Stephen Sondheim on Songwriting (1)

StephenSondheimIf we want to understand something about songs, how they are written, and therefore how we should sing and perform them, who can we learn from?

The musical dramatist Stephen Sondheim is superb craftsman as a lyricist, composer, songwriter, musical dramatist and teacher. He is famous for such shows as ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘West Side Story’, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, ‘Company’, and ‘Into the Woods’. Many of his songs stand as masterpieces in their own right – ‘Send in the Clowns’, ‘Sooner or Later (I always get my man)’ (for Madonna), which one an Oscar for Best Song. He has won Grammys, the Pulitzer Prize, and a Laurence Olivier Award. Sondheim took the brave step of publishing not just his lyrics, but a candid analysis of his songwriting process, and, most importantly, the mistakes he made along the way. From those mistakes he learned what didn’t work, and therefore also what did work. He wrote about this in his book Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes (2010). Having read the whole book, and taken careful notes, I reordered my notes into categories to help understand Sondheim’s way of thinking about songs. Here is the result. (The comments in square brackets are extra thoughts of my own that I added to the notes.)

Sondheim’s guiding principles

Content dictates form
Less is more
God is in the detail
All in the service of clarity [and ‘truth’]

  • true / perfect rhyme – final accented syllable; masculine = last syllable; feminine = penultimate or earlier accented syllables rhyme (different consonant) and succeeding syllables exactly alike
  • identity rhyme – matches syllables and consonants (motion-promotion)
  • near / false rhyme – assonance (vowels similar, but subsequent consonants aren’t: home-done) or consonance (accented vowels different, but consonants similar: buddy-body)
  • avoid regional rhymes
  • rhymes can be compatible with authentic emotion
  • true rhyming helps the listener follow the message / meaning – other rhymes and forms are harder on the brain
  • true rhymes bring meaning into sharp focus, and catch the listener’s ear and mind
  • form in words / music says to the audience ‘take this seriously’
  • jokes work best with perfect rhymes
  • The rhyme must be the right word for context, character and intent, so don’t be lazy
  • Internal rhymes must not foreground the lyricist
  • Don’t sacrifice meaning for rhyme
  • Perfect rhymes give pleasure
  • Consistent rhyme schemes pay off
  • Deliberately breaking a pattern can work well
  • Don’t replace substance with rhymes
  • Avoid over-crowding with multiple rhymes
  • Trick rhymes can fit a character who is meant to be witty
  • Rhyme at start of line [Money, funny, honey, runny]
  • Move from contrived rhymes to rhymes of more colloquial, demotic language
  • Close rhymes disappoint and distract – opt for a non-rhyme in preference
  • lyrics use rhyme
  • Can avoid rhyming a key word, but rhyme everything around it
  • Images and vocal should be appropriate not stretched for a rhyme
  • Forced ‘setups’ weaken the rhyme ‘punchline’ that follows
  • perfect rhymes with different spellings are more satisfying: rougher-suffer
Word choice
  • Lyrics shouldn’t draw attention to the lyricist; try making the lyricist invisible
  • can use long words
  • use the exact word
  • Don’t add words to fill out space [use as few words as possible]; Avoid redundancy (sounding like a thesaurus); Every word must count, or should be left out
  • Use the word you would normally use – don’t use a longer or shorter form just because it conveniently fits
  • Avoid stock images and metaphors (too generic)
  • Use the accurate [true] word, not the clever one
  • Sin 1= verbosity
  • Sin 2 = using rhyme that jars with character
  • Sin 2a = sonic ambiguity
  • Sin 3 = redundant adjective
  • Sin 4 = architectural laziness (rhyming inconsistently) – “patterns are what form is about”
  • Sin 5 = inconsistency (character’s voice or dialect mustn’t change)
  • Sin 6 = strained joke
  • Avoid anachronisms
  • Obey good syntax. Avoid ‘songwriters’ syntax’ of strange word order [Yoda-speak!]
  • [use alliteration or consonants for conveying mood or personality]
  • Don’t use alliteration [or word trick] to disguise repetition of idea or lack of substance
  • ‘Clever’ relies on wordplay, shows off the writer and flatters the audience; but it’s never as good as ‘funny’, which is more likely about character and situation; Ostentatious cleverness can be fun if self-deprecating
  • Argot hard to make sound right unless it’s part of your own biography
  • Beware aural ambiguities (Mighty Fences Are Down)
  • Lyrics as casual conversation, stylised with rhyme
  • Make words strong, but natural
  • Lyrics mustn’t be literary, ‘written’, but experienced
  • Witty is not comic
  • Avoid verbal or literary masturbation!
  • 1) Less is more (verbosity must have a clear motivation, but avoid ‘less is less’) 2) content dictates form (and style) 3 God is in the detail
  • Content dictates form
  • Less is more
  • God is in the details
  • All serve Clarity
  • [traditional forms can provide discipline of a container]
  • lyrics are not poems
  • lyrics need music for their completion
  • poems are tight, musical in their own right and, by definition, complete
  • lyrics need to be simple, and leave space for music to provide complementary information
  • lyrics are short plays – Oscar Hammerstein – [in interview Sondheim called a verse an act, a line a scene, and a word a speech]
  • Song = one act play; intensifies moment or moves story forward; character undergoes an emotional change; expression of a feeling so powerful that it leads to action. Early genre had songs of one idea and no psychological or plot development, ie ‘savouring the moment’
  • ‘Button’ = song ending to cue applause
  • ‘Trunk’ songs are unused tunes from a writer’s past – perhaps for good reason!
  • List songs = one idea with examples
  • A list song can be musically formulaic or develop
  • ‘Eleven o’clock’ number = showstopper song for star near the end of the show
  • From resignation to triumph = showstopper
  • Set up story images and/or rhymes, then unravel them at the end of song to portray character unravelling
  • Novelty song – repetitive gimmick [an action, a word, nonsense syllables, alliterations]
  • Good patter songs are easy to sing fast
  • Don’t write a lyric or a song that becomes ‘schematic’ or the audience will be able to predict what is coming
  • 32 bars can feel like tired, restrictive formula, or have a balanced precision of a sonnet
  • Pastiche = fond imitation; parody comments on the work or style imitated
  • [Songs can have many sectional shifts of energy and meaning]
Words-music relationship
  • Melody mustn’t break a lyric phrase [nor force lack of natural break in a lyric]
  • Avoid mis-stressing words or syllables
  • “Often what is not being said, the counterpoint underneath the scene, is what keeps the scene alive. Counterpoint, being a musical idea, is exactly what a composer can supply. This means, however, that you have to have something worth not saying.”
  • Be willing to recycle a tune
  • ‘Safety’ bar = extra bar for repetition when necessary
  • “ignore the math. Four bars may be expected, but do you really need them all? How about three bars? And why have the same number of beats in every bar? How about varying the meter?”
  • Don’t mis-stress syllables
  • Music for a lyric / poem or a play / novel must genuinely add to or transform the original material, and you must love the story / material / characters
  • Contrast mood of words with mood of music
Theatre, performance and ‘truth’
  • Theatrical ‘truth’ (ie cadence) wins over logical truth if you want to keep an audience
  • Don’t try to wow people with blockbusters all the time. The understated song goes down well too.
  • When songwriting, think ahead to its staging and choreography – how does it advance plot? [Shakespeare’s staging is implied in what people say.]
  • Understand what a performer needs [give them something in the music and lyrics to work with] “Give the actors [and singers] something to ­play rather than recite.” When writing, imagine the action that takes place during the song.
  • Transitions from speaking to singing must be believable
  • Avoid crassness of ‘I want’ or ‘I wish’ songs to give early exposition of characters
  • Workshopping in early stages reveals what works and what doesn’t, in time to be able to do something about it. [Shows often don’t work in their first performances / productions, and have to be re-shaped.] Use previews for re-writes. A flop can succeed after years of revisions
  • Opening number can make or break a show. First song sets tone for everything that follows. First line is the most important.
  • How to reprise a song and still progress plot? Change lyrics?
  • An unresolved cadence may be appropriate for plot, but is not good for theatre, because the audience needs completion so they can applaud
  • Writers deal with character and structure. Directors make it work on stage
  • Theatre songwriters interpret someone else’s story
  • When character learns something, s/he must not labour the point, but show it rather than telling it [better still, suggest subtly rather than even showing it]
  • 1) Vaudeville and revues, or sometimes concept revues 2) story plus songs 3) story through songs
  • Farces are too tight and have too much pace to allow space for songs
  • Keep the whole arc in mind [and ‘kill off your darlings’ i.e. don’t hang on to a song in a set, or a line in a song, if it doesn’t serve the larger narrative arc or purpose.]
  • Don’t let a song artificially prolong a moment – there must be dramatic logic for the delay
  • [Find the true statement, what words you actually want to say, then a create a lyric version.]
  • Sound like the character, not a writer (ie ‘blue’ is better than ‘azure’). Root the lyric in the character and plot [and authentic expression of each protagonist]
  • Opera = stentorian singing + opera house and audience; operetta = gleeful choirs or peasants dancing in the town square; opera bouffe = hilarious complications of mistaken identity; musical comedy = showbiz pizzazz and blindingly bright energy; musical play = musical comedy that isn’t funny; could there be a dark operetta?
  • Songs – and performers – must not give away developments that come later
  • An apparently shallow song can have depth or subtext because of its plot context
  • Sondheim dislikes choruses because they imply a whole crowd share one sentiment. This can happen, but it must be dramatically logical and plausible.
  • musicals don’t need an overall coherent musical architecture
  • Author can’t always be ahead of the audience, but can be valuable for the audience to be ahead of the character
  • Reprises can be triumphant, poignant or ironic
  • Content is less about information than character [or feeling, message, intention]
  • Humour greater if preceded by tension
  • Humanity in silliness = comedy
  • G&S: bland cartoon characters; empty patter; superficial ballads; not funny; “typing not writing” (Truman Capote); superficial music; dexterity but predictable; historically topical and satirical [and can’t be updated to the present day]
  • ‘Pirandello effect’: audience thinks something has happened to the performer, not the character, but this is an illusion
  • Audience experience the detail even without consciously knowing what it is
  • Base your work on experience, observation and imagination
  • Writers inhabit all their characters
  • [Some songs need to be written, then discarded. They get something out of the way so we can write the better song afterwards, a song that may even draw from the discarded song – so keep all material.]
Professional issues
  • when collaborating it is useful to be able to mimic your partner’s work / voice
  • “All the mistakes he [Leonard Bernstein] made, if indeed they were mistakes, were huge – he never fell off the lowest rung of the ladder.”
  • Collaborators can be vital for creativity
  • Writers need someone else to direct first performance, for objectivity
  • Write for love, not money
  • Reasons for taking on a project must be examined: friendship, greed, obligation are not good motivations [nor are fear, anxiety, or need; find a good reason]
  • Don’t be blinded by egotism, stubbornness or lack of common sense
  • Audiences can polarise both acclaim and rejection
You can buy Sondheim’s ‘Finishing the Hat’ by clicking below:

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