Stephen Sondheim

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At 82 years old, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim so often has been referred to as the greatest living lyricist and composer in musical theater that it has become a modern day cliché. On Friday, July 13, Sondheim –joined by Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole, along with pianist extraordinaire Tim Firth – made a one-night appearance at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. With them was Michael A. Kerker, director of musical theater for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Kerker served as interviewer.

 

During the course of the two-hour Q and A – which was originally scheduled for October, 2011, but was delayed due to an East Coast snowstorm that shut down air travel – we learned that Sondheim was mentored by family friend Oscar Hammerstein II starting at the tender age of 11. What’s more, we get the lowdown from Sondheim himself on his collaborations with the luminaries of musical theater, a uniquely American art form.

 

Beginning in his 20s Sondheim contributed lyrics to playwright Arthur Laurents’ 1957 classic West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein). Two years later, Sondheim was a lyricist for Gypsy (music by Jule Styne). Sondheim informed us that a big part of his poetic technique is to use true rhymes in creating lyrics. “A false or slanted rhyme, such as ‘phone home,’ doesn’t land well in musical theater,” Sondheim insists.

As if to prove his point, celebrated performers Mitchell and Ebersole lend their mighty interpretive talents to regaling us with Sondheim songs. With singular and defining rhyme schemes such as, Thinking and sweating/ And cursing and crying/ And turning and reaching/ And walking and dying, from “Not a Day Goes By” in Merrily We Roll Along, we easily comprehend Sondheim’s distinct aesthetic  sensibility.

Sondheim told of Jule Styne’s propensity to re-write a song to the extent that he always seemed to be working with a first draft. Sondheim’s message here is that editing and reworking a piece of music is different than creating a new song from scratch. The latter is always in an inchoate state; whereas the former is a deepening process, which elaborates and gives dimension to the song.

Though Sondheim has become the standard-bearer for musical theater over the past half century, he tells us that “It’s easy to be simple (in songwriting), but to be simple and clear is not so easy. “ Further, according to Sondheim, “Clarity is the most important part of a song in musical theater.” Continuing, Sondheim declares, “Audiences may disagree or be displeased with a show or a song, but if it’s clear the composer/ lyricist and/or playwright has done his job. Clarity is the most important part.”

To find out more about Sondheim’s life and artistry read his books Finishing the Hat: Volume One and Look I Made a Hat: Volume Two. To get a close up view of an early but essential Sondheim work, see The Chance Theater production of West Side Story, continuing through August 12 at 5552 East La Palma Avenue, Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. To reserve tickets, dial (714) 777 – 3033.