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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: 9 / 9)

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

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  Stephen Sondheim

What advice would you give to a young lyricist or theater composer starting out today?

Stephen Sondheim: There's one advantage, and it's a meager one, but it's significant.

When Hal and I were growing up, and Jerry Herman, and Bock and Harnick -- there was no such thing as Off-Broadway. You either got your show on or you didn't get it on. Now there's regional theater and Off-Broadway. As a young writer, you can get your show on. Now you can't get it on with a 25-piece orchestra, but then, because it's too expensive, you can't get it on with a 25-piece orchestra on Broadway either, the way they used to when I grew up. And, you know, you won't get your spectacular settings, but you can get a show that, if it catches on at all, will transfer to Broadway or be done somewhere. You can make a living out of it because it'll be done. Fantasticks never got to Broadway but it made Schmidt and Jones very rich people. So there's another door, there's another entrance, and they came in an era when Off-Broadway was starting to attract. They're just that generation younger, or half a generation. So that is one thing that young writers can do. On the other hand, young writers -- and why not? -- everyone would like to be on Broadway, 'cause if a show works, you make a great deal of money and it allows you to write other shows. Most of them have to -- if they don't have second jobs -- they have to write for television or movies, if they can get those jobs, or form their own rock bands.

Set against the backdrop of this new Broadway economy, your show Assassins seems all the more daring. Could you tell us how that came about?

Stephen Sondheim: Well, Assassins was done Off-Broadway, it wasn't done on Broadway. I'd served on the board of an organization formed by a Broadway producer named Stuart Ostrow to encourage young writers of musicals. They would send in submissions and we would vote, and if one was decided on, Stuart would produce it, or raise the money to sponsor it Off-Broadway, The organization did not last very long, and I think only one show came out of it.

Among the shows that passed the desk, I looked at one and the title page said Assassins -- I just immediately thought, "That's a musical," without knowing anything about it -- by a man named Charles Gilbert. And I opened it up and it was essentially a tale of a soldier who comes back from Vietnam and he's politicized and becomes an assassin and he tries to assassinate... I'm not sure if it was the president. I think it was. At any rate, along with this story, which is really one of paranoia, there was a sort of Sidney Greenstreet figure who would appear as sort of the spirit of evil, who would appear sporadically and read quotations from various politicians' letters. I don't think they were all presidents, but anyway. So it was interspersed with history, and it wasn't for us. We decided not to do it. But many years later I was talking to John Weidman. We had written together, and we wanted to write something else together, and I mentioned this to him, and his eyes lit up and he got it right away, the way I did, and he said, "I don't know what it is, but that's a great idea." I said, "Let me see if I can track down Charles Gilbert," and I did, and I wrote him a letter, and I said, "Could we use your idea? We won't use your show, just the idea of Assassins." And to my delighted surprise, he said "Absolutely, providing that it doesn't ever prevent me from putting my show on, if I can find a way to put it on." I said absolutely not.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

He's a musician. He teaches in Philadelphia, and he's also a pit pianist. He's an accomplished guy. So we first decided that we would do assassinations starting with Julius Caesar. Just the whole idea of assassins from the whole world. And we realized it was too unwieldy. So then we decided just to use American assassins, but include things like Harvey Milk and John Lennon. Then we decided that was too unwieldy. So we eventually narrowed it down to just presidential assassins, and as it is, we don't cover them all. There are three assassinations we don't cover.

How do you feel about the show now? You were pushing against this tide of superficial spectacles.

Stephen Sondheim: But it was Off-Broadway. And the fact that it didn't transfer on Broadway is exactly indicative. It was an Off-Broadway show.

One of the people that we've interviewed for this project is the great soprano, Leontyne Price. She told us that it's lonely being an artist. A lot of people have trouble balancing that kind of career and a personal life.

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: That's an odd thing, coming from a performing artist. Writing is clearly a lonely thing, because you don't do it in a roomful of people, or if you do you're alone in the room. But gosh, it wasn't any problem for Bach. It's not always a problem. It's a problem for some people and not for others. There are husbands and wives who both write novels. My personal life and my artistic life do not interfere with each other. But I think it's particularly true of performers because they're whisked away from their families. Particularly if you're a stage performer. Audra McDonald's out here doing this concert, and then doing a Porgy and Bess concert. She's got a family, she's got kids, and she's away from her family now for two or three weeks. For performers who make movies, and live on the East Coast, of course it's very disruptive.

But isn't writing a lonely profession?

Stephen Sondheim: Of course. Obviously, by definition. So is painting. You're there with your own head, and a pencil or a brush, or a piano.

It's fun. I mean, if you like doing it. Otherwise, why are you doing it? It's "Finishing the Hat." It's all in "Finishing the Hat." It's all about trancing out, and when you trance out properly, when the writing is... it's not necessarily going well, but when you're completely in that world, there is no other world, and so there's no conflict.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

"Finishing the Hat" is a song of yours.

Stephen Sondheim: From Sunday In The Park With George. It's a song that the Seurat character sings. He is having trouble balancing his life with his mistress, who's in bed in the other room, waiting for him to stop painting and come to bed. And he can't stop, and she resents it, and he knows that, and he's thinking while he's doing it. That kind of complicated feeling.

But he can't stop finishing.

Stephen Sondheim: Exactly, exactly.

Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us.

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