Sunday, 1 May 2011

Stephen Sondheim's new book

I have been a stone Sondheim fan since I was fifteen years old. In my opinion, there isn't a lyricist who can touch him. I'm reading his book on music-theatre lyrics, 'Finishing The Hat', which I would recommend to anyone who is excited by the technical aspects of the craft, especially as interrogated by someone as rigorous and funny and honest as Stephen Sondheim. The pages on the various kinds of rhyme alone thrill the heart! And because 7-On is a playwrights' company, I wanted to extract this relevant quote. High praise indeed for playwrights, coming from him...

"Some songs, of course, are small scenes in themselves. I've been asked many times why I don't write the books for my own musicals, since I treat lyrics as short plays whenever I can. They key word in that sentence is "short." I'm by nature a playwright, but without the necessary basic skill: the ability to tell a story that holds an audience's attention for more than a few minutes. Writing plays is, in my view, the most difficult of the literary arts. A play has to be as packed and formally controlled as a sonnet, but roomy enough to let the actors and the stagecraft in. Packed but loose, like a good lyric. Poets rarely have to deal with plot; novelists never have to deal with actors. A playwright has to deal with both and still make the result immediate enough to grip an audience for, on the average, two and a half hours. (That usually includes an intermission, where he loses them for fifteen minutes and has to woo them back.)  I like to think I can hold their interest with short forms: playlets which are called songs. The longest I've written is the opening number of Into The Woods, a mere twelve-minute sequence, and that includes a good deal of dialogue. I'm in awe of good playwrights, even when I don't like the plays, and ever since the day I started working with my first professional collaborator and learned what went into the craft of playwriting, I have never tried to do it alone."

Stephen Sondheim,
From 'Finishing The Hat'.

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