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.