As much as I loved Stephen Sondheim as the composer of some of my favorite songs, I was even more taken by him as a teacher and raconteur.
He came to that first profession because he was fortunate to have as a neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II, as in Rodgers and. Here’s a story I’ve heard him tell. “In 1945, Sondheim presented his first musical, By George, to Hammerstein, who told him: ‘It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was terrible, and if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.’
“Hammerstein taught him how to construct a musical. ‘I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned more that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime.”
Has anyone so talented been so hard on himself? His books Finishing The Hat (2010) and Look, I Made A Hat (2011) collect lyrics with Attendant Comments, Anecdotes, et al. They are very entertaining additions to my book collection. In fact, they reside perhaps a meter away from where I sit in the office. The former was my favorite book that year.
A massive body of work
I wrote how Leonard Bernstein, another of his teachers, kept him from using the obvious profanity at the end of Gee, Officer Krupke. Of course, as I’ve noted repeatedly, West Side Story is my favorite musical. Its creation and evolution from the stage to the movie have long fascinated me.
“The first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Comedy Night is a grand opening piece. I recall that from seeing a production of it back in the early 1970s. At some point years ago, I’ve actually sung the title tune from Anyone Can Whistle. My daughter was in a variation of his Assassins, which is difficult music indeed. I’ve seen the movie Into The Woods.
And I haven’t even mentioned Gypsy or Company or Follies or A Little Night Music. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Sunday in the Park with George. As the Boston Globe asked, “Who else would write a musical about a vengeful barber whose victims are turned into meat pies (‘Sweeney Todd’)?”
Ken Levine notes an even earlier credit, on a television show.
Words that rhyme
Here’s something I find intriguing. He believed “words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher… ‘I have got a rhyme in ‘Passion,’ colonel, and journal. Now, you look at them on paper, they seem to have no relation to each other at all. So, when you rhyme them, it’s, ooh, you know?'” I believe he is correct.
Mark Evanier has linked to Sondheim-related material dozens of times. As he noted: “If you have ever wanted to write songs or plays — or really anything — you will enjoy this conversation between Adam Guettel and Stephen Sondheim. It’s just two guys who write great stuff for the Broadway stage sitting around and yakking…”
Evanier also posted Send In The Clowns, sung by Bernadette Peters, generally considered the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, with the composer on the piano. And Everybody Wants To Be Sondheim, a “song written by — and performed here by — Alan Chapman.” In fact, just go to Mark’s site and search Stephen’s name.
Stephen Sondheim received nine Tony Awards, an Oscar, eight Grammys, the Laurence Olivier Award, the Kennedy Center Honors (1993), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015). He was 91.