I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals. For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).
I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth. I judge them according to three things:
1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)
I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t. And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?
I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process. Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:
A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.
Sounds like a story, right?
That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him. This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:
One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.