A Sondheim Letter

Norman M2
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A Sondheim Letter#1
Posted: 1/29/19 at 10:09pm

For years I corresponded with Stephen Sondheim. I've written two posts on my website that should interest any Sondheim lovers. One is a letter he wrote to me explaining how he worked with other composers when he was writing only lyrics.

The second post deals with a controversy I've had over something he wrote in his book on lyrics, Finishing the Hat. He claimed that Dorothy Parker verses were unsuitable to be set to music because they already contained the music in the words. Because I had already written a musical, You Might as Well Live, which has starred both Tony-Award-Winner Michele Pawk and Broadway luminary Karen Mason, this statement upset me very much. In my post I'm asking people to listen to my score and decide for themselves whether Sondheim was right about this. Here is the link:

https://normanmathewsauthor.com/general-posts/

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A Sondheim Letter#2
Posted: 1/29/19 at 10:49pm

Your tidbit regarding Sondheim's view of his composer-collaborators is great to read. (Your imagined dialogue with him vis a vis setting Dorthy Parker verse is less so, but who am I to judge?)

Any other tidbits you can share from the man himself in his letters to you?

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A Sondheim Letter#3
Posted: 1/30/19 at 2:50am

There are few bigger Sondheim fans than I, as my posts probably make clear.

But the man, brilliant as he is, has a tendency toward the "idée fixe", if I may borrow a French phrase with no precise English equivalent. On opera, on use of rhyme in lyrics and on Brecht, to take but a few examples, the man has very rigid subjective impressions and/or devotion to certain conventions of lyric theater.

Yes, he's a genius, so I would never dismiss his opinion casually, but he isn't infallible, so whether Dorothy Parker's poems are really "unsettable" is a matter for debate. I wouldn't discard your entire project over Sondheim's statement--which may be entirely true for him and yet not at all true for the rest of us.

Niles Silvers
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A Sondheim Letter#4
Posted: 1/30/19 at 8:18pm

I respectfully disagree with all of the above.  

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A Sondheim Letter#5
Posted: 1/30/19 at 8:53pm
Seems strange for an artist to be seeking affirmation of his vision from random strangers on a website.

Your belief is the one that matters, something I imagine Sondheim would confirm.
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A Sondheim Letter#6
Posted: 1/30/19 at 11:25pm

Sondheim's, shall we say, artistic prejudices have been set in stone for years. I have a few friends who knew him in the mid-late 60s long before he was "Stephen Sondheim" and just that opinionated upstart who wrote lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY. Thank goodness he flourished beyond that, and he's become the beloved, revered writer he is now, but he had a lot of the same feelings on Brecht, opera, and I'm assuming Ms. Parker (though I've never asked) since then. 

 

It's one man's opinion. He's a genius and a great artist, but don't get too hung up on it. As I've learned from knowing SS from a far distance, it's wise not to push, too. Good luck with your show. 

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A Sondheim Letter#7
Posted: 1/31/19 at 3:05am

To take but one example, Sondheim has been saying in articles and in his own books for decades that "intricate rhyming always indicates education and high intelligence", and then he tells the story about Sheldon Harnick knocking Maria's "I Feel Pretty" in WSS.

Well, one can quarrel with some of Maria's vocabulary in that song ("committee"?), but reserving rhyme for uneducated characters ignores the considerable success of LIL ABNER, FINIAN'S RAINBOW and, arguably, HELLO, DOLLY! (except for the title character of the latter).

It may be a perfectly useful convention for Sondheim and Harnick (both masters of the form, IMO), but it is just that: a convention. And one that ignores the use of rhyme in comic pieces, where audience comprehension of every word is key and where even playing with the language may be part of the fun. Yes, it is something Hammerstein eschewed in his attempt to make characters sing their own diction rather than that of the lyricist, but it's still just a convention.

Characters in a play don't know they are singing in rhymes (unless they do, which is yet another convention). Using rhyme as a "representational" scheme is a perfectly good system, but it isn't an edict from God above.

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A Sondheim Letter#8
Posted: 1/31/19 at 3:46am

Now that I've had a chance go listen to your Dorothy Parker songs, Mr. Matthews, I want to first say, "Thank you. I enjoyed them very much."

But I tend to agree with Sondheim on this one. Though you have deftly avoided the trap of making light verse sound like nursery songs, I'm not sure you've succeeded in making theater songs. Of course, I haven't seen the full play (though I would certainly like to do so), but the songs you provide us remain declamatory; I don't hear a character speaking/singing in a dramatic context.

Now there's nothing wrong with writing art songs, which you do with aplomb. But in numbers like "A Very Short Song" Parker's verse is indeed complete, and two-dimensionally complete at that. It all hinges on the reversal in the final like ("That was even worse"A Sondheim Letter, so what is the character singing about the rest of the time?

To be fair, I should add that you fare better than Kurt Weill (a Sondheim peer, IMO) did with Ogden Nash. Except for two great songs ("I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "Speak Low", both ballads, understandably), the score of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS precisely demonstrates the problem Sondheim articulates. The music is great, but hardly necessary.

(Yes, I realize I've been arguing that Sondheim's critical theories aren't gospel, and I still think they are not, but I happen to believe he has a point about light verse.)

But, please, Mr. Matthews, "You do you!", as the saying now goes. Your music is lovely--and though I think a good theater lyricist could serve them even better--if the show works for you, then that is what matters.

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A Sondheim Letter#9
Posted: 1/31/19 at 6:33am

A classic thread!

I wonder if these songs are introduced as counterpoint to book scenes- in the Brechtian style?

And Norman M2- surely 'Putting It Together' tells you everything you need to know about the way Sondheim would react if someone tried to interfere in his artistic process.  You stick to your vision!

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A Sondheim Letter#10
Posted: 1/31/19 at 8:13am

Meaning no disrespect to the late After Eight, a noted and avowed disapprover of Sondheim and his impact on the theatre, but the two men have more in common than they believed: both had somewhat prescriptive views of what was and wasn't good structure and good theatre. Sondheim had a very distinct comfort zone, and was not a proponent of theatrical art that did not follow his "rules." This has led to some of his unique "favorites" through the years, with the South Park musical being one of the most unlikely.

But in terms of how you make art and what art you make, you just have to do you. One of my old professors used the term "autistic" art, with "autistic" not used in the conventional neuropsych way, but in its literal sense: this art is made not for producers or for the audiences, or any niche, or any social message, but art made specifically for the creator's own internal audience. Consider, for instance, the difference between "Abbey Road," a highly personal, creative and diverse pop album that is still decidedly a pop album, and "The White Album," in which the Beatles did whatever spoke to them, regardless of whether it felt like a Beatles song, or a song at all. And yet they're both acclaimed as masterpieces.

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A Sondheim Letter#11
Posted: 1/31/19 at 8:19am

darquegk said: "Meaning no disrespect to the late After Eight"

Just as a point of information, reports of AfterEight's death were erroneous, as he has posted on another thread (I forget which one) in the past couple of days. (Other than that, I have nothing to contribute to this interesting thread!)

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A Sondheim Letter#12
Posted: 1/31/19 at 8:24am

Okay, good to know! Thanks.

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A Sondheim Letter#13
Posted: 2/1/19 at 8:35am

One thing nice you can say about Sondheim.  He answers all his fan's letters with nice neat little notes.

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A Sondheim Letter#14
Posted: 2/1/19 at 10:56am

Norman M2 said: "The second post deals with a controversy I've had over something he wrote in his book on lyrics, Finishing the Hat. He claimed that Dorothy Parker verses were unsuitable to be set to music because they already contained the music in the words. Because I had already written a musical, You Might as Well Live, which has starred both Tony-Award-Winner Michele Pawk and Broadway luminary Karen Mason, this statement upset me very much. In my post I'm asking people to listen to my score and decide for themselves whether Sondheim was right about this."

Well, Stephen Sondheim and I have never had the kind of correspondence that you and he have had, but I also hold his genius in very high regard. I could be very wrong (because I don't know the man - only his work), but I don't believe that when he wrote his thoughts regarding Parker's verses, that he was expressing any kind of ultimatum; that there should NEVER be an attempt to set them to music.

It seems to me that it would be out of character for him to be expressing any kind of ultimatum that would fetter the creativity of another artist. Given how  generous (IMO) he is regarding allowing other artists to interpret his own work (I'm thinking of Tim Burton's paring down of Sweeney Todd, for example), I don't see him being the kind of person who would say "should never be done" to another artist.

I think instead, his thoughts reflect his high regard for Parker's verse as being musical. I think his opinion might be more about praise of Parker's verse rather than about setting a restriction. I also think that his statement could be interpreted as being 'unsuitable' for himself to employ, as opposed to being a restriction for anyone else.

I don't have the talent that you or he has, so I enjoy listening to opinions from those who have the talent I lack. His statement gives me something to look for in Parker's verse (the discovery of what he means by containing the music in the words). 

If I had your talent, I would view Sondheim's statement as an opportunity to ask myself, "Have I captured the music of Parker's verse?"

But (as above), that's a statement meant to demonstrate my high regard for Sondheim - not as a direction for you re-evaluate the competency, or value of your compositions.

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A Sondheim Letter#15
Posted: 2/1/19 at 12:53pm

Heresy! 

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A Sondheim Letter#16
Posted: 2/1/19 at 5:33pm

I question the need to do this publicly, which you've done everywhere you can.  Is this out of neediness?  Getting clicks for your blog?  What?  As to "corresponding" well, if it had been going on that long he would not be calling you "Mr." and signing his full name.  But that's another story for another day, I suppose.  If you like your work, then that's great - go get it produced.

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A Sondheim Letter#17
Posted: 2/1/19 at 5:55pm

bk said: "I question the need to do this publicly, which you've done everywhere you can. Is this out of neediness? Getting clicks for your blog? What? As to "corresponding" well, if it had been going on that long he would not be calling you "Mr." and signing his full name. But that's another story for another day, I suppose. If you like your work, then that's great - go get it produced."

 

Do you ever post anything positive?  Or pleasant?  Or maybe something that isn't so consistently mean spirited?   EVER ?

Updated On: 2/1/19 at 05:55 PM
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A Sondheim Letter#18
Posted: 2/1/19 at 6:22pm

If I had corresponded with Sondheim, I would probably find seemingly casual ways to let people know.

He probably didn't mean every song for which Fields provided the lyrics. She and Jerome Kern wrote the score for the Astaire/Rogers film Swing Time. I think I can kind of see how that applies to some of her songs. "A Fine Romance" is comic

A fine romance, you won't nestle
A fine romance, you won't wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt
I haven't got a chance
This is a fine romance

The melody does seem almost superfluous. The lyrics just bounce along and Kern would be pretty limited to the melody that would fit them.

"Just the Way You Look Tonight," one of the great ballads and winner of the Oscar for "Best Song" 

I don't think so. 

Fields remarked, "The first time Jerry played that melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful."

Not that I'm qualified to discuss this. Just buttin' in.

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A Sondheim Letter#19
Posted: 2/1/19 at 6:43pm

Dorothy Fields is not Dorothy Parker. Two different people. 

 

Just buttin' in. 

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A Sondheim Letter#20
Posted: 2/1/19 at 8:31pm

Oh my God, am I embarrassed. Don't suppose they'll ever give us a "DELETE" button.

I do really like Dorothy Fields. She would have been before his time, I guess.

 

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A Sondheim Letter#21
Posted: 2/2/19 at 12:11am

jv92 said: "Dorothy Fields is not Dorothy Parker. Two different people.



Just buttin' in.
"

Agreed. Ol' Blue Eyes is absolutely qualified to join this discussion, but "A Fine Romance" is a poor example. Why is the romance so sexless? Has the couple been together for a long, long time? Is their "marriage" more a friendship than a romance"? Is one of them gay? Having an affair? And these question just address the lyric in general, without going through it stanza by stanza.

This is a far cry from "A Very Short Love Song".

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A Sondheim Letter#22
Posted: 2/2/19 at 12:15am

* I don't know, John Adams. Sondheim has no trouble writing at length in FINISHING THE HAT (or its sequel) that SUNSET BOULEVARD should never be adapted except as grand opera. Without naming names, that pretty much dismisses several years of work by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Updated On: 2/2/19 at 12:15 AM
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A Sondheim Letter#23
Posted: 2/2/19 at 12:19am

OlBlueEyes said: "Oh my God, am I embarrassed. Don't suppose they'll ever give us a "DELETE" button.

I do really like Dorothy Fields. She would have been before his time, I guess.


"

On the contrary, Sondheim knew Fields personally, I'm sure. He surely know her work, which appeared on Broadway up through SWEET CHARITY in the late 1960s and SEESAW, in the early 1970s. IIRC, he even mentions her lyrics as one of the models for the pastiche numbers in FOLLIES.

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A Sondheim Letter#24
Posted: 2/2/19 at 2:41am

"Do you ever post anything positive?  Or pleasant?  Or maybe something that isn't so consistently mean spirited?   EVER ?"

Well, since you've only been around here about a month, and since I haven't really posted all that much lately, I would question your generalization, oh, yes, I would question your generalization.  My post was in response to the OP.  Your post is what exactly because if it has anything to do with what the OP posted I must have missed it.  Thanks for playing, though.

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A Sondheim Letter#25
Posted: 2/2/19 at 2:41am

GavestonPS said: "* I don't know, John Adams. Sondheim has no trouble writing at length in FINISHING THE HAT (or its sequel) that SUNSET BOULEVARD should never be adapted except as grand opera. Without naming names, that pretty much dismisses several years of work by Andrew Lloyd Webber."

'Ya know, Gaviston - I don't know, either! I wish Sondheim and I were on a similar intellectual, amiable, and creative level, that I could say we were "besties"...  (I wish!)wink

But you inspired me to dig a bit. I found this @ http://www.sondheim.com/works/sunset_blvd/:

"I never wrote anything for Sunset Boulevard... shortly after Forum, Burt Shevelove and I started to write a version of Sunset Boulevard. We got maybe an outline, I think, and just the beginnings of a first scene, and I happened to meet Billy Wilder at a cocktail party, and shyly said to him that a friend of mine and I were starting to make a musical of his movie, and he said, "Oh you can't do that," and I figured that he was going to say that we couldn't get the rights; but he went on to say, "It can't be a musical - it has to be an opera, because it's about a dethroned queen." And that seemed to me such a shrewd observation that I called Burt and said "Let's forget it, because I certainly don't want to do an opera."

I still feel that Sondheim has historically demonstrated artistic generosity in regards to his own works. I don't think I will ever be reconciled with the paring down of Sweeney Todd's score for the movie version, yet Sondheim appears to be OK with allowing another artist his interpretive freedom. 

I feel like this is a good example of "actions speak louder than words". Although Sondheim has verbally expressed his opinions about Parker's verse, I find it hard to believe that his words were meant as directive, as opposed to respectful observation, and a form of praise for Parker. When a genius like Sondheim allows other artists such unfettered freedom with his own work, why would I think he would attempt to be restrictive of other artists' work?

Updated On: 2/2/19 at 02:41 AM