75 at 75: Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 <em>Lyrics & Lyricists</em> talk - 92Y, New York

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75 at 75: Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 Lyrics & Lyricists talk

May 2, 1971

A note from Ted Chapin, producer, Lyrics & Lyricists
March 2019

Having worked as a “gofer” on the musical Follies, which opened on Broadway in April 1971, I was keen to attend this evening in May at the 92nd Street Y, the last event in the inaugural Lyrics & Lyricists series. I was an early Sondheim groupie and wouldn’t have missed any public event he was doing. My portable cassette player sat discreetly on my lap, providing me with a rough, but listenable, copy of the talk. I figured it would be worth having.

Listening to 92Y’s own archival recording of the program put Sondheim and the Lyrics & Lyricists program in an extraordinary and visceral historical perspective. Wow. Sondheim starts by saying that he has “never delivered a talk before.” Today we have a vast catalogue of talks, videos, theatrical events, television programs, assembled revues and books dealing with his career and body of work—all of which followed his 92Y presentation.

What’s so special about this talk?  A lot. In fact, I took 14 pages of notes as I listened, fascinated by how he chooses to tell stories and anecdotes, along with his thoughts about lyrics and lyric writing. He apologizes for repeating himself, and for the presentation being random. But what he has to say is remarkable. He admits to being a procrastinator and says he only sat down to think about what he would say two days before, but the themes that he touches on have clearly been in his thoughts for many years. He is witty and self-deprecating, saying that he writes songs in keys “just out of my vocal range” and sings them off pitch—and loud.

His choice of what to speak about and which songs to use as illustrations form the basis of everything that we have heard from him over the years. To wit: there are two basic principles of theatrical lyric writing. One, lyrics exist in time. Unlike poetry, they have a designated period of time in which they are to be consumed. Two, they are created to live connected to music. Because each word counts, he suggests that lyric writing may be “a craft rather than an art.”

The illustrations he chooses are telling. Most of the songs he is going to sing, he warns the audience, are not familiar (today’s audience would know them all, having heard them in various concerts, cabaret and theatrical performances). They include many that were cut (“Love Is in the Air,” “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” “The Echo Song”); ones that explain a specific aspect of lyric writing (“A Parade in Town,” “So Many People,” “I Remember”); and some that were altered, including three songs he wrote for the end of Company. He concludes the program with these, making the point that songs in dramatic context often must evolve. The first song, “Marry Me A Little,” was “too knowing, and the audience might not have gotten the lie the character is telling himself.” The second, “Multitude of Amys,” was based on a character change that was then reversed. (Amy is the nervous bride in the first act, and the thought was that she wouldn’t end up marrying Paul but might end up with Bobby). The third, “Happily Ever After,” was considered “too angry.” He ends it there, choosing not to sing “Being Alive,” the fourth and final version, which by then was starting to become well known and today is one of the staples of his catalog.

Many tidbits get tossed off. He is hilarious describing how Harold Prince demanded a laundry list of things he wanted included in a title song for Company, before jetting off to some vacation spot and leaving Sondheim home to figure it out. In discussing how important the right choice of words is, he praises DuBose Heyward’s first line of “Summertime”: “I would have written, ‘Summertime when the livin’ is easy,’ which is dull. ‘Summertime and the livin’ is easy’ is brilliant,” the better choice to show the right vocabulary for the character.

He is as quick to find fault in some of his early work—West Side Story takes a special drubbing with examples like “Everything free in America / For a small fee in America,” where the words simply cannot be understood when set to the music—as he is to find fault in other lyricists. Lorenz Hart isn’t one of his favorites, and he mentions the lyric in “I Could Write a Book” when the character sings “to make two lovers of friends,” where it is impossible to separate the two “f’s” to make sense of the line when sung.

He cites influences and what he learned from each. Oscar Hammerstein II taught him that content counts, and to write what you feel. From Burt Shevelove (co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) he learned clarity of thought and clarity of language.  Arthur Laurents brought him playwriting principles and, most importantly, the art of subtext.

He talks about the technical aspects of lyric writing: rhymes, inner rhymes, identities, singability, connecting to the music, etc. There are words of wisdom: rhyming for rhyming’s sake is never a good idea (he cites the one rhyming dictionary that he favors) and the book writer is vital. The book is far more than the dialogue, he explains. He talks about the sheer beauty of music and how important this is for a lyricist to remember.

Most everything he said in his 92Y talk has been said by him again since, in different forums and refined by the expansion and depth of his work. What is extraordinary about this recording is how it captures his youthful attitude, a sense that there are people actually interested in what he has to say, and a modest confidence that his work is finally getting the recognition that he hoped, one day, it might get. In his introduction, Lehman Engel says that Sondheim has “a full grounding in the culture of the past, an awareness of the present, and a feeling of responsibility for the future.” That was then. The same could be said today.

Stephen Sondheim at 92Y, May 1971
Stephen Sondheim at 92Y, May 1971