Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sondheim From the Paris Review Interviews, Volume 4

Yesterday, I recalled the Frank Rich interview with Stephen Sondheim, which was staged at a Barnes and Noble to get people to buy the latest edition of the Paris Review Interviews of writers, in part, it seems, because Frank Rich's son, Nathaniel, is on the editorial staff. In any case, I bought a copy and found a number of the interviews interesting, including those with Maya Angelou, William Styron (though at the time of the interview he had only written "Lie Down in Darkness"), E.B. White, Philip Roth, John Ashberry, and a really quirky one with Jack Kerouac. But, of course, this post is about Sondheim, so here are a few tidbits from that interview.

First, as many people know, Sondheim was closely mentored by the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. In fact, Sondheim says that he was so transfixed by Hammerstein he probably would have followed in his footsteps whatever his profession had been. If Hammerstein had been a geologist, Sondheim probably would have become a geologist as well. Among the lessons Sondheim says he learned from Hammerstein was the power of simple language attached to music. His lyrics from "Younger than Springtime" or "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" may not seem like much on paper, but when paired with Richard Rodgers' music the words move people. As Sondheim says, Hammerstein understood "what happens when music is applied to words - the words explode."

Hammerstein, by the way, actually prepared for Sondheim his own special curriculum that he thought all aspiring musical theater composers should be able to tackle. First, he advised Sondheim to find a play he liked and to musicalize it. Second, he proposed that Sondheim take a play that is flawed and then improve it through a musicalization. Third, take a non-theatrical piece, a story or a short novel, and musicalize that. Finally, write a musical play from scratch, that is not based on another source. According to Sondheim, early on, he actually attempted all four of these tasks, and although they were not all produced, doing this work was a decisive part of his apprenticeship as a composer.

Sondheim also divulges that when he was first approached to write the lyrics for "West Side Story," he hesitated, because he wanted to write music, too. But Hammerstein advised him to take the job so that he could collaborate with and learn from the other great artists who were putting together the show. It was, Sondheim says, another case where Hammerstein's judgment was exactly right. I guess, in fact, it was such a good experience that he figured he would do it again with "Gypsy."

When asked whether he prefers writing the music or the lyrics, Sondheim replied that the answer was easy. It is the music that he enjoys working with most because, as he says, "music's abstract and it's fun and it lives in you." Earlier on, Sondheim had noted mathematics comes naturally to him which may be a hint for why he prefers the music. He adds that language can be exciting to work with, but that the English language, particularly, presents often insurmountable challenges, such as rhyming essential words like "live" and "love." And in case you were wondering, Sondheim does not hesitate to admit that he uses a rhyming dictionary regularly. It is part of his indispensable equipment as a lyricist. For the record, the best one is Clement Wood's from 1938. He also relies on a thesaurus, the most useful one being, in his view, the 1943 edition of Roget's.

Finally, although there are so many other tidbits to mention, Sondheim explained that Sweeney Todd, a musical which is supposed to horrify and scare people, was inspired by the great film score composer Bernard Herrmann and uses many of Herrmann's techniques to maintain suspense and tension throughout the show. I found this fascinating, because I have always thought Herrmann's contributions to movies have been underappreciated and underrated. Just some of the films Herrmann has scored are: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. The specific film of Herrmann's that influenced Sondheim was something called "Hangover Square," which Leonard Maltin says is about an "unhinged composer who goes off his top and kills women whenever he hears loud and discordant noises." It's not much of a stretch for a composer who could write something like "Sweeney Todd" or "Assassins" to identify with this film.

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