on Wednesday afternoon I tore myself from my writing and walked in the rain to campus to sit at the feet of the master. Stephen Sondheim was paying a visit to the Musical Theater History class and they opened it up to the whole program. The musical theater nerd inside of my was jumping up and down through the entire discussion. The thought process was something like “it’s stephen sondheim! you’re actually looking at stephen sondheim! you’re actually in a room with stephen sondheim! let my brain sing to me every sondheim song! It doesn’t matter that you aren’t paying attention to what’s being said – you are singing company in your head, you are singing sweeney todd in your head, you are singing passion in your head, …., and all while looking at the writer stephen sondheim!” But after a while the sensible non-jumpy person inside of me turned to the musical theater nerd inside of me and said “shut up and pay attention.” But the thing was, it was hard to pay attention. Not just because it was thrilling to breath the air of someone who revolutionized theater but because in fact the discussion was rather boring.
I’m not saying he was boring but the questions that were asked by the teacher and his assistant were just not at all interesting. Most of the questions were history related – you worked with this person in this year, what was that like? or you did this play how did that happen? and the like and I guess they related to what the class had been studying because the professor kept looking at his students and giving them knowing glances while motioning that they should be taking notes. But most of what was being said could be found in any interview or theater history book. My theory is when you got the man in front of you you dig a little deeper than what could be found in a google search. It was obvious that Sondheim was aware that these were stupid questions because he kept saying things like ‘people have heard this story’ to which the teacher responded along the lines of ‘they can hear it again.’ The audience didn’t fight back since the shared grin on our faces meant we all had mini-musical theater nerds jumping up and down inside of us saying “just hearing stephen sondheim speak, just watching his lips move while I remember the score to Sunday in the Park.”
But it wasn’t all a waste. I did get some insight into Sondheim and found that when he was given the chance to talk about ideas and how he develops work the things he said were spot on with the way I think about theater. He is a very conscientious writer and composer and it seems that every song, every moment is extremely well thought through. He talked about the creation of Pacific Overtures. He was at first hesitant to work on the project since he knew little about Japanese music and wanted to make sure that the play did not just have Western music imposed on it. I can’t fully explain how he found the music in the piece since his discussion of it got very technical into how Eastern music is approached, not on the same scales or notes not being hit in the same manner, and he used lots of jargon that with my lack of musical training I couldn’t completely follow. He did though finally figure out a way he could use the tricks of Eastern music and as the story builds start including more and more western so that the first song would be predominately Eastern and the last predominately Western. He was able to add to the storytelling of the play by the technical construction of the music in addition to the lyrics.
“The most important thing in narrative theater is surprise,” he said. Without elements of surprise work is dull. A play can contain all the elements but surprise that would normally be entertaining but if the audience knows what’s happening before it happens they will be bored. His example for how he used surprise was talking about how he knew going into one play that he wanted to have a song where everyone would expect a murder but not have one and then he wanted to have a song where no one would suspect a murder but then there are several. The show of course is Sweeney Todd and the songs “pretty women” and “johanna.” The songs are technically built opposed to the final actions of the scene. “Pretty Women” builds in tension until the point where Anthony runs in and breaks it instead of the murder and “Johanna” moves with a pleasant beat and each killing comes as a surprise.
He spoke about the process of creation and praised collaboration in theater. “You have to be frightened when you write. You have to be scared.” Keeping the fear up in any project, fear of failure, fear of meeting deadlines, whatnot keeps your energy up. It’s a simple thing but it really resonated with me. One of the reasons he said he liked working with collaborators is because when you are working with someone “you have someone to be scared with.” He also spoke of the importance of including audience in the development process, something that I believe strongly in. “You don’t learn on paper,” he said the “only way to learn is to see it on the stage in front of strangers…audience is the final collaborator.”
Some other random notes I wrote down hearing him speak – I’m not sure if, or which, of these were direct quotations:
“I like shady characters”
“there are many things still to be discovered, it doesn’t seem that way …wait”
“I wish I were a russian jew – that’s all poetry”
“the broadway community is eroded – don’t know if it’s recoverable”
I believe one of his last comments while talking about the downfall of American theater but counterpointing it with a life in theater he said “It’s wonderful stuff.”