A few years earlier, Hammerstein had arranged for Sondheim to get some hands-on training in theater. In the summer of 1947, the teen-ager worked behind the scenes during rehearsals of Allegro, an innovative musical Hammerstein was writing with his long-time collaborator, Richard Rodgers.
Flexibility is key
Hammerstein's disciple learned well, according to Harold Prince, who between 1957 and 1981 produced and/or directed eight of Sondheim's shows. After a long hiatus, they are now working on a ninth -- Gold, which will make its premiere next season. "Steve Sondheim is a man who is so secure that he knows if you throw out one song, there's another song where that came from," Prince says. "He's very self-critical."
Sondheim considers this merely practical. "As somebody who deals in musicals, which are amalgams of so many different kinds of talents, you're foolish if you're not flexible," he says. As an example, he cites a mistake he feels Leonard Bernstein made on West Side Story.
"Leonard Bernstein wanted so desperately to have a high tenor play Tony in West Side Story, and of course the only tenors who could do it were middle-aged men who usually weighed over 200 pounds. He saw nothing wrong with that because he had the suspension of disbelief that operagoers have." More appropriate-looking actors were cast, but when they had trouble with the songs, "Lenny would not change the notes," he says. "That kind of penny-wise 2/3 pound-foolishness is the kind of thing that Oscar would never have ever [done]."
Sondheim was 27 when West Side Story opened on Broadway, but between college (he has a degree in music from Williams College in Massachusetts) and the Great White Way, his education took some unexpected turns.
The first came in the form of a two-year fellowship, which he used to study with Milton Babbitt. A leading avant-garde composer, Babbitt seems an unlikely choice for a budding Broadway songwriter, but Babbitt harbors a love for musicals, and Sondheim recalls that they usually began their weekly sessions with an analysis of songs by the likes of Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin.
Then, with Hammerstein's aid, Sondheim was hired to co-write scripts for the TV series Topper, about a pair of sophisticated ghosts who haunt a banker. Topper turned out to be a teacher in its own right, imparting a valuable lesson in concision.
"Each episode had to be told in four acts -- a teaser, a first act, a second act and an epilogue, commercials in between, 22 1/2 minutes of writing, 7 1/2 minutes of commercials. And you had to be able to shape and tell a story, put in jokes, have immediately recognizable characters," he explains. "It taught me a great deal about structure, playwriting, and that came in, of course, very handy in writing songs for play structures."
Back in New York, Sondheim's big break on West Side Story was followed the very next season with the same duty -- lyrics, only -- on Gypsy. The librettist of both shows was Arthur Laurents, who taught Sondheim about actors' needs.
"You've got to learn to see the instruments you work with ... and the instruments are called 'actors,' " Laurents told Sondheim, taking him to the Actors Studio to observe. It was "something that ordinarily wouldn't interest me at all, which is actors acting for actors and talking about acting," Sondheim says. "It never occurred to me it would be as useful as it was."
Once again, Sondheim listened and learned. At the Kennedy Center, Christine Baranski, who is portraying Mrs. Lovett, the cook in Sweeney Todd, praises the depth of Sondheim's writing, his witty language and the dark places he takes characters. But what appeals to her most is that "you can really act -- the songs are like actor monologues."
'Write the same show'
Sondheim finally got a chance to write both lyrics and music for a Broadway show in 1962. Based on characters created by the classical Roman playwright, Plautus, the show was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and it taught him another important lesson. It's a musical he loves, but one he would do differently today.
"About a month before we were to go into rehearsal, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I thought maybe it was just nerves," he says. He sought the advice of James Goldman, a playwright who would go on to write the libretto for Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies.
"[Goldman] said he thought the book was brilliant, and he said the score was a delight. He said the only problem was, they don't go together. I had written a rather salon-like score, full of cleverness and kind of literary puns -- I wanted so much to show off as a lyricist -- whereas [the book] was a very elegant low comedy," Sondheim says. "I learned from that to be very careful in the future to write the same show."
That's precisely what he and librettist John Weidman are trying to do with their new musical, Gold, scheduled to open at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in June 2003.
Originally titled Wise Guys, the show is an account of the colorful turn-of-the-century Mizner brothers -- Addison, an architect, and Wilson, a con man, gambler and playwright. It was commissioned in 1995 by the Kennedy Center and, four years later, had a high-profile, poorly received New York workshop production under the direction of Sam Mendes.