My day is getting off to a good start after reading this review of Look I Made a Hat, Volume 2 of Sondheim’s annotated collected lyrics at the New York Times Book Review:
…I can’t imagine how serious craftsmen in any field wouldn’t find both books inspiring. The quilt maker fussing over which shade of red to employ as a highlight; the cook experimenting on how most appetizingly to glaze a plate of scallops; the automobile designer sketching a streamlined new speedometer — all such people should experience a sense of kinship when reading Sondheim debating whether, when seeking a rhyme, he might fairly use “wood” rather than “woods”:
“What justification was there to use ‘wood’ here (and in the ‘Finale’) and ‘woods’ everywhere else? I finally hit on an explanation: ‘wood’ sounded statelier and therefore suited a lyric sung by someone outside the action.”
And there’s a truly excellent, revelatory interview with Sondheim at the Daily Beast:
You write in Look, I Made a Hat about how your teacher, composer Milton Babbitt, taught you about structure, about how whole works are made from tiny increments.
From Milton I learned about the structuring of themes, what he or someone called one-line composition, which is that there is a guiding principle to the whole arc of either a symphony or a song, which is itself reflected in many ways—just like the way King Lear’s themes are reflected in its characters and subplots. So, we’d analyze, say, the Jupiter Symphony to see what Mozart was doing with structure, what Milton called the architectonic of the piece, the larger structure, and how it’s reflected in the smaller structure so it all holds together and doesn’t sound like something made of bits and pieces.
The whole idea is, how do you organize something that lasts over a period of time, so it seems like one piece instead of 20 pieces? And that period of time can be three minutes or it can be an hour; the principle remains the same. And that—using leitmotifs that develop out of smaller motifs—is something I’ve been doing for a long time, because in writing a score, you have music interrupted by dialogue, so what is it that holds the evening together? If you want to hold the score together—Cole Porter wasn’t interested in holding a whole score together. He just wrote a lot of songs.
A lot of times when I listen to cast recordings of your shows, I’m struck by how Broadway singers don’t hear the structure that’s in your stuff.
It’s absolutely true. It’s also because they’re not used to it. They’re not trained in opera. They’re not trained to hear scores. They’re trained to hear songs, and that’s what they hear—self-encapsulated pieces. When Mandy Patinkin gave his last performance in Sunday in the Park, there was a little party for him in the basement of the theater, and I can’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned that “Putting It Together,” in the second act, was a variation on “The Day Off” sequence, which occurs in the middle of the first act. And his eyes widened. He’d been singing it for a year and a half, and it had never occurred to him that the two pieces were related. Most singers on Broadway are just not trained to hear that sort of thing. They hear songs, they don’t hear scores.
I’ve yet to write the Sondheim memoir-essay that’s been brewing for years, but I’ll get there. This was an early gesture at generating one.