What Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim Can Teach Any Writer

What Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim Can Teach Any Writer

Many consider composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to be the greatest musician of the 20th century. At the very least, he’s certainly the most prolific. Sondheim is not only the lyricist of such Broadway milestones as Gypsy and West Side Story, but he wrote the music and the lyrics for classic shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods.  

He’s given credit for “reinventing the American musical” with shows that tackle “unexpected themes that range far beyond the genre’s traditional subjects” with “music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication.” (Those quotes are from his Wikipedia page where you can find hundreds more like it.)

So, someone as influential and prolific as Sondheim (14 Broadway shows that he did the music and lyrics for himself) must be able to write anything he wants and in any way that he wants, right?

Not at all.

In fact, the more you read about him, the more you listen to his interviews, or if you’re lucky enough, the more you hear him espouse in the classroom, the more you realize he is as disciplined as any novice writer, and modest about most of his achievements, too.

I first saw Sondheim interviewed decades ago on "60 Minutes" where he was asked if he could just sit down and write a song. He laughed and shook his head and went on to explain that writing requires more purpose and specifics than direction so random. Sondheim went on to explain that he would have great difficulty writing such a song without more instruction. The composer further explained that he really wouldn’t know what to do with so vague a notion.

However, if you asked him to write a song about a lonely woman who minutes before last call in a neighborhood bar connects with one of the last patrons there …he could write that song.  

Even as legendary and as ginormous a talent as Sondheim is, he still requires guard rails.

It’s a shrewd and instrumental lesson for all writers. No matter your success, or influence, or satisfaction with a job well done, there is always the next project and that will be served best by continuing to incorporate the basic disciplines of writing to carry it off properly.

Being uncaged or unencumbered isn’t really freedom in writing, it’s absurdity.

Sondheim, in the many video interviews you can find and enjoy on YouTube, goes on to explain that, for him, writing is not the mystery that many would ascribe to his profession. For all his acclaim for writing the most intricate lyrics and rhyme schemes, often written internally and then some, Sondheim relies on a rhyming dictionary to help him find the precise words. Even though he’s now known as a composer/lyricist, decades and decades from the years when he collaborated with the likes of Jules Styne, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Rodgers, he still doesn’t write the books of his musicals and is a gung-ho partner to whomever he’s working with on a show. (That goes for the director too.) And Sondheim’s lectures about his craft touch on basics that you could find in most any creative writing class, including many of those aimed at screenwriters.

How so?

For starters, Sondheim explains that when he’s writing a song, the necessities of the scene in a show and the tone needed for that moment precedes any musical or lyrical idea. He must know the context that he’s writing in.

Sondheim also questions early on if a song is even necessary at that point in the show, asking his collaborators if dialogue would suffice and cover what’s needed by the story.

As big as Sondheim is, he’s not too big to ask, “Is this song really necessary?”

In fact, one of his best rules to live by is to try and never write a “wrong song.” He admits that any composer for musical theater can write a bad song, but writing a “wrong song,” one without purpose or meaning, is a far greater sin.

In fact, Sondheim doesn’t make a habit of telling his collaborators that a song goes here or there. Instead, he talks with them early in the developmental stages to figure out together where are the right places for a “right song.”

Sondheim’s three rules of thumb aren’t much different either from those of any English professor instructing younger writers. He believes that “content dictates form,” that “less is always more,” and that “God is in the details.”

The more you understand the purpose of the story, the better you can write to it. Editing is the best part of writing. And adding specifics to what you put down on the page will give your work clarity and memorability.

Listening to Sondheim talk is to hear a great storyteller hold court, especially as he regales one with amusing anecdotes and episodes from his long theatrical history.

He is 91 now and as sharp as a tack, pouring out oodles of detail of just how he wrote what he did and the struggles along the way to get his writing there. Perhaps what stands out as much as the composer’s brilliance of self-awareness and knowledge is his rather humble take on his many achievements.

Sondheim is an artist not above admitting mistakes or citing songs or lyrics that he’s written which he’s no longer crazy about. “Today, the world was just an address” from the song “Tonight” in West Side Story still sticks in his craw.

Sondheim is also open to reinterpretations and new takes on his classics as well, proving that indeed, anything can be rewritten or given a fresh spin if the author is up to it.

It has yet to be seen by the public or critics, but Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story being readied for cinemas this Christmas promises some new takes, all blessed by Sondheim. In fact, as his shows are often revived, he’s more than up to seeing things differently. A version of Company is due on Broadway this fall with a female lead replacing the typical male protagonist of the show.

After nine decades on Earth, Sondheim still regards writing as a continuous journey, one that he is constantly learning from. And for him, writing always needs direction, guide rails, discipline, collaboration, and a willingness to bend. I can’t think of better advice to any creative writer, and Sondheim has given it to all of us for a song.

*Feature Image: Stephen Sondheim by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
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