Stephen Sondheim, RIP
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The eminent Broadway musical composer Stephen Sondheim has died at 91.

As I wrote here in 2015 about the movie version of his Into The Woods:

The one missing item is of course catchy tunes. As with most Sondheim musicals, you won’t walk out humming the closing song. …

In a more tuneful alternate reality version of Broadway history, Leonard Bernstein would have followed up West Side Story by composing three or four more musicals, with Sondheim repeating as lyricist.

For an example of Sondheim as a lyricist:

Sondheim was a superb critic of lyric writing. (Here’s his analysis of why DuBose Heyward’s line “Summertime and the living is easy” is so great.) Here, from his obituary in the New York Times, is his own criticism of “America”:

“Words must sit on music in order to become clear to the audience,” he said to his biographer Meryle Secrest for her 1998 book, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” “You don’t get a chance to hear the lyric twice, and if it doesn’t sit and bounce when the music bounces and rise when the music rises, the audience becomes confused.”

In “America,” he added, “I had this wonderful quatrain that went: ‘I like to be in America/OK by me in America/Everything free in America/For a small fee in America.’ The little ‘for a small fee’ was my zinger — except that the ‘for’ is accented and ‘small fee’ is impossible to say that fast, so it went ‘For a smafee in America.’ Nobody knew what it meant!”

As I wrote in 2015:

But Bernstein got himself stuck thinking he had to top West Side Story, and that proved dauntingly hard to do. So the Bernstein-Sondheim composer-lyricist pairing never happened again.

Sondheim always wanted to compose his own music, and as Mark Twain sort of said about Wagner’s oeuvre, it’s better than it sounds. Sondheim is a hard-working artist who is an ornament of the upper reaches of American popular culture. It’s good to have a culture sophisticated enough to produce a Sondheim. It’s just unlucky that he lacks the gift of composing melodic hooks.

Here’s Sondheim’s famous lyric “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday In the Park With George ,about how painstaking a great artist like Georges Seurat (or, by implication, Stephen Sondheim) must be and the sacrifices his devotion to his art demands from his loved ones.

Sondheim chose Finishing the Hat to be the title of his memoirs, so this song meant a lot to him, as it exemplifies his motto “that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft.”

It’s a really good song…except for the tune, which sounds as if Mandy Patinkin is making it up as he goes along. Judging by Peter Jackson’s new Get Back documentary about the Beatles, in 1969 Paul McCartney could have improvised a better melody off the top of his head the first time he was handed these lyrics.

The story Sondheim has often told about how when he was 15 his friend’s dad taught him how to write a musical is delightful. Of course it helps if your friend’s dad is Oscar Hammerstein II. To reach a Sondheim level of sophistication it usually takes more than one generation. From the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER When you were ten and your parents divorced, your mother moved to Pennsylvania and it was there at the age of eleven that you encountered Jimmy Hammerstein and were welcomed into the family of Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein. I understand you’ve said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, you would have become a geologist.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM Yes. He was a surrogate father and a mentor to me up until his death. When I was fifteen, I wrote a show for George School, the Friends school I went to. It was called “By George” and was about the students and the faculty. I was convinced that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t wait to produce it, so I gave it to Oscar and asked him to read it as if he didn’t know me. I went to bed dreaming of my name in lights on Broadway, and when I was summoned to his house the next day he asked, Do you really want me to treat this as if I didn’t know you?

Oh yes, I said, to which he replied, In that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. He saw me blanch and continued, I didn’t say it was untalented, but let’s look at it. He proceeded to discuss it as if it were a serious piece. He started right from the first stage direction; and I’ve often said, at the risk of hyperbole, that I probably learned more about writing songs that afternoon than I learned the rest of my life. He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical.

Of course when you’re fifteen you’re a sponge. I soaked it all up and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon. From then on, until the day he died, I showed him everything I wrote, and eventually had the Oedipal thrill of being able to criticize his lyrics, which was a generous thing for him to let me do.

INTERVIEWER I’ve read that one of the things you learned from him was the power of a single word.

SONDHEIM Oscar dealt in very plain language. He often used simple rhymes like day and May, and a lot of identities like “Younger than springtime am I / Gayer than laughter am I.” If you look at “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! / Oh, what a beautiful day!” it doesn’t seem like much on paper, but he understood what happens when music is applied to words—the words explode. They have their own rainbows, their own magic. But not on the printed page. Some lyrics read well because they’re conversational lyrics. Oscar’s do not read very well because they’re colloquial but not conversational. Without music, they sound simplistic and written. Yet it’s precisely the hypersimplicity of the language that gives them such force. If you listen to “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ ” from Carousel, you’ll see what I mean.

INTERVIEWER He also stressed the importance of creating character in songs.

SONDHEIM Remember, he’d begun as a playwright before he became a songwriter. He believed that songs should be like one-act plays, that they should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should set up a situation, have a development, and then a conclusion . . . exactly like a classically constructed play. Arthur Pinero said about playwriting: “Tell them what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them you’ve done it.” If that’s what a play is, Oscar’s songs are little plays. He utilized that approach as early as Show Boat. That’s how he revolutionized musical theater—utilizing operetta principles and pasting them onto American musical comedy.

INTERVIEWER That afternoon, as I recall, Hammerstein also outlined for you a curriculum and told you he wanted you to write four things. It sounds like a wonderful fairy tale. What were they?

SONDHEIM First, he said, take a play that you like, that you think is good, and musicalize it. In musicalizing it, you’ll be forced to analyze it. Next, take a play that you think is good but flawed, that you think could be improved, and musicalize that, seeing if you can improve it. Then take a nonplay, a narrative someone else has written—it could be a novel, a short story—but not a play, not something that has been structured dramatically for the stage, and musicalize that. Then try an original. The first one I did was a play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, Beggar on Horseback, which lends itself easily to musicalization because it’s essentially a long fantasy. We performed that at college when I was an undergraduate at Williams. I got permission from Kaufman to do it and we had three performances. It was a valuable experience, indeed. The second one, which I couldn’t get permission for, was a play by Maxwell Anderson called High Tor, which I liked but thought was sort of clumsy. Then I tried to adapt Mary Poppins. I didn’t finish that one because I couldn’t figure out how to take a series of disparate short stories, even though the same characters existed throughout, and make an evening, make an arc. After that I wrote an original musical about a guy who wanted to become an actor and became a producer. He had a sort of Sammy Glick streak in him—he was something of an opportunist. So I wrote my idea of a sophisticated, cynical musical. It was called “Climb High.” There was a motto on a flight of stone steps at Williams, “Climb high, climb far, your aim the sky, your goal the star.” I thought, Gee, that’s very Hammersteinish. I sent him the whole thing. The first act was ninety-nine pages long. Now, the entire script of South Pacific, which lasted almost three hours on the stage, was only ninety-two pages. Oscar sent my script back, circled the ninety-nine, and just wrote, Wow!

A delightful contributor to American culture …

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