October 9, 2008

Sondheim Sounds Off About Writing Songs

By Elysa Gardner

No one has earned more acclaim for his contributions to Broadway than Stephen Sondheim. But the composer/lyricist's new musical, Road Show, is making its New York premiere downtown instead -- and he feels very much at home there.

"Commercial theater has become very unwelcoming to new work," Sondheim says. "It's welcoming to jukebox musicals and to titles that have already been sold to the public, but not to young writers. On the other hand, regional and off-Broadway and fringe theaters just adore young writers. It's the only place they get to be heard."

He points out that many of the past decade's most acclaimed Broadway musicals, from The Light in the Piazza to In the Heights, got their start off-Broadway or were produced in the non-profit arena. But Sondheim prefers not to offer his opinions of those shows.

"If I say I love one, then everyone whose work I don't mention could get hurt," he says. "Obviously, I would never say anything detrimental, but if I were to say something complimentary about one, other show writers may say, 'That's the only one he likes? Well, thanks a lot!'"

His concern for others' feelings should surprise no one familiar with the sensitivity and poignancy of his writing. "I tend to be thought of as 'cerebral,'" he says. "I guess people use that word for lyrics that don't pander."

For many years, Sondheim was "unfairly tarred with a brush that said he was cynical and cold," says Time Out New York theater critic Adam Feldman. "But time has revealed that his songs have a deep emotional resonance. And they linger not in spite of their complexity but because of it."

Sondheim still refers to the famously passionate lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II as "my mentor." Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization president Ted Chapin, who's also the author of a book about Sondheim's Follies, sees "direct lines from the emotional involvement in Rodgers & Hanmerstein's shows" to that in Sondheim's.

"It's easy to take an intellectual view of Steve's work because he has such an amazing facility with words, but that's only one of his talents," Chapin says.

Sondheim also gives credit to his collaborating librettists. "I'm not being modest when I say that they create the characters. The trickiest and most interesting part of songwriting for the theater is how the music and words relate to each other, and to the dialogue. That's one reason I prefer writing musicals to writing operas -- I like the contrast between spoken and sung words."

At the moment, Sondheim is applying his gifts in a new arena. "I was commissioned 15 years ago to do a book of collected lyrics, and I said I'd do it if I could write some essays on lyric-writing. I'm not a prose writer -- it's not my natural language -- but I'm about halfway through. I actually began to enjoy it about a year ago. But I've been thinking I should be at the piano more."

But Sondheim dismisses the notion that he remains musical theater's last, best hope.

"I remember when Frank Loesser died (in 1969), I said, 'Well, that's the end of the great songwriters.' But you know, it wasn't. There was his generation, and then there were Bock & Harnick and Kander & Ebb and all the guys and women in our generation.

"And there are a lot of talented young songwriters right now. I just hope they get a chance to be heard." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>