Words and Music: Sondheim on Lyrics

The Guardian has a nice feature called “How we made…” quick interviews of creators of cultural milestones.  Here is a bit from the West Side Story one, Stephen Sondheim on the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein’s songs.

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.


I have some quibbles with the “the whole point is to underwrite” assertion, but the mix of text and music is no mean art, and achieving that elusive balance is rare, particularly when you weigh the narrative, dramatic, and formal elements. But it  is achieved often in West Side Story. (Here’s Something’s Coming…)

Here is the excerpt from Romeo and Juliet that inspires this…Romeo and pals have been discussing going to the Capulets’ ball.


Supper is done, and we shall come too late.


I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

(Something’s Coming indeed.)

Another example of Sondheim’s dazzling ability with lyrics: Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures, reportedly one of Sondheim’s favorite songs. Certainly one of mine.

It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree.

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