Stephen Sondheim: It's the music, not the lyrics that elevate a song to the level of poetry
My moment of illumination this morning came from Paul Simon's review of Finishing the Hat, the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and miscellaneous musings up to 1981, in today's New York Times Book Review. (It came with this morning's Star, in case you didn't know about the papers' new Sunday partnership.)
Sondheim admits that he hates the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Simon then writes: "Sondheim's rule, taught to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, is that the book and composer are better served by lyrics that are 'plainer and flatter.' It is the music that is meant to lift words to the level of poetry."
I started thinking about opera and how the "plainer and flatter" rule applies equally well in that artform.
Unfortunately, Simon and Sondheim avoid mentioning the final ingredient in the magic: a great singer and actor.
Here's a clip from Act I of the amazing 2006 production of Company, directed by John Doyle, where all the characters except for Bobby also play an instrument (for details on that performance, click here).
It is followed by two clips from the making of the original cast album, starting with "The Little Things You Do Together," followed by Elaine Stritch trying desperately to get "Ladies Who Lunch" right. In the middle of that muddle, Sondheim does give due credit to his actors: