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Look, He Made A Hat: Sondheim Talks Sondheim

In Finishing the Hat, a compendium of Stephen Sondheim lyrics written between 1954 and 1981, the titan of the American musical theater reveals the stories behind some of his most famous numbers -- including songs from Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In addition to examining his own lyrics, Sondheim discusses his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury, as well as his relationship with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II.

Sondheim tells Terry Gross that he wanted to examine the works of other musical-theater writers in order to put his own lyrics in context.

"I thought, 'I can't just criticize myself,'" he explains. "So I looked very carefully at the dozen best musical writers in the American musical theater who preceded me, and looked at their work and talked about it a little bit. ... I go into a little detail on what I think are the flaws or weaknesses or lazinesses of some of those people, and then [I talk about] the people, the bulk of whose work is solid and skillful and pointed."


Among the lyrical heresies that bother Sondheim, he explains, are mis-stressed syllables, misplaced regional accents, purple prose, lyrics that are "too full of themselves" and words that mean absolutely nothing.

He points to a verse from Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," written for the musical Very Warm for May, as an example of a "lyrical cardinal sin:"

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

"Those are all very pretty words, but what do they mean?" Sondheim asks. "Take a look at those images. I don't know what they mean. I also don't know how they apply personally to anybody. I just think they are poesy" -- in the sense of forced, sentimentalized poetic writing -- "and not poetry. Oscar did a lot of poetic writing, which I would call poesy, using images that are not germane to what's going on. I think that's just a writer trying to be poetic."

But Hammerstein, says Sondheim, could also be genuinely poetic. Take, for example, the opening lines to Oklahoma's "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'":

Oh, what a beautiful mornin',
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rythin's goin' my way!

Sondheim says that though that lyrics don't sound exciting on paper, they soar when set to Richard Rodgers' score.

"This is a lyric that doesn't look interesting, but it's thrilling," he says. "It's made for music."

Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park With George. He has also received seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar and a Kennedy Center Honor.

Interview Highlights

On collaborative moments

"If you're talking about Aha! moments, that comes with any collaboration. You sit in a room and you're talking to someone and your collaborator says 'X, Y, Z' and you say 'Wait a minute, that's a great idea for this song.' I had that with Jerry Robbins. He happened to use the phrase 'Let me entertain you' as a sort of dummy phrase for what we thought the song should be about, and I said 'That's perfect, that's exactly the right phrase.' Because it can be 'Let me entertain you' [sung] by kids, and then, when Gypsy becomes a stripper, it can have the sexy, sultry undertone or overtone to it, because 'entertain' can be seen and heard as a double entendre."

Among the songwriting "sins" Sondheim identifies as traps: substituting rhyme for character, strained jokes, redundant adjective padding and inconsistency.
/ AP
Among the songwriting "sins" Sondheim identifies as traps: substituting rhyme for character, strained jokes, redundant adjective padding and inconsistency.

On using slang in the Jets' song from West Side Story

"I was just imitating Arthur Laurents' style. He wrote the book, and he made up a style, a kind of street talk that never existed, because he knew that if he used actual street argot, it would date so quickly that by the time the show got on [stage] a year or two later, it would be old-fashioned. One of the very few pieces of actual street argot we used was the word 'cool,' which still meant the same thing back in 1957 that it had meant to jazz musicians earlier. And that's a word that has stayed, pretty much in the language meaning approximately the same thing, although it changes a little bit. Now of course it just means OK, but 'cool' meant 'better than OK' before, so we kept that."

On using profanity in West Side Story

The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" ends with the cast singing "Gee, Officer Krupke, What are we to do? / Gee, Officer Krupke -- Krup You!"

"I wanted this to be the first musical to use f--k. In fact, I first used it in 'Krupke.' I wanted the last line in 'Krupke' to be 'Gee Officer Krupke, f--k you.' And we played the song for a record company, Columbia Records, who was going to do the album and also for a lady who was raising money for the producer at the time, and she blanched visibly and clearly was upset by it. She didn't complain. She was just sort of shocked and unhappy. But then Goddard [Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records] told us that if we used that word, we couldn't ship the show across state lines because it would be in violation of the obscenity laws. So we changed it to 'Krup you.'"

On writing for Ethel Merman in Gypsy

"We assumed that she couldn't act because she had played all of her life just low comedy and brassy songs, and [Gypsy] would require her to act, particularly at the end of the first act, where she discovers that her daughter has left her and she's going to make the other daughter fill the younger daughter's shoes and make her into a star. And so I thought, 'If she can't act at that moment -- because it's a huge moment -- the way to do it is to give Ethel a kind of song that she's sung all her life: a big, brassy number like "Blow, Gabriel Blow." And then let ... her lover and Louise, her daughter who she's focusing on, react as if they were in front of a cobra -- just completely terrified and motionless and cowering, and then the effect would be made. Ethel wouldn't have to act, but you'd get the idea of, 'This express-train woman is now going to run over her other daughter.' And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act. But the song we wrote, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," is an imitation of "Blow, Gabriel Blow" that Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or any of those brassy [things] that they wrote for Ethel to sing."

On experimentation with musical form

"I never take an overview of myself or what I've done. I do know that if you look at an overview of the stuff that was written before my generation, what you get is [Oscar] Hammerstein as an experimental playwright and his big experiment, which would have broken things open had it been a success, was the third show he wrote with Rodgers, called Allegro, which was an attempt to really try something new with the form. But because it was a failure, nobody picked up on it. Then it was up to my generation to start experimenting [with] the form."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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