When faced with a creative block, I often ask myself, "What would Sondheim do?" This in no way is an attempt to position myself on a level even close to Sondheim. I'm not in his talent or skill set ballpark. Not many are. But I have taken to heart and attempted to apply the principles he lists at the outset of his book Finishing the Hat. He insists that these principles are necessary for a lyric writer:
Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is in the Details
all in the service of Clarity
Easier said than done, of course. But invaluable guidance from the Master? Yes
Following his recent death, I turned to YouTube to sample the myriad videos of tributes, interviews, biographies, clips of his productions, and segments of classes he taught. One could easily binge on Sondheim!
My favorite so far is the documentary of the recording of the original cast album for "Company." In it he gives notes to the singers, interacts with the producer and his music director Harold Hastings, and discusses the project with Hal Prince and George Furth, his collaborators. He is, in turn, frustrated, pleased, seemingly never completely satisfied, always clear and precise.
When I play the piano for pleasure, I often pull out one of his musical scores (I have them all!) and try to sight read and practice his piano accompaniments. I also like to play along with the recordings to see how his excellent orchestrators arranged the music for the pit bands of various sizes that accompanied the shows. I always learn something new, get ideas, and come away even more impressed with his compositions.
He was generous with his time, eager to share his knowledge, and encouraging in a practical way to the writers and composers hoping to follow in his footsteps. Those of us who love musical theater are grateful for the words he wrote, the music he composed, and impact he has had on the performing arts.