Songwriter U: The World According to Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim. Besides being the name of one of our greatest living songwriters, it’s also a symbol for greatness as a songwriter for musical theater. A legend among legends, his name resounds among older songwriters the same way the name Johnny Mercer once did. As in, “Yeah, he’s a good songwriter, but he’s no Johnny Mercer.” 

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These days it’s, “Yeah, he’s good, but he’s no Sondheim.” 

The symbology of the name isn’t random. Like Mercer, Sondheim earned this distinction from decades – more than six now – of exceptional, brave, remarkable songwriting. He wrote his first musical – lyrics and music – when he was in college, and his first professional show in 1954, called Saturday Night, which for many reasons was not produced. It was in 1955 that he got his first big break – an enormous one – to write lyrics for West Side Story, with music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

That was followed by Gypsy, for which he wrote lyrics with music by Jule Styne. After that, with one exception, he wrote both words and music. He never stopped writing, to this day, and he is 90 now. He’s created a vast amount and range of musicals, including  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Sunday In The Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along and many others.

(That one exception for which he went back to writing lyrics only was in 1964 when he agreed to write lyrics for Do I Hear A Waltz? with music by Richard Rodgers. Originally Rodgers was set to write it with famous partner, but Hammerstein died, and Sondheim got the job. He was honored to work with the great Richard Rodgers, but never again wrote only lyrics for a show.)

Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Richard Avedon

So equating his name with true greatness in songwriting makes sense, as he has nearly seven decades of exceptional work behind that name. Many of his musicals were not hits, though many were. Such is the nature of the American musical theater, and the fluctuating enthusiasms of Broadway. But all were exceptional, and in different ways.

As Sondheim lovers know, the success or failure of any show never varnished his greatness as a songwriter. He’s been writing remarkable songs since Eisenhower was president, and has never stopped for long. His work has not only been singular, it’s been unprecedented. With great knowledge and reverence for the traditions and history of musical theater, more than any other single songwriter, Sondheim had consistently expanded the form itself, changing the idea of what a musical is, what content is suitable, how songs should be used to further narrative, and myriad other aspects.

He’s written two volumes of books about song. The first was Finishing the Hat, followed by Look, I Made A Hat!  Both are ostensibly collections of all his lyrics. But what makes them priceless in terms of songwriting edification is that, in addition to his own lyrics and intricate ideas about his own songs, there’s also a profusion of what he calls “attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes, and miscellany.”

These are his singular opinions, ideas, pet-peeves, revelations and more all specifically aimed at the art and science of lyric writing and songwriting in general.

The other great treat these volumes offer is Sondheim’s survey of the work of the legendary songwriters of musicals, which often is quite critical for a host of reasons. Even Hammerstein, who was Sondheim’s mentor and friend, receives this treatment. (Which, when applied to famous songs, is fascinating.)

Some of his criticisms concern ideas about songwriting which many people never consider. But all of it, regardless of how relatable to one’s own work it might be, is useful. It’s also utterly engrossing in that it gives you great insight into the mind of one of the great songwriters.

His criticism of lyrics he finds to be deficient always have sound thinking behind them, and are fascinating to encounter. Sometimes they are based on literal interpretations of lines he considers lazy writing, presenting an equation which doesn’t add up.

For example, Sondheim found a serious problem in the lyric of “My Funny Valentine,” with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Larry Hart. The line is: “Your looks are laughable/unphotographable…” Sondheim said “unphotographable.” though a clever rhyme, was weak. Unless you’re a vampire, or a ghost, he wrote, you’re photographable. He never felt a great rhyme was impressive, if the content expressed seemed forced.

All of which might come across as extreme, except for the fact that he’s just as harshly critical of his own lyrics as he is of those written by others. 

An extreme example is his own criticism of his lyrics, and use of inner rhymes, from the West Side Story song “I Feel Pretty,” sung by the lead character Maria. Over the years, Sondheim has said many times he disliked the song because the diction he used didn’t match the character of Maria, especially the line. “it’s alarming how charming I feel.” 

“The diction is just out of character,” Sondheim said in 1975. “It was my first show, and I wanted to show off that I could rhyme. And can you imagine? She’s a Puerto Rican girl who just arrived in this country and she should sing in street poetry, and not literary poetry.”

He said that he didn’t notice how wrong the lyric was until he heard it sung in one of the first performances. “I felt mortified,” he said. “Because that is not the character, that is the writer at work. When she sang that line, I would just put my head under my wing and pretend I’m not there.”

This one instance stands as proof that the man is as tough on himself as anyone. As songwriters must be. Those problems we find in other songs – and let’s face them, we all have certain parts of certain songs, even beloved ones, we don’t love – shape our own songwriting expression, and guide every song we write by establishing standards we choose to meet. 

Sondheim immediately rewrote the entire lyric from beginning to end with language he felt more appropriate while the show was still in rehearsals. But Bernstein, the producers and others involved loved the song and felt that it worked fine in the show. They did not use his new lyrics.

That in itself is a good lesson for songwriters. Unless you are completely satisfied with every aspect of your song, don’t start playing it for others (unless in a song workshop situation with other songwriters). Because non-songwriters will hear a song only as it is. They have no way of judging any deficiencies if there are any. They hear a song in which all the pieces fit, and the music is good, and nothing seems wrong. Why change it now? You finished it. Write a new one!

They are not the right judges, anymore than a songwriter could visit a new hospital just completed and pass judgment on if it was good enough.

But the songwriter knows. And Sondheim knew. He also knew nobody agreed.

That example was about using the right diction for a character, and so applies more to a song for a musical than a song written to stand on its own. Yet it’s still relevant in terms of writing in character. Randy Newman is one of the masters of writing in character, and the same thinking applies always. The language must match the character.

Sondheim, though, unlike Randy, also is quite critical of any divergence from traditional songwriting craft. Many of which are ideas which many no longer subscribe to, and consider an artifact from  previous generations. Use of real rhymes, for example, is one – as opposed to near, slant or false rhymes – though as he expressed, too many rhymes for the wrong character isn’t desired.

“Sondheim told me ones he didn’t like a false rhyme I used,” Randy Newman said. Asked which one it was, he didn’t remember, “cause they are so many of them, But you know, the way I sing, most people don’t notice it.”)

But as Rodney Crowell, Suzanne Vega and other songwriters have said, the attempt to find a perfect rhyme is always worth making, even if you never find one.

Finishing The Hat,” by Sondheim, his first book.

Another of these aspects which Sondheim stressed but is sometimes ignored now is proper use of syllabic stress: ensuring that when you use a multisyllabic word, such as ‘surrender,’ that the melody places the accent in the right place of the word, as spoken.

In ‘surrender,’ that access is on the middle syllable – ‘surrender.’ If you sing it with the accent in the wrong place, it makes the lyric seem forced.

So both books do offer this kind of craft analysis of every song he wrote, as well as songs by all the greatest lyricists of musicals, those who wrote the standards in the Great American Songbook. Regardless of how relevant his criticisms might seem, it’s a truly great opportunity to understand songwriting from the mind of Stephen Sondheim.

In the next part of this series, we will bring you more attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes, and miscellany from the great Stephen Sondheim. 

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