Aug 31, 2016

How Sondheim Writes

The hoariest question songwriters get asked is: Which comes first, the words or the music? Stephen Sondheim’s answer has always been: the dramatic situation. (With all apologies to Merrily We Roll Along’s Charlie, whose cynical answer is, “Generally, the contract.”) Anthony Tommasini’s tantalizing new story in the Times, posited as “something he’s always wanted to ask,” is a sort of high-toned version of the words-or-music question: Will Sondheim ever write a purely instrumental work?

The student concerti he wrote at Williams, well covered in Steve Swayne’s How Sondheim Found His Sound, are mentioned, as are his film scores for Stavisky and Reds (though not the diverting incidental music he contributed for two plays by Arthur Laurents captured on this collection). Tommasini’s new piece gets from Sondheim a roundabout answer why he won’t be writing a concerto any time soon: He says it’s because he loves the theatre, and so, in much the same way his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II never wrote a novel because he loved the theatre too much, Sondheim doesn’t feel the need to write a symphony, a concerto, a fantasy, etc.

Tommasini gets a little sidetracked by the question of “words qua words,” as Sondheim puts it, which are maninfestly an obsession and a gift of his. But Sondheim quickly wrenches Tommasini back to basics:
He insisted that it was not really the words that generated his musical ideas. “I express the character,” he said. “Let’s see what happens to him. I express it musically. The reason I love Puccini so much is because he understands how music expresses character, which I’m not sure very many opera composers do. They write beautiful tunes. That’s different.”
This reminded me enough of my conversation with Sondheim for American Theatre that I thought it was worth revisiting. Essentially, I think I figured out a version of how Sondheim writes his scores that makes sense to me, and proposed it to him, and he seemed to agree. Film scores are one key to the answer.

He’s talked a lot about how he writes his famous accompaniment figures first (think of “The Little Things You Do Together,” or “A Bowler Hat,” or “Johanna,” for starters), then composes melodies on top of them, rather than working the other way around, as many popular composers do. He also talks a lot about hunkering down with the given dramatic situation, the character, etc., a bit like an actor might. So here's how I got there:

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You’ve also said that you approach playwriting-in-song from an actor’s point of view. Is that always your main way into the material?
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Yeah, getting to know the character the playwright’s created, and then becoming the character. I’m sure that’s what every songwriter who writes my kind of stuff does. I mean, you have to be an actor—how else do you get inside a character? You act the character, even if you’re just doing it in your living room, even if it’s just in your head. Somebody sets up the pattern of the way the character talks, then there’s a situation: “Okay, this is who she is, now her house has caught fire.” You become that character, and what do you do when a house catches fire?

What interests me is, how do you get from inhabiting that character to writing her music? How do you get from behavior to song?
It’s just that’s the way I think. I don’t really think like a playwright; I really think like a playwright who writes songs. A lot of it has to do with sitting with the book writer and getting the idea of how a scene could be all musicalized, so that by the time I get to writing it, it’s already been plotted to some extent. I don’t even remember how “Chrysanthemum Tea” came into being, but we decided we needed a scene that told what happened after the warships sat in the harbor waiting for a reply. There’s no scene to be written there; in the movies, it would be a montage; and, in fact, what you’re talking about in all these cases is montages, the way you’d do it in a movie. That’s exactly what “God That’s Good!” is, and “Chrysanthemum Tea” and “A Weekend in the Country." These contain scenes that take place over a period of time and occur in different places.

Since you bring up film technique—and you’ve talked about how the first thing you come up with in a song is the accompaniment, not the vocal melody—I wonder if what you’re doing is essentially imagining these scenes like they’re in a movie, and then you start scoring it. Is that a way to think about it?
I think that’s it. Until this conversation, it hadn’t occurred to me. I’m not so much thinking like a playwright, but like somebody writing or directing a movie. That’s exactly right. It’s because I was brought up on movies.
For another illuminating Tommasini take on Sondheim, it’s hard to beat this video from 2010, on the occasion of Sondheim’s 80th birthday.