Monday, November 29, 2021

Lessons from Stephen Sondheim

Annamaria on Monday

RIP to a genius with words

The New York Times calls him a titan.  He himself said that he thought teaching was a sacred profession.  We may not think we could ever come close to his genius with words, but we writers can look to him for lessons.

Sondheim's first big break as a lyricist/composer came when Leonard Bernstein chose him to write the lyrics for West Side Story.  Here is a song we all know (Aside: Rendition specially chosen for you, Stan):

Great right?  Yes!  But... 

Lesson one: Years ago, I heard an interview with Sondheim in which he  said he thought the lyrics you just heard were wrong.   He picked on one phrase in particular - "It's alarming how charming I feel."  He said those words are far too sophisticated for a girl like Maria.  The New York Times posted that 2008 interview at the top of its obituary on Saturday.  In it he says that Maria sounds like Noel Coward.  My debut novel had just gone to press when the interview first aired.  I blanched when, upon inspection of the page proofs, I saw the number of instances when my characters were using language that was (ahem) out of character for them. 

Here is my favorite version of Sondheim's biggest hit tune. Bonus: It comes with his intro and him accompanying Bernadette Peters:


Lesson two: Sondheim's introduction says he wants to teach us a lesson with this song. I'm not sure exactly what lesson he had in mind. What this song teaches me is that you don't have to dumb down your work to make it popular.  These subtly ambiguous lyrics struct a universal chord.

Then there is this:

Lesson three: if you want to show off your extensive vocabulary, you can get away with it.  But only if the scene is silly and will make people smile, not groan.

The Sondheim song that I listen to most often is this one.  This is my favorite rendition, by the incomparable Barbara Cook.

Lesson four: if you want readers/listeners to fall in love with your work, make them feel something. Make it intense. And especially if you can give them comfort or a glimmer of hope, they will keep coming back to what you have to say.

I've saved for last what I think is the most important lesson. Present MIE company excluded, I think this is a lesson that applies particularly to the crime novel genre. Lesson five in Sondheim's own words:

"I like to change styles.  That's one of the things that appeals to me about stories. It has to be unknown territory.  If you've never done anything like it before, it's got to make you nervous. If it doesn't make you nervous, you're going to write the thing you wrote before."

You can hear and see the whole that interview and hear these words and many more from Sondheim himself. Just click here.


  1. Thank you, Annamaria. The interview is well worth listening to. I knew nothing about it. Good thing we all still learn!

    1. Thank you, my friend. I’ll say what I’ve said to friends for years. If I stop learning, put me in a hole and throw dirt on me. I’ll be dead.

  2. I never visited Stephen Sondheim's Turtle Bay townhouse, much less, alas, did I know or meet Sondheim (he did pass me once on Fifth and Fifty-seventh and I was suitably awed). But I'll bet his bookshelves were lined with mysteries. Mysteries and puzzles thread through his work. He was said to be, in part, the model for the puzzle and game loving fanatic in Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth." With Anthony Perkins, Sondheim wrote a comic mystery film, "The Last of Sheila." The name "Sheila" is said to be an acronym for people the authors knew. One wonders: "S" = Steve? "A" = Anthony?"H" = Harold? Sondheim also worked on mystery plays and it was said that very early ideas for "Follies," initially titled "The Girls Upstairs," involved a murder. When "Follies" was on Broadway, Sondheim spoke about his methods for the Y's famous "Lyrics and Lyricists" series. As he appears to do with so many, he disclosed just about everything related to his methods -- even the kind of pencils he used (Blackwings, IIRC). Like all great artists, he made the work seem simple and effortless. The evening has become legendary (I believe transcripts exist) and, as Annamaria Alfieieri shows us, we can all grow from his many, many lessons, so generously shared.

  3. How fascinating, Jerry! I had no idea when I wrote this blog that Sondheim had any connection to mystery writing. I’m going to find that movie and watch it, fan that I am of this true titan of a lyricist and composer.

  4. Thanks, Sis, for highlighting your favorites of one of the truly great lyricists, and sharing the interview.