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Tag: Sondheim

Sondheim’s 3 Maxims (and 1 song of mine)

Sondheim has three guiding principles so essential to his philosophy of lyric writing that they are printed over and over on the inside cover of his collection:

  • Less is More
  • Content Dictates Form
  • God is in the Details

Since you could easily read what Sondheim has to say about these principles by picking up his book, I’d like to explain them along side a problematic song from my work-in-progress musical, David: A Retelling for Our Time, and show how they’ve aligned with my writing, or suggested revisions. In case you are new to my work, the musical is a loose adaptation of David Copperfield that brings forward the issues relevant today: the injustice of the income gap, and the stories of the three abused women in the book. And yes, I’d been writing it for quite some time when I heard there was a movie version coming out. It’s hard to believe both versions are based on the same book.

“Are you a Dream?”

In this song, David proposes to Dora, a 16-year-old who is devoted to him but is not his perfect match. The challenge of these particular lyrics is that David has to be utterly romantic, completely sincere in his love, and yet the song must also foreshadow the problems in their relationship. So, while David questions Dora’s reality because she seems too good to be true, the song is revealing that he is more in love with the idea of Dora than with the actual woman:

I am yours. You are my dream,  
What I see when I close my eyes.
You are the voice, when I'm in doubt,
Telling me that happiness should not be a surprise.
Saying that love is real and lasting,
A voice of sunlight and music and wine. 
Can you be real? Are you a dream?
And if you are real can you be mine?

Is there truth in the dreams that I dream at night?
A new home that's filled with love and life,
My ideal, finally real, in the new day's light?
And can you be my wife?

Of course, David’s troubled past also informs these lyrics — to him, happiness is always a surprise, and is rarely lasting.

Less is More

While not my best writing (it’s a bit generic), this opening fulfills Sondheim’s advice that less is more, because every line has something new to say, some nuance in David’s character or feelings to reveal. (Plus the actual proposal, a plot point). Of course there is repetition for emphasis (“You are my dream” / “Are you a dream” / “Is there truth in the dreams”), but that is fine, and different from what Sondheim refers to as redundancy. There was a time, in musical theater history, when songs were built on redundancy. The purpose of the song was to come up with some clever way to say the same thing (I love you, you should love me, etc.) over and over in endless variation. Some of these songs are wonderful: Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” (a list of funny and entertaining ways to say “You are great”); Ira and George Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (a list of reasons why the singers shouldn’t be together, including “You say potato, I say po-tah-to”); and many more. But they don’t fit in a modern musical, where we expect the song to reveal unique character and advance the plot. So, less is more: each line needs to be saying something that must be said.

Content Dictates Form

In the next section of the song I completely violate the “less is more” principle. I say the same thing (“You are everything to me”) four times, without even unique metaphors. Bear with me and I’ll tell you why this has to be so.

In the light of your smile I won't need the sun,
And darkness will cease to be.
I'll drink in the sight of you every day,
No other wine for me.
The music of your voice and your easy laugh
Will be my symphony,
An the touch of your hand that I hold in mine 
Is all the world could hold for me.

The reason I have to include old-fashioned variations on a theme here is because content dictates form. In this case, the content I have to express is that there is something missing in this relationship, an emptiness David fills with his ideals rather than Dora’s real characteristics. So these lines are somewhat empty, one-size-fits-all expressions of love. They are sincere, but immature and cheesy. David and Dora are too young, and they don’t know each other well enough. When David sings to the right woman, Agnes, at the end of the play, each line has something new to say, because David actually has things to say. But here, “content dictates form” trumps “less is more.” The song has to match the character and the moment, even if that means abandoning cleverness to a degree that Sondheim admits he has trouble doing. But of course, it’s harder for Sondheim because he is the epitome of clever.

God is in the Details

Basically, Sondheim votes “yes” in favor of neurotic perfectionism when crafting lyrics. I doubt that comes as a surprise to any Sondheim fan. I am a perfectionist, and it is very frustrating to me to have delay that drive because I know I’m going to have to rearrange all the lyrics to fit melodies once I find a composer, so why spend time on the details now? (And if you know composer who might be interested, use the contact me button on the main website!!!). However, there are details that just need to be fixed, because they are too embarrassing to represent my writing, and the first draft of the last section of this song happens to sport quite a few. In this section, Agnes, the woman David should be with, reveals her feelings for the first time. David is dancing with Dora and does not hear her.

I am yours. You are my dream,
What I see when I close my eyes.
You are the voice, when I'm in doubt,
Saying I'm strong enough, and capable, and wise.
You are the one who truly knows me,
And accepts all that I am. 
But you don't want an equal partner, 
You want your mother back again.

You think this time you will save her, 
You will spare her every pain.
And I could never be that helpless.
I'm not a bird, who would love its cage,
For giving shelter from the rain.

Yep, that’s embarrassing. Agnes definitely understands David’s psychology, but God is in the details. Let’s take it piece by piece.

I always knew that “am” and “again” made an imperfect rhyme, ending in similar sounding consonants (m and n), but not the same consonants. Sondheim is against imperfect rhymes, though he admits that modern audiences are acclimating to them more and more due to their use in popular music. When I looked back at this song, with Sondheim’s permission to be neurotic, I realized that the rhyme only exist because of the way I pronounce “am” as “em” — a habit from my mother’s New Jersey accent, I’ve been told. So, “em” and “again” might be close enough, but “am” and “again” are certainly not. I still haven’t fixed this one.

In the third verse I added an extra line (“I could never be that helpless”) just because I wanted to say it, even though it breaks the rhyme scheme, thinking, “Oh, the melody will take care of it.” That’s just sloppy and unexcusable. Cut!

And now, for the absolute worst writing of all, the last metaphor. It doesn’t make sense. Cages do not protect their inhabitants from rain. The most important tenant in “God is in the details” is that a writer should never, ever put the rhyme above making sense. Sondheim also notes that the writer shouldn’t violate conversational syntax (shouldn’t reverse word order) in the name of a rhyme, but luckily that’s not one of my bad habits. Also, the metaphor of a woman as a bird in a gilded cage is so cliché. What was I thinking? And why am I showing it to you? If you are an aspiring writer, take this as evidence of the comforting truth that everyone’s rough drafts are horrible.

I’m thinking of fixing the last two lines like this:

I'm not some fairy tale girl, lost in a wood,
Looking for shelter from the rain.

Or I could let go of the metaphor completely, like this:

I'm not a helpless young girl, afraid on her own,
Just waiting around for you to train.

But that second line is lousy.

God is in the details, or, in other words, rhymes should be as perfect as possible while not encouraging poetry-like grammar or distracting from the meaning of the song. And so I shall revise, revise, revise.

The last section involves Agnes singing lines like: “I don’t need your protection / Although I crave your heart” while David sings to Dora: “I will protect you.” I like the contradictions, and I think that section does its job.

Thanks for your patience with a sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally weak song!

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

Learning To Write Lyrics 2

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.

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