Lessons from Sondheim

I love so many Sondheim shows, and I do think he’s a genius lyricist. I know some people have difficulty with his music (he writes of being incessant told it’s not “hummable”), but I’ve been humming it since my mother taped, with an actual tape, a broadcast recording of the original Into the Woods in 1991. I’ve been hunting obscure Sondheim songs ever since. And whatever you think about his melodies, I can’t imagine who you could propose as a more clever, inventive, influential, moving lyricist of his generation. Sondheim’s advice can be found in the annotations of his collected lyrics; so far I’ve read the first volume, Finishing the Hat, and all the page numbers below refer to that book.

The opening number

Hammerstein taught Sondheim about the importance of an opening number, but Sondheim didn’t fully believe him until he’d proved it for himself. The story goes like this: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened out of town, more or less the same hysterical bedroom farce we can see in the 1966 movie, but beginning with the first scene, rather than a song. And guess what? Nobody laughed. It was a flop. The problem, Sondheim and his collaborators realized, was that the audience had no idea what to expect — a classical Greek tragedy? A serious history? So Sondheim wrote an opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” and suddenly the show was a hit. “Nothing with kings / Nothing with crowns / Bring on the lovers, liars, and clowns” (83). Sondheim told the audience exactly what kind of show was coming, and if you need convincing of his genius, just take a moment to reflect on the way he says exactly what he wants to say while also rhyming and playing with the /k/ and /l/ songs in those lines.

Early in my reading of Finishing the Hat, I misunderstood this principle to mean every show needs a BIG opening number, with the whole cast involved. So I took the older-David-looking-back-on-his-birth opening song, “Hero,” (click on the “Three Songs” button at the bottom of my website’s home page) and began to expand it, as if everyone in the show has the same central, internal conflict as David does! (“Will I be the hero of my life story? / Or will I let others chart that course for me?”) My big version spiraled more and more out of control…until Sondheim brought up Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” as a perfect example of an opening number. Only one character sings, but what is he doing? “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…All the sounds of the Earth are like music” (Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, 1943) He’s setting the scene. So the opening doesn’t have to be big, though audiences like big: for example, “The Greatest Show,” “Alexander Hamilton.” It has to be right.

Sondheim writes, “Hammerstein also claimed that the opening number is the most important song in a musical because it establishes tone, character, information, and everything in between” (333). So there you have it, secondhand, from the man who invented the modern musical (i.e. one in which the songs are specific to character, place, and time, and move the plot forward). So how do I need to change “Hero,” based on what I’ve learned? Well, I think David can “tell” the first scene as it’s acted out, rather leave that as actual dialogue — those new verses weren’t bad, and the show is too long, so I think that’s a good way to tighten. With just that change, the first song now introduces character, story, and setting. I’m still considering a brief interruption by the women of the show, because a focus purely on David does seem like a misrepresentation, since I’ve tried so hard to bring the struggles of the women from background to foreground in my retelling. Yet I still feel it’s right to start with David and his birth, because (to quickly switch hats to the book writer), the fact that he is born a boy and therefore is rejected by Aunt Betsy (an abuse survivor) is the inciting incident from which all else follows.

Honestly, I don’t know anyone writes the lyrics to a musical without writing the book, too. Or rather, I do, after reading Finishing the Hat, but it involves a lot of back-and-forth and rewriting that I sometimes get to do entirely in my head. Sondheim is very open about the fact that he could never write a musical book: structure the scenes, create the characters, etc. For me, that is the part most like novel-writing, and so, the easiest part. (I’m still working on making the dialogue more snappy, though). However, I do notice in Sondheim’s reflections, sometimes, a sort of story-blindness. He occasionally wonders about problems that seem obvious to me, such as why the audience never laughs at a particular funny song in Pacific Overtures, despite rewrite after rewrite (303). To me, the obvious answer is that it comes too soon after the death of a character the audience likes, and people can’t emotionally boomerang that fast — a story problem no amount of tinkering with the lyrics will ever be able to fix. Probably the most endearing aspect of Finishing the Hat is the way Sondheim is constantly working to give the credit for ideas he is often complimented on to the book writers whose ideas they actually were.

Coming Next Time: Sondheim’s 3 Maxims: content dictates form, God is in the details, and less is more.

Sondheim, Steven. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.