Staring Into Darkness, in Search of a Rhyme

Composer Stephen Sondheim

When Stephen Sondheim writes, he looks at a blank wall.

Lying on the couch where he has created some of his best-known Broadway musical scores, he tunes out the world beyond his New York brownstone. With his back to a stained-glass window featuring an image of a ship at sea, he trains his gaze across the room onto an empty alcove painted black. He occasionally walks a few steps to the Baldwin piano that Leonard Bernstein helped him to get at a discount decades ago.

The composer-lyricist then picks up one of his yellow legal pads. On such pads he’s written the lyrics, or the entire score, for the street gangs in “West Side Story,” a grasping stage mother in “Gypsy,” a blood-thirsty barber in “Sweeney Todd,” and many others.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Sondheim, 80, sat upright on that couch, his feet tucked into black slippers and propped on a table. Two black standard poodles, Willie and Addie, named for the brothers in his musical “Road Show,” slept on the floor nearby. The walls of his second-floor study held a Franz Liszt manuscript, framed drawings and “some stuff Lenny sent me”—piano pieces Mr. Bernstein wrote for Mr. Sondheim on special occasions. He spoke in a mellow bass-baritone, often pressing a finger between his eyebrows and closing his eyes as he talked.

Stephen Sondheim during the recording of “Into the Woods,” New York, 1987.

Recently, Mr. Sondheim has been at work on a book, “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” an annotated compilation of lyrics that was released this week. The second volume is expected next October.

When he was younger he felt a great hunger to communicate and be recognized. Now he’s pickier about what he chooses to write. Though he works better with a deadline—”If I owe you the song Tuesday, Monday night I really get to work on it”—he’s never been fast. He said part of that slowdown has come with success and the burden of knowing how much people expect of him.


Musical Notes

  • Musical score writer Stephen Sondheim writes lyrics on one side of yellow legal pads with 28 to 32 blue lines per page, leaving him room to revise as he goes
  • Years ago, he ordered a lifetime supply of now-discontinued Blackwing pencils, which have soft lead and flat erasers that can be removed and flipped to a clean side.
  • To keep his ideas fresh, he purchases CDs through a catalog that features newly recorded classical music. He will listen to each recording two or three times before changing the set.
  • In his book, he writes that words that are spelled differently but sound the same (rougher/suffer) engage the ear more than rhyming words that are spelled similarly (rougher/tougher). He also says words such as “off” are dangerous to rhyme because their pronunciation differs depending on the regional accent. Rhymes using hard consonants such as “k” and “p” are useful for underscoring rage or resolve.
  • Mr. Sondheim said he has a strong internal critic that comments on his work as he’s writing—a voice he’s learned to silence at least until the next day. He tells young writers even if they scribble nothing more than “cat” 60 times in a row, that’s better than writing nothing. “The worst thing is just throwing your pencil down,” he said.


But the writing has always been painstaking. “A lyric doesn’t have very many words in it, so every line is like a scene in a play,” he said, “and that means every word is like a passage of dialogue.” For instance, when crafting the opening number for “Sunday in the Park with George,” he phoned the show’s librettist to discuss a reference to a “dribble” of sweat on his heroine’s neck as opposed to a “trickle.” He went with “trickle” because it seemed less comic and better fit the moment.

On rare occasions, knowing who would sing the song helped inform how he wrote it. In “A Little Night Music,” for instance, many lines of “Send in the Clowns” end with short sounds, like “rich” or “bliss,” because the show’s star, Glynis Johns, was a breathy singer not known for holding long notes.

Mr. Sondheim has occasionally drawn ideas from a woman he dubs his “Muse,” someone he refuses to identify who has offered him advice as well as phrases and words that have found their way into his music. When he lost faith at the start of “A Little Night Music,” calling the musical too frothy, the Muse convinced him to do it.

But much of his inspiration has nothing to do with muses and other romantic notions. He relies on a 1936 edition of the Clement Wood rhyming dictionary that he has rebound at least twice and filled with his notes, as well as a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.

At home in New York or at his country house in Roxbury, Conn., concert CDs are often on. He believes that chord progressions or melodic ideas he hears today can influence songs he’ll write years from now. The music plays as he drinks a cup of coffee at breakfast, reads the paper on the couch, skips lunch to work and sips a dirty martini on the rocks while writing in the late afternoon.

He can work for 14 hours a day if he’s on deadline, but if the writing comes too easily, he’ll mistrust it. “If I’m humming ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in the shower, I say, ‘Uh oh.'” Sure enough, he said, “what I’ve written is ‘Da da da da da DUM.'” But he’s more concerned about stealing melodies from himself, not others. As a result, whenever he composes a song, he tries to put it in a key that he hasn’t written in recently, forcing him to feel his way around new sounds.

The past year has marked many high-profile celebrations of Mr. Sondheim’s 80th birthday. The writer knows the implication is that his work—not just his best work, but all his work—is behind him. As soon as the second book is done, he said, he’ll return to music. “I’m going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and start writing.”

Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photos: