June 01, 2007

A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim

By Craig Carnelia

On His 50th Anniversary As An ASCAP Member


Stephen Sondheim

In February, I met with Stephen Sondheim at his East Side townhouse to talk about the craft of writing songs for the theater. The following edited transcript of our conversation was first printed in the May/June issue of The Dramatist, The Journal of The Dramatists Guild. It is reprinted here in celebration of Mr. Sondheim's 50th year with ASCAP.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I want to begin by talking about the actability of songs. From a perspective of being both a writer and a teacher of acting to singers, I see your songs as profoundly stageworthy. They are pieces that want to be in the theater, that are of the theater. So many pieces onstage today are called theater songs simply because they are sung on a stage before an audience. Your songs are inherently actable. The actor has things to do, things to be, things to inhabit that are richer than one finds in many theater songs. Does that come by instinct, does it come by plan, or is it different in each piece?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: It comes by plan. I was essentially trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of songs as one-act plays, to move a song from point A to point B dramatically. I think of songs in sonata form – statement, development, and recapitulation – but in Oscar's terms it was first act, second act, and third act. The character singing goes through a development process and comes out with a conclusion emotionally different from where he began, so the song has a sense of moving the story forward even though it may not move the plot forward. Oscar's attempt was never to have a song that merely stated one idea over and over again, which had been the practice of people like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, because that was what was required before Oscar came along and revolutionized the musical theater by applying these principles and making them into a series of hit musicals.

When I first started to work on West Side Story, Arthur Laurents took me to The Actors Studio, and I sat there in awe, watching those sessions. I thought the actors took themselves much too seriously, over-analyzing and indulging themselves in their exercises, encouraged by Lee Strasberg. When we left, I told Arthur a lot of it seemed to be decorative pretentiousness, but he said it was important to know the instruments I'm writing for. He may not have used the word "instrument," but as one might write with musical instruments in mind, he wanted me to understand acting from an actor's point of view, how they approached a role. Of course, not every actor uses Actors Studio techniques or "method" acting, but I got to know something about an actor's approach. In working with Arthur, I also learned something about subtext, the notion of an actor having something to play underneath the speech, bringing a depth, a counterpoint to what is said that keeps a scene alive. Actors don't just play the surface, but they play colors and motivations, which are the subtext. Those two lessons – the idea of the actor as an instrument and the use of subtext – informed nearly everything I wrote after that.

The surprise came for me a few years later, when I was writing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is exactly the reverse. Those songs contain no subtext, or if there is a subtext, as in "Impossible," it's a comic subtext or an overt one – though "overt subtext" may be a contradiction in terms. Those songs took one idea and played with it, they "savored the moment," as Burt [Shevelove] said, as did nearly all of Cole Porter's output, Rodgers and Hart's output, the Gershwins' output, and all the classic songwriters before Oscar and Dick came along and made us tell stories. So, Forum was the hardest score I had to write, until much later in my life, because I had been so thoroughly trained by Oscar and then by Arthur to think in terms of songs as little plays with subtext for actors to act.

I'm always conscious of what I'm writing, conscious of what the actor may ask me. I have a defense for nearly every line in the song. Sometimes actors surprise me, and I find myself caught up short, phumphering, pretending I have something in mind that I didn't, but generally I work from that point of view.

CC: It seems to me that the difference between good theater writing and less good theater writing is that in less good theater writing the character often knows too much and simply spills the writer's notes. The things we know to be true, so too does the character know. Being the master of this, how do you take what you know to be true and decide how much the character knows and doesn't know?

SS: Your question is very astute, in the sense that you have to be very careful, but I'm afraid the answer is the obvious one. When I'm writing a song, I try to be the character. A good actor will not let you know the end of the play while he's playing any scene. He will leave the rest of his journey – that awful word used these days – unknown, so he has some place to go. In the same way, if you're writing a song in the first act, though you know the character will kill himself, you don't write the song with that knowledge. You try to be the actor who does not know he'll reach a point of despair and kill himself.

I'm not impeccable about this. In the current version of Company, Bobby is friends with Amy, the girl who sings "Getting Married Today" at the end of the first act – she's hysterical and doesn't want to get married, but she finally does. In the original version, Amy did not get married at the end of the first act, she jilted her boyfriend, and in the middle of the second act Bobby proposed to her by singing "Marry Me a Little." I was halfway through writing the song when I thought, "If Bobby does that, he has nowhere to go. That's the end of the show." We put the song at the end of the first act in the Roundabout revival [in 1995], because it had a different context and weight. If Amy has gone off to get married, then the song makes sense in the development of Bobby's character.

If you can take the attitude of the actor at every given point in the play, while you're writing the numbers, then you will have a place in reserve for the character to go, because that's what an actor has to do. Hamlet must not know he's going to kill Laertes or what's going to happen at the end of the play – or there is no play.

CC: So, making an analogy between the acting and the writing, if an actor should act without an awareness of where he's heading and only try to accomplish what he wants at that moment – because if he indicates what he wants the audience to think or see or feel, he will be doing all sorts of bad things – then a writer shouldn't manipulate or lead the audience, showing this card or playing this hand, but rather trust that it's okay for the person in G113 to feel something different than the person in G115. The lust to have those thousand people feeling or thinking or knowing the same thing leads a writer into doing all sorts of bad things.

SS: You don't want the song to indicate. On the other hand, I could play the devil's advocate. During the course of a scene or a song, you may want the audience to understand something very specific. Let's just take it on the simplest level. In a comic song, like "Adelaide's Lament," you want everybody in the audience to understand exactly what she is saying.

CC: If you don't, you don't get the laugh.

SS: And you don't get the character. Everybody in the audience must understand that she has a cold because this guy is not marrying her. If you don't get that, then there is no song.

CC: One of my single favorite moments in the theater was seeing Cherry Jones say to her father, in the revival of The Heiress, "It wouldn't hurt you too much to praise me a little." The entire audience felt the same thing – but not through manipulation, through truth and universality.

SS: Of course, there also are certain plays, like Chekhov's plays, that are so elusive, and no two people feel that same way.

CC: Getting to a subtler part of the question, how do we know what not to say?

SS: If you think in terms of subtext, you'll always leave something out. It is the Hemingway principle: what you leave out is more important than what you include. If you leave something for the actor, they are only grateful, and a good performer will fill that space – or not fill it – with all kinds of richness and subtleties. It is so remarkable how good performers can bring songs to life, even good songs, if you've left them some space, some interstices to fill.

CC: I was working with an actor on the song "Finishing the Hat" [from Sunday in the Park with George], and we were looking for what the motor was in the song for him. What we came upon together was that the whole song is motivated by a blind spot, a limited frame of reference. I don't know if you did that on purpose or if it just happens in true theater animals like yourself. Once I name the blind spot, you can see the song one might write if George didn't have that limitation, but it's bland. The blind spot is that George seems to believe that if Dot understood why she's not getting any of her needs met, then she'd still be there. He thinks that's the problem.

SS: Exactly. It starts when she goes to the Follies at the end of "Color and Light," and he says, "What'll I do? What'll I do? What'll I do? Oh, I know ... red." That's all you need to know about the character. When he says, "red," that's all you need to know.

CC: If he had the awareness he doesn't have, then he doesn't sing that song. He sings a song that says, "If only I had paid attention to her while she was here, instead of this painting, she'd still be with me."

SS: It's so uninteresting if he says that. It's also self-pitying, which is the one thing that George never is.

CC: So, his "not knowing that" is the motor for this massive outpouring of emotion.

SS: You've hit on something. Every time one can write a self-deluded song, you are way ahead of the game, way ahead. Self-delusion is the basis of nearly all the great scenes in all the great plays, from Oedipus to Hamlet. When the audience starts to know something the character doesn't, they get excited – and who wouldn't? We get it, why doesn't he get it, but when he finally does get it, it's so much more devastating than when we got it. I don't like to make generalizations, but so much first-rate drama throughout the centuries is about characters who don't know as much about themselves as the audience does. It gives the actor so much to play. An actor can only be grateful to have a song in which he says, "Everything is white," while he's sitting on a blue set. That's one thing I learned about subtext. "What do we get that the actor doesn't? What can the actor play that isn't in the surface text?"

CC: In teaching acting, I've found that an action doesn't have to be plausible to us, we just have to believe it's plausible to the character. If I try to move the wall, if I invest wholeheartedly in that action, I'm not going to succeed, but it's a hell of an action. How many folks do we know who spend a lifetime pursuing the wrong objects?

SS: How many also take the wrong action for the right reason? In Crime and Punishment, we understand why Raskolnikov does what he does, but oy, what a mistake.

CC: Changing course here, let's talk a bit about form and structure. There's a line in Craig Zadan's book [Sondheim & Company] that I like very much about the rigidity of the lyric writing form and how the small frame makes for the power, how the explosions can happen because of the frame.

SS: Oscar eloquently wrote about that in his introduction to his book of lyrics. I can't quote what he said, but he made the point that the more restrictions, the more freedom – which I understand in my gut, but it's hard to argue. On the other hand, one can point out the example of sonnets, which is as rigid a form as there is in poetry. What is it about sonnets that make them so powerful? There are other forms that are also powerful, but something about the rigidity of that rhyme scheme, the consistency of its rhythm, makes for enormous power.

Another principle of poetry is that compression is power, but compression in lyric writing is not so terrific. Lyrics need some air in them for the audience to understand what's going on, so it's the rigidity of form, particularly the 32-bar song form, that helps convey power. Most shows today are written in a recitative style – very long freeform, almost free-verse – and it's because of laziness. It's very hard to make things rhyme properly and rhythm properly, and most lyric writers today don't want to work that hard. Also, there is such a tolerance for sung-through pieces, the endless recitative of prose set to music, because some have become hits, which gives them more excuse to write in that style. It is for me much more effective, though, if you can tell a story through 32-bar songs – or even 33-bar songs, but not through 133-bar songs.

I have heard lyric writers say they would sacrifice rhyme for sense, but I believe the idea is to do both at once. Rhyme it and rhythm it well, and have something to say. They are not opposites. It's very easy to take the attitude that you don't need to rhyme, because what you have to say is so important that rhyming would ruin it – or that you don't care about a false rhyme because it's much more important to say something of substance. Incidentally, that usually means they're not saying something of any substance at all, but even if they are, there is something about form in any art – in concert music, in painting, in novels – there is something about the use of form, even if you screw around with it, something about the conscious use of form that says to the reader or the looker, "This is worth saying." I don't think anything is so worth saying, if there isn't any form. I think then it's just blather, and God knows the woods are full of blather.

It seems to me that there is something about distillation of thought and emotion. It's all right to have a 24-hour play, but it's better and more powerful to have a two-and-a-half-hour play. One could argue why two-and-a-half hours and not four-and-a-half, but there's something about compression and distillation, what essentially is poetry, in any art that seems to me to give more meaning. It's as if somebody has thought something out, instead of just collared you at a cocktail party and told you their feelings.

CC: It's interesting the analogy to being collared at a cocktail party, because you end up feeling pummeled in those situations, being talked into as if you were a vessel, being used.

SS: Everybody thinks whatever they have to say is interesting. Well, it's interesting if it's interestingly said, but it's not interesting per se.

CC: Also, as we've seen when we've taken our own things that ran four hours and were forced to make them manageable, what is left ends up being illuminated.


I was essentially trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of songs as one-act plays, to move a song from point A to point B dramatically. I think of songs in sonata form—statement, development, and recapitulation—but in Oscar's terms it was first act, second act, and third act.

SS: It's interesting you say "forced." Who forced you?

CC: The practicality of wanting it to be possible. SS: Suppose I'm an entrepreneur with trillions of dollars, and I say, "Craig, do you want to write a five-hour musical?"

CC: I wouldn't. I don't want to see a five-hour musical.

SS: Of course you wouldn't. That's my point. "Forced" is not the key word. The force comes from within you as an artist. It does not come from a producer saying, "Sorry, at eleven o'clock, we have to pay triple-overtime." That is not what is behind it.

CC: Wanting to trim it to a manageable length that I myself would like to sit through, when we do that, the words, the actions, the points of view we wish to express have a better vehicle for coming forward. There's less around the things that are left being said.

SS: I agree with you: Less is more. I have a few artistic principles, and one of them is "Less is more." Tolstoy would argue against me, but I don't think I could ever be swayed.

CC: Let's talk about "frame of reference." I have two places I want to go looking for this. One is a place you've spoken of before and one is an example I've never heard you mention. The two shows are Pacific Overtures and Into the Woods. In Pacific Overtures, you've spoken about both you and John Weidman coming at the writing from a perspective of being a Japanese writer who had seen a couple of Broadway shows and then went back to Japan and wrote this thing, which is so fabulous and informs every piece of writing. It's a brilliant frame of reference.

SS: You will have to ask John, but it was not conscious on my part. It never occurred to me specifically at the time. I read John's original script and heard what Hal [Prince] and John wanted to do with it, then it took me a month to get into it and I just wrote it. I knew I wanted it to start very Japanese and get more Western, but that's because I always need some little intellectual theory.

CC: So, here's a place where there's a very peculiar point of view and frame of reference that informs all the writing that is merely an instinct. You picked it up from the bookwriter, it was never spoken of, and then it was named after the fact. It's most obviously wrought in the way you aped Gilbert and Sullivan in "Please Hello," but it's everywhere. It's through the whole thing.

SS: It may seem to stand out there, but that number is pastiche, though with a purpose. The idea of the Japanese writing an American musical is better represented in "Someone in a Tree," which is a trio performed out-front with a Japanese sensibility. A Japanese guy came to Broadway and perhaps saw Cabaret, so he wrote sixty bars of vamp.

CC: He doesn't know not to take six minutes and not give you the answer to the question.

SS: No, because that's what you do in Japan. I thought, "How long can I sustain this?" The Japanese will sit through 120 bars, but I have to cut it off at 60.

CC: Lyrically, you never find out anything.

SS: Exactly, it's all implicit, but it's got rhymes – please and trees, near and here, time and climb. Incidentally, that setup is John's, the simultaneity of time is all John Weidman, but I thought of the vamp.

CC: Talking about Into the Woods and its frame of reference, what I love about that writing is the notion of two-dimensional characters drawn on a page stuck in three-dimensional problems they are ill-equipped to handle. They only know what they know, and what they know is paperthin, which doesn't help them with what to do in these real, bloody situations. You also give each of them a brain. A brain but no experience.

SS: For me, the whole idea of The Baker and his wife is that they are a Bronx couple who find there's a witch next door and think, "My God, are we in the wrong place." That notion is so hilarious, that idea of a New York couple surrounded by fairytale characters. Not that James [Lapine] ever stated it that way, but it's very clear that's what was going on in his head. That's the frame of reference – there's this contemporary couple in these fairytale woods and everybody they look at is peculiar. They are just a baker and his wife, and then there's this wolf that talks...

CC: Cinderella has the problems Cinderella has always had, but she is smart. She just has never been anywhere.

SS: Nobody has ever pointed out that, in the 500-plus years of that folktale, Lapine is the only person who figured out why she left the shoe. There are many versions of Cinderella in every culture, but no one ever suggested, until James, that she left the slipper behind on purpose. If you're a girl who wants to be loved for herself, that's what you do. It's such a wonderful insight and makes the story alive. When you look at Cinderella as a story from the outside: she gets beaten up at home, has to clean pots and brush out the urinals, then she goes to this ball, wearing a beautiful dress and looking gorgeous, and the handsomest and richest man in the kingdom falls in love with her – and she's got a problem? In every Cinderella story, she doesn't just go back to the castle. Why? What's the problem? Well, she's got a problem if she wants to be loved for herself. As far as I'm concerned, that explains the story.

CC: Speaking of the compression of a song form, there is such an active brain in "Moments in the Woods," "I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky," and "Steps of the Palace."

SS: That is the advantage of working with somebody like Lapine. It's his idea that each of those four characters – The Baker's Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, and Cinderella – has a moment of self-assessment. I would not have thought of that. They each have a moment to say this is what I've been through and this is what I've learned – or haven't learned – and now, I must go on. That is the essence of folktales, and it was so smart of him.

CC: Each of those songs travels this murky, twisted course that resolves.

SS: I tried to relate all of them musically and lyrically. It almost works.

CC: Where do you think you didn't succeed?

SS: In "Moments in the Woods." The Baker's Wife is not really a folktale character. She's an urban, 20th-century character in the middle of these things, so her self-knowledge has to be slightly different. I didn't re-use any musical themes except for hers. I'm not sure it's right or wrong, but it doesn't bother me a lot because the moment works so well. Also, the other three numbers are all in the first act, so you get the connection among them, and then when you come back from intermission, it's her moment and a different thing. The other three numbers though are related.

CC: The Baker's Wife has an amazingly strong action in her song: to get one's feet back on the ground while not being sure one wants to. We've all been intoxicated, wishing to sober up and not wanting to. In all four songs, there is a beautiful trick you play between the music and the lyrics. We know the human brain moves more quickly than our quickest spoken thought. You play better than anyone with devices for trying to illustrate and show theatrically, to allow the actor to inhabit, that quickness. You create a quality in your music that will cause the lyric to feel like it's moving more quickly than it is. Do you do that on purpose?

SS: Yes. That is one of the trickiest parts of lyric writing. How packed or loose do you make the lyric? How quickly do you go from thought to thought? If you work with good bookwriters who write characters that are more than onedimensional, there is also a lot of stuff going on. So, how do you keep things going without repeating an idea over and over again, but not going by so quickly you lose what's being said? Laying out the trail for the listener to follow, and at the same time keeping slightly ahead, is a real balancing act – and none of us do it all the time. When it works, when you find that balance, then the song seems to have speed, even if it's a slow song, and the audience does not get bored.

The idea is not to let them get bored but not to let them get confused either, and every lyric writer who cares about the things we're talking about tries for that, but it's hard to do. Sometimes you confuse the audience by getting verbose or stating something that's already been stated, so there's a slight yawn in the middle of the song, but if you get the right quickness, there is a dramatic tension that makes the audience eager to know what happens next, which is the whole point of drama. You have to keep their attention so they're eager to know what happens next, but not so eager that they get confused. Like good murder mysteries, you've got to keep them interested but you can't be so complicated that you baffle them.

CC: A couple of things that relate but seem opposites. One would be "Getting Married Today," which deliberately forces the actress to her limit.

SS: Of course.

CC: And the other, a number of songs in Passion, which move rather slowly but with a thought process that is so rambunctious, particularly in Fosca.

SS: She's a smart lady, and you never know where Fosca's going next because she's a hysteric and that's what hysterics do. To make it clear to an audience that she's a hysteric yet understand what's she's talking about – that's the trick – but it was not hard to write. I really understood her character, partly because of the movie but also from reading the book. Once you lock into Fosca, she's not hard to write.

CC: I want to change gears for the last few minutes of this interview and ask some questions that are of a wholly different nature. What is the first song you ever remember hearing as a child?

SS: Goodness gracious! My immediate instinct is to say "Ain't Misbehavin'," because I had this precocious trick when I was about 3 years old that my father showed me off with: I could recognize a song title from the label on a record before I could read. When I was a kid my father loved popular songs and show music, but I can't remember hearing a first song. I wasn't interested in songs until I met Oscar Hammerstein, when I was 11. Before then music to me had meant "The Happy Farmer" and "Ase's Death," the little piano pieces from my lessons. Musicals were fun to see, but if you ask about my first musical theater memory, I see a picture rather than hearing a song. I believe the first was Boys from Syracuse, but I have a feeling I actually saw White Horse Inn before that. The other show I remember seeing was Very Warm for May, particularly the opening moment. It took place at this house with a grand piano. After the curtain went up, the butler came in and dusted the keys of the piano. He went [from low to high] "Vvrrruup!" And I thought, "I've got to do that! I've got to do that!" That's my major early memory of musical theater. "Vvrrruup!" Past that I can't tell you anything.

CC:What's the first moment you knew you wanted to do this?

SS: When I was at George School, a Quaker prep school I went to. I was 15 and wanted to write a musical, because by that time I had been inculcated. I'd seen Oklahoma!, and I wanted to do what Oscar did. So, it wasn't musical theater per se, it really was Oscar.

CC: What was the first moment you saw something of yours really work in a theater?

SS: It must have been in college. This is not really the answer to your question, but if you said to me, 'What's your first emotional memory of hearing something you'd written?' I'd reply that I wrote a song in college called "I Must Be Dreaming," a love song, for an adaptation of Beggar on Horseback. My father often went to the Barbary Room to hear Cy Walters and Stan Freeman play two pianos. He got a copy of the song to them, and they played it on WNEW, and I heard the broadcast. I was all alone. I went up to the Hammersteins', a five-story townhouse between 5th and Madison. The house was empty, and this was the hilarious neurotic thing I did: I was there all alone, and I turned on the radio and I sat under a table to listen to it. I don't think we need to go any farther into the psychological implications of that, but I sat under the table and felt so proud. That's what I remember. I still have a recording of that broadcast.

During this talk we sat on the couch with a small tape recorder between us. Also present in the room were a pot of tea, a dog named Addie, and much laughter —CC

Reprinted from The Dramatist, Copyright 2007, The Dramatists Guild of America. All rights reserved.