Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

Stephen Sondheim

by Stephen Sondheim

I was worried about bothering Stephen Sondheim with questions about West Side Story; surely, I thought, he'd prefer to talk about the shows for which he'd written both lyrics and music. Robbins, Laurents and Bernstein were partway into the project when Steve was brought in to work on the lyrics. But Steve surprised me with his candor as well as his ppreciation of his colleagues. J.B.

I don't mind talking about it, but I have to be frank. I certainly feel the pride of being connected to the show; I'm not ashamed of the show, but I'm not happy about all of it, especially my own stuff. I don't like to hear people apologizing for their work in public — I think, oh come on, let the work speak for itself — but I cringe when I hear Maria use drawing-room words like "alarming" (in "I Feel Pretty") and Tony wax poetic with lines like "Today the world was just an address." Arthur wrote those characters to speak simply and basically.

Although I came in late on the show, progress was not so considerable. Arthur had written a three-page synopsis of the action (no dialogue yet), and Lenny had written only the chorus of "Cool" and the opening bars of "Maria" (apart, of course, from the tunes like "Krupke," "One Hand" and "America!," which he had written for previous projects and which he subsequently transferred to "West Side"). That's as far as they'd gotten.

From each of the collaborators, I learned stuff that I have used or passed along to other collaborators. From Arthur, I learned about subtext and how necessary it is for actors. One time he took me with him to the Actors' Studio. When I asked why, he replied, "You've got to know the instruments you're working with..." The most remarkable thing about Arthur's book is how spare it is, how much plot he deals with in such a brief time — brief because there's so much singing and dancing in the show.

From Lenny, I learned something about not thinking of music so squarely. You have four bars, do you really need all four? How about three bars! I was used to thinking in terms of four and eight-bar phrases. I also learned from him about the only kinds of chances worth taking: all the mistakes he made were big ones — he never fell off the bottom rung of the ladder.

From Jerry, I learned that you stage numbers in your head first. I had to play "Maria" for him the first time he heard it — Lenny was out of town conducting somewhere. When I got finished singing it, he said: "What's going on on stage during all of this?" "Uh, well, they're changing the set, and Tony's walking to Maria's —" Jerry cut me off, snapping, "That's all? He's just going to stand there and sing? You stage it!" He was right. If it's a static song with no one else in the scene, and it's in the sort of show that's trying to tug you along in a story, there should be some stage action or some development in the lyric (as in the "Soliloquy" from Carousel). It's up to the songwriter to plan it, to give the director a platform from which to take off.

As you know, I was hesitant to take the job, because I wanted to write music. But Oscar Hammerstein said, "Do it. It'll be a wonderful opportunity, working with those people. Take it on as a learning experience." And guess what? I learned.

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