The following post is a set of very rough notes taken as a student at a lecture given by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim was the visiting tutor in Musical Theatre at Oxford University during 1990, and this was an open lecture he gave to an audience. With Mr. Sondheim that day, taking part in the lecture were: Arthur Laurents (Book writer of ‘Gypsy’ and ‘West Side Story’) and John Weidman (Book writer of ‘Assassins’). The lecture took place on Friday 8th June, 1990 in the Bernard Sunley Lecture Theatre, St Catherine’s college, Oxford. Amongst the audience were a number of well known people involved in musical theatre, including impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
(I will write these notes out exactly as I find them from my incomplete 20 year old pieces of paper. I will also put some musical examples in to break up the monotony.)
The lecture was open for public questions among those asked were:
a) The popularity of musicals (The commercial aspect of some shows)
b) Having a good book-does adding songs spoil the narrative?. Sondheim questioned Laurents about ‘Gypsy’ as to if it actually needed songs.
Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim’s mentor) once said ” When a character is fully developed it can only continue in song” A fine example of this is in ‘My Fair Lady’ when Higgins speaks his way through all of his patter songs, it’s only when he realises that he is in love with Eliza that he actually gets his first true ballad to sing ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’.
Sondheim said it was difficult to ‘shoe-horn’ songs into ‘A funny thing happened on the way to the forum’ his first successful show as a composer and lyricist.
The discussion lead to ‘through-sung’ musicals and also touched on modern attitudes towards theatre. Sondheim heard a couple say after seeing ‘Phantom of the opera’ “We had nice seats!” suggesting that going to the theatre is an event rather than an Art form/Entertainment. Sondheim praised the ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’ and ‘National Theatre’ and their ability to get quality actors to put on less commercial works to a wide and appreciative audience. Sondheim discussed that audiences in the states tended to be of a higher age range and that he was worried that younger people were less enthusiastic about shows. Cameron Mackintosh (in the audience) said that this was not the case with his production of ‘Miss Saigon’ (Drury Lane). Discussion then about the whole event of going to the theatre, ticket prices took place. Sondheim then discussing topics for a musical believes a musical can be written about anything or should at least be tried. One lady of the audience asks “but could you write a musical about a complete psychopath?” Sondheim replied with ” Madam, have you seen ‘Sweeney Todd’!”
Sondheim considers ‘Sweeney Todd’ to be a ‘through-sung’ musical because he keeps music (underscoring) going whilst action takes place i.e. ‘slitting of throats’! He says this is essential to keep the mood. He goes on to say that ‘West Side Story’ would not have worked as a ‘through-sung’ piece because a gang could not sing and dance all the way through “it would be stupid”. Also it was felt that there was the need for some spoken American slang language etc. Sondheim says you can’t educate an audience but you can expose them to something, as if you were in a supermarket for instance. He says he doesn’t like writing commercial style shows because he finds that degrading to the audience and he writes what HE likes so that he is proud of his work and that others may admire it also. He also said he doesn’t like to ‘dumb it down’ so that an audience may understand better. When questioned about his poularity or non-popularity as the case may be and his elitism, he replied that popularity was not the foremost important thing to him but rather the test of time, he used as an example the comparison of Sphor to Beethoven, Sphor was very popular in his own time, but now it is Beethoven that people listen to and perform more. His feelings on opera were also brought to the audiences attention: “Opera is boring! people go to see Joan Sutherland singing in ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ not to see the opera. The one exception is ‘Porgy and Bess’ which will last a lifetime” (Sondheim has since mentioned his admiration for ‘Peter Grimes’, but only Act One).
At the time of the lecture, Sondheim had recently written songs for Madonna and Mandy Patinkin in the the fim ‘Dick Tracy’ he was asked if this was difficult: “No, merely pastiche, like ‘Follies’ music for a nightclub sequence’. The main differences between writing for film and theatre is “stage screening time differences, a single facial shot in a movie can do in one frame what a whole song would have to do in a musical”