Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was the recipient of the 2018 St. Louis Literary Award from Saint Louis University.
Sondheim is the first lyricist to receive the honor in the history of the award, which is presented by the St. Louis University Library Associates. St. Louis Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson interviewed Sondheim – a conversation HEC Media was pleased to capture exclusively and bring to you at hecmedia.org.
Mike Isaacson: I once heard you say, “Teachers saved my life.”
Stephen Sondheim: Yes they did. It’s the sacred profession. When I went to college, I intended to major in math and I took an elective course in music in my first year with a man named Robert Barrow. After his first lecture, I thought, “I’m going to major in music.” He was one of those inspiring teachers. He was matter-of-fact; he took all the romance out of music. He made everything understandable. I have a puzzle mind, a structured mind, so that made sense to me. I was lucky to get teachers who, inspire is not the word, by who dredge up your interests, who go into you and find that button.
MI: What has shaped you as a writer?
SS: My parents were divorced when I was 11 and I lived with my mother in Pennsylvania, and three miles away lived the Hammerstein family. They had a son my age, so we became good friends and the Hammerstein’s became by surrogate family, and Oscar (Hammerstein) encouraged me to write. I wrote a show for the George School called By George. How about that? I was really brilliant at an early age. I wrote the songs myself and I asked Oscar to read it. I knew I was going to be the first 14-year-old on Broadway. I knew how much he would love it. So I went to him the next day and said, “I really want you to treat this as if it just crossed your desk. I don’t want you to think of me as a friend of part of the family.” And he said, “Oh, ok, in that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.” He saw me, trembling lip, and said, “I didn’t say it wasn’t talented, but if you want to know something about it, let’s start with the first stage direction.” And he took me through the entire script as if I were a professional. That what made it work, and in that afternoon, I got the distillation of Oscar’s 40 years of writing shows. And I’ve often said I learned more about musical theater in that afternoon than anybody has ever learned during a career, and that’s true. I can remember things he said right now, and there are principals that I’ve always followed.
MI: There was a legendary story/myth/rumor about Gypsy – how “Rose’s Turn” was conceived and where it took place.
SS: For those of you who don’t know Gypsy, the leading lady has a nervous breakdown at the climax of the show, in which she has raised her daughter and the daughter becomes a star and now outshines her, and she wanted to be a star herself, so she has a nervous breakdown. The original intention was it would be a ballet. Jerry Robbins directed the show, and his idea, because there were three, in the original version, there were three periods of Louise the daughter, and so Jerry wanted to have three Louises and all the characters and Rose to have this kaleidoscopic ballet as her breakdown. Then, about four weeks before rehearsals, Jerry said, “I don’t have time to do a ballet.” So I said, “Then what are we doing?” And Jerry said, “I don’t know. Just do something. Get a song.” So I asked for a meeting. For somebody who grew up on movies, this was my idea of show business: I came into an empty auditorium with just what they call a ghost light. I’m meeting the greatest director of musicals, and we’re going to talk about doing a number. I was in ecstasy! I said, “You know what I think it should be is, since we’re not doing a ballet, how about doing all the songs Rose has been connected with and making a pie out of those, and let her do the strip herself, that her daughter has just done, but utilizing the songs and themes.” He said, “Yeah, ok, alright, play something ad lib.” So there we are with this ghost light on stage and there’s a piano in this pit. I start ad libbing and Jerry goes, “Play something strip-style.” I start, and Jerry Robbins started to do a strip across the stage. I just thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.” And of course, it was brilliant. He’s the only genius I have ever met, and you could see it right there on the stage. So that’s what happened – Jerry Robbins ad libbed Ethel Merman doing a strip.
MI: Was it your intent to create new and different musical theater, or was it just your personal creative journey?
SS: I’m a firm believer in content dictating form, and so, Company, for example, which was a watershed show, because it combined revue and book, bit it’s because it was based on five disparate plays by George Firth, and Hal Prince thought they’d make a musical, so we devised the musical out of that, and that’s why it became the form it did, which then affected many other shows. A Chorus Line is a direct descendant of the idea of a show that holds together in revue form. But, we didn’t sit down and say “Hey, how are we going to change the musical theater? I know. Let’s do it backwards.” I got to tell you, anybody who does that is due for a disaster.
On the audience
MI: Doing something different in the musical theater world takes courage.
SS: Well it does. Gee, I don’t think of it that way. You’re always worried about how an audience is going to react, how critics are going to react. If you’re into the material, you’re writing something. If you write something thinking about the reaction later, you’re sunk. You can’t think about the result. I don’t think a painter can think or a composer or a novelist. If you write with thinking about what the reviews are going to be or the reception’s going to be, sometimes maybe you’ve got your pulse on the public, but most of the time…no. And it’s also no fun! But you do have to have a few previews for the audience. That’s when you start learning. It is a mistake to make any changes at all until you’ve had three of four audiences. That’s number one. Do they understand what’s going on? Do they know she’s his mother? That’s the important thing. If the audience understands, then if they don’t like it, fine. But when they get restless, it’s often because they’re bored because they don’t quite understand what’s going on, and that’s the important thing to discern.
MI: What types of characters are the most difficult for you to write lyrics for?
SS: If I don’t understand the character, I don’t even try to write the lyrics, but again, it’s about understanding. It hasn’t happened often, and it’s never happened that I wrote lyrics for a character I didn’t understand, because I don’t do it.
On what’s next
MI: If you are working on a show, we would love to know about it and who your collaborators are.
SS: I’m working with a playwright named David Ives. He is primarily a satirist who writes short plays, but he wrote a full-length play two years ago called Venus in Furs, which is about the famous Venus in Furs book. It turned out to be a moderate hit on Broadway and it was the most performed play in the US last year. But I’ve wanted to write with him for a while and we wanted to write something in a style we both like a lot. We are both fans of the movie director Luis Bunuel, so we decided to do a musical based on two of his movies, one called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and the other one called The Exterminating Angel. They are both movies about people trying to find a place to eat. That’s what they’re about. That is the plot. That’s it. In the first act, which is Discreet Charm, every restaurant they go to, something weird happens, as always in Bunuel, and in the second act, they finally get to a place to have dinner. It’s in an embassy, ad they can’t get out. That’s what we’re writing. It’s, as I say, another hit form the House of Hits.