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Lessons from Stephen Sondheim, the teacher

Stephen Sondheim as mentor
Stephen Sondheim as mentor 02:34

Stephen Sondheim may have been best known as one of the greatest composer/lyricists the theater has ever known. But he often said that he would have loved to have been a teacher — and he was an extraordinarily generous one to generations of young composers.

I was one of them. I came to New York right after college, full of ambition to write Broadway musicals. Somehow I met Sondheim, and for many years, he'd give me feedback on my songs, and I gave him computer lessons.

First of all, he always said, content dictates form. In other words, the kind of music you're writing should depend on the character and the dramatic situation.

You could describe the plot of his show "A Little Night Music" as a dance among lovers — so every single song in that show is a variation on a waltz, including the famous one, "Send in the Clowns."

A Little Night Music: Send in the Clowns by Glynis Johns - Topic on YouTube

Second, Sondheim always said it was worth putting in the time to make the rhymes perfect. Pop music is full of near rhymes, like time and mind. But perfect rhymes are delicious. In his show "Company," a bride is freaking out at the altar, and begging the guests to go home:

Go! Can't you go?
Why is no-
body listening?
Go and cry
At another person's wake.

If you're quick,
for a kick
You could pick
up a christening
But please,
on my knees,
There's a human life at stake!

I mean, you've got those fantastic multiple inner rhymes, like quick, kick and pick, and then the double outer rhymes, like listening and christening, wake and stake. It's just amazing.

Company - Original Broadway Cast: Getting Married Today by Beth Howland - Topic on YouTube

Finally, Sondheim lived by the adage, "Be willing to kill your darlings." That means, if you have a line, or a song, or even an entire show that's not working, you've gotta be willing to throw it out, no matter how much you love it.

I'm heartbroken to see his light extinguished. But if you're lucky, you'll see his influence everywhere, in every waltz, every perfect rhyme, and every killed darling.

See also: 

Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Steven Tyler.

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