellow lined pads. I used to have them so it was, I think 26 lines to a page, and my friend, Burt Shevelove, who was a stationery freak, said, "Buy cartons of them!" I said, "Oh Burt, come on. I'll buy 12 pads. That will be enough." God, was he ever right, because they discontinued making them about 20 years ago. I'm used to the other pads now. You get used to the exact amount of space between lines, because you write a word and then you write an alternate word over it. You want enough room so you can read it, so the lines can't be too close. But if they're too far apart, you don't get enough lines on the paper. I could go on. I'm sure many writers have these tiny little habits. All over the United States there are people who only use Blackwings. I sometimes get letters, "Do you have any source for the Blackwings?"

And they're extinct?

Stephen Sondheim: Yeah, they're extinct. Adam Green, Adolph Green's son, has written an article for The New Yorker, which I think will be published next year. Quite a long article on the Blackwing pencil and the fanatics who go crazy when they don't have a Blackwing in their hand. You just get habituated. Of course you can still write. If there were no yellow pads in the world, I'd find a way of writing on white paper or on non-lined pads. It's the lined pads that make it. Yellow is just good because the contrast of the yellow and the black lead is just easier on the eyes than white.

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