When Stephen Sondheim recalls what was told to him by Oscar Hammerstein as a solid series of lessons in writing musicals, he describes the following four steps:
- take a good play, one that you like, and make it into a musical
- take a play that you like but you think is flawed, and see if you can improve it and turn it into a musical
- take a story, not one that you’ve written, but that is not in the dramatic form, like a novel or something like that, make it into a musical
- make up your own story and make it into a musical
This strikes me as… taking a long time! I’m 18, around the age when Sondheim started writing, older in fact. He states he didn’t complete these until he was 22, that it took him 6 years. I haven’t heard of any of the songs that came from the exercises, I’m sure there are some gems (hey, this is Sondheim) but there were, doubtless some non-gems too.
I’m not going to dive in trying to create a 2-and-a-half-hour Broadway smash but I want to write something, some thing, anything, that I can look at and say, ‘Steve would be proud of writing this’. Even if it’s just one song that I can imagine working in the context of a show.
I wholly believe that Stephen is the closest in history we’ve had to a perfect musical-writer. He has a sort-of uniquely scientific, methodological view of the job: take his tirade against lazy rhymes at the beginning of his book Finishing the Hat; not only does he discuss precisely why, in solid terms, he likes some lyric more than another, but he describes that in these really utilitarian terms: in terms of the artistic merit of the entire piece, referring to the character and the audience, but never with the pretence that the musical need be anything other than pure enjoyment. If, perhaps, his idea of enjoyment is less common than others’!
In summary I will attempt to follow his footsteps.