THE QUESTIONS I NEVER ASKED SONDHEIM

In 2007, in my second year of grad school at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, my class had a program with Stephen Sondheim at the Dramatists Guild. I don’t really remember much from this talk except Sondheim said the word “kerfuffle” and I found it amusing enough to write in my notes. But in preparation for the talk, the teacher organizing it had us submit questions that he would then combine to form the more general topic questions he asked at the talk.

I took this opportunity to write out every question I had for Sondheim thus far. They are very specific and I was annoyed that I couldn’t ask him each one directly, although I understand why things were done the way they were, I guess…. I don’t know why I never had the desire to try to ask him these questions myself, especially after learning that he responded to letters. I’ll have to go over this with my therapist next week. But here are the questions I wrote in 2007 and never directly asked Sondheim.

1. Which of Phyllis’ follies from FOLLIES do you prefer?  “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” or “Ah, But Underneath?”  Why?

2.  What do you take into consideration when you look for material to turn into musicals? What makes you say, “no, this is a play” or “this is an opera”?

3.  What is your process of working with bookwriters?  Do you work the same way every time or does the relationship depend on the bookwriter and/or the project?

4.  Why did you never want to do book yourself?  You worked in television and wrote a screenplay, both of which require being able to write story.

5.  I’ve heard you say that songs are like one-act plays.  Is this just in that songs have a beginning, middle, and end?  What other elements make them like one act plays?

6.  a. How involved are you in the design of your shows? 
b. Do you have a favorite directorial/design realization of your work?  Is there something you had never imagined when you were writing?

7.  Do you think about dance/choreography when you write?

8.  How do you feel about taping shows for television?  On the one hand, it preserves the original cast for future generations (and I was so grateful to have that for INTO THE WOODS and SUNDAY), but on the other hand it can lock the show in people’s minds, and one of the wonderful things about theater is that it can change not just from production to production but from night to night.

9.  Do you think that movies and television have influenced the way we see theater, especially the musical form?  There was an article in Variety a couple months ago that people weren’t going to see comedic plays anymore because the equivalent can be found in today’s sitcoms, but there is nothing like musical theater on tv so audiences still come to see musicals. Do you think it influences the way we hear lyrics?  

10.  You often wrote songs during rehearsals and out of town for specific actors (for example, “Send in the Clowns” for Glynnis Johns).  Do you think your shows would be different had you had different actors and/or different external circumstances surrounding each show?  As of now we are writing our shows in a sort of bubble with no production plans or even actors until we get to our readings.  Is this a good way to start out?  Does the real work come when there’s a production and actors involved?

11.  How do you feel about movie versions of musicals?  Some are horrible, but do you think there are any successful ones or that we should even be trying to preserve shows in the film form?

12.  I heard you say in an interview that you found music fun but lyrics work.  While lyrics are definitely work, what do you like most about writing lyrics? (You must find some fun it them for them to come out as good as they do)

13.  I’ve heard you say in many interviews that you do not care for opera, and the reason you usually give is that opera is more about the singer than the song.  Opera people are so wrapped up in the singer but in musical theater it’s all about the song.

I agree that opera people go crazy about singers, but doesn’t that happen (albeit not as much) in the musical theater world as well?  If opera were more about the song or aria would you then like it, or is there something else about opera that you don’t like?

The line between musical theater and opera is often blurry for me, and a lot of your work seems to borrow some opera elements.  How do you know you are writing a musical and not an opera?

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