Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks to the man who has consistently remade the American musical over his 60-year career— and who is trying to surprise us one more time.
By LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
Sondheim: I hope you don’t mind doing this upstairs, I’m feeling a bit under the weather.
It’s July 2017. We are on the second floor of Stephen Sondheim’s Midtown Manhattan townhouse, and he’s nestled on his writing couch. There’s a famous picture of him reclining in this very spot from 1960: young Sondheim staring intently at a pad of paper, Blackwing pencil at the ready, framed by two windows. His right hand on his face, deep in thought.
Sondheim: The writing’s not going well today.
Nearly 60 years later, Sondheim is on the same couch. He is 87 years old. He’s wearing his rumpled-writer T-shirt and sweatpants, he’s got a sour stomach. He is writing a new musical with David Ives for the Public Theater, an adaptation of two films by the late Spanish director Luis Buñuel, and he’s staring down a deadline. And here I am, interrupting his writing day for this interview.
It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with “Oklahoma!” in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal “West Side Story” (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in “Gypsy” (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso — a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.
Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008. It was in this townhouse, on the first floor. I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of “Hamilton,” and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”
Back to the present day. “Hamilton” is off my desk, and Sondheim’s desk is full.
Miranda: How do you clear your desk and write the next thing?
Sondheim: Well, I collaborate with people. My spark often comes from collaborators. You know, I go to John Weidman1 and say, “Let’s write something else, you got any ideas?” Whatever it is. I mean, I’m a collaborative animal.
Miranda: I’m the same way, except my collaborator is Tommy Kail2.
Sondheim: I need the spur. And the spur and the boost comes from somebody else, generally. Rarely, only in the case of “Sweeney”3 did I come across something myself and think, “Oooh.” Oh, no, and “Passion.”4 Those are the two.
Miranda: And “Sweeney” was the one where you were working from the original text and said, “I need a book writer,” right?
Sondheim: Yeah. I’d been working from a little Samuel French-type version.5 I was up to Page 8 in Bond’s script, which is, I guess, the marketplace scene,6 and already it was an hour and a half long. I thought, “This is not going to work because I don’t know how to cut, really.” I mean I do, but I don’t. That’s why I got Hugh Wheeler,7 because he was born in England, he was the son of a bankruptcy judge. So he knew something about class structure. And I’d had a good time with him on “[A Little] Night Music.” Also, he’d been a mystery writer, you know. He was one of the most prolific mystery writers in America. He wrote (and co-wrote) under a pseudonym, Patrick Quentin.
Miranda: My favorite thing is bringing the song into the room to my collaborators. That’s my favorite part of the process. Not the writing of it, not even it being done. It’s the moment when I know my collaborators are going to make it better.
Sondheim: That’s my least favorite part of collaboration. Unless I really like what I’ve written.
Sondheim: Then I want to share it with a collaborator. But no, I don’t get that excitement that you get out of it, presenting it to collaborators. First of all, I only really do it with a book writer. I don’t with a director. I just don’t want to call in a director till it’s ready to present, and that means me and my collaborator. But you know, Lapine8 was the first one who actually made me give him unfinished songs. I never give unfinished songs.
Miranda: Did you find that valuable?
Sondheim: No, not particularly, but it was valuable to him.
Miranda: Well, it’s like being naked.
Sondheim: Exactly, and I don’t really mind that as long as I wash myself.
We move on: What makes a good collaborator?
Sondheim: I like writing with people who make me want to write. And you know, they’re hard to find. I don’t mean for me. I mean for anybody. It’s a marriage, and you want to find somebody who —
Miranda: You’re gonna show up naked sometimes.
Sondheim: You’ve got to have somebody who’ll surprise you and, you know, it’s the old lesson, you’ve got to work on something dangerous. You have to work on something that makes you uncertain. Something that makes you doubt yourself.
Miranda: Talk a bit about that danger and uncertainty.
Sondheim: Well, because it stimulates you to do things you haven’t done before. The whole thing is if you know where you’re going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death. That leads to stultified writing and stultified shows.
Miranda: Since “Hamilton,” I have been pitched every historical era.
Sondheim: Of course! And so that’s the one thing you don’t want to do. After “Gypsy” I got nothing but backstage stories and I said, “The only thing I don’t want to write is anything to do with show business.” That’s the only thing.
SONDHEIM HAS CERTAINLY followed his own advice in this regard: His choice of subject matter over the last half-century of work demolishes any notions of the kinds of stories musical theater can tell. From a violent barber (“Sweeney Todd” with Hugh Wheeler) to ancient Roman farce (1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” with librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) to fractured fairy tales (“Into the Woods” with James Lapine). Within this vast terrain, he and his collaborators have also radically experimented with the musical theater form: See the diptych structure of “Sunday in the Park With George,” also with Lapine, in which each act takes place a century apart, or the unprecedented “Company” (1970), with a book by George Furth, a meditation on commitment and monogamy, which Sondheim describes as a “non-plot” musical.” Here he is, arriving at the form of “Follies,” his legendary 1971 musical with librettist James Goldman about a reunion of retired performers from a 1930s Ziegfeldesque revue: “You start with the subject matter and some content and it takes form. If you’re going to say, ‘O.K., it’s a reunion party,’ well, hello, don’t try to give it a plot. And if you don’t give it a plot, what’s going to hold it together? Uh-oh. That’s what’s dangerous and that’s what’s scary about it.”
We gravitate toward the subject of surprise, both for the audience and for the playwright.
Sondheim: That was a big lesson from Peter Shaffer.9 We went to see a play once about the mad queen of Spain and in the first act there were two rapes, an evisceration, a fire and something horrifying with a child, I don’t remember. And at the end of the first act I said, “This is so much my kind of thing. Why am I bored?” He said, “There’s no surprise.” And I thought, “Put that on your bathroom mirror.” Surprise: if it’s in the lyric, the unexpected word, the unexpected note, the unexpected incident. The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about. If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.
Miranda: Can you think of any times you’ve surprised yourself in the writing process?
Sondheim: Oh, come on, as a writer you’re always surprised when you think of the right note or the right word. You think, “Oh, I didn’t know I could — oh, that’s good!” You know, writing’s full of surprises for oneself. It comes with the territory, but this is a different kind of thing. This is surprising the audience —
Sondheim bats the question away. He’s either uninterested in recounting a specific time that he surprised himself while writing, or there have been so many that it’s impossible to pick: It comes with the territory.
Two years ago, I interviewed Sondheim and John Weidman together for a PBS documentary, but my favorite moment from the interview never aired. We were on the subject of “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park With George,” one of Sondheim’s most celebrated songs, and maybe the greatest song ever written about the self-induced spell of the creative process.10 In this excerpt from that interview, just as in his work, Sondheim’s collaborator brought out the best in him:
Weidman: Do you remember you called me the night you finished that song?
Sondheim (smiling): Was I excited?
Weidman: You were ... beyond excited. I mean, it’s like you needed to call somebody. I may have been number 17 on the list, but I could hear it in your voice, you said, “I just wrote this song.”
Sondheim: Yeah, I remember, I wanted to tell everybody. [Laughs.] I wanted to tell everybody. I was really pleased.
Miranda: I love the story you told about the making of it in your book, about being inspired by a party game you were creating for Phyllis Newman’s party,11 and realizing you’d spent the entire night in a sort of trance —
Sondheim: I started planning that game at 8 o’clock in the evening, and when I looked up, it was 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Time had disappeared. That’s what happens — you must know that yourself. You must know that the great thing about writing and creating is, time disappears. You are in the moment, and the moment can go for eight hours or for two minutes, or whatever, until the phone rings, or you know, you have to go get something to eat.
PRESENT DAY again — I’m trying to give Sondheim credit for expanding the scope of the American musical, and he is passing on the credit to his mentor Oscar Hammerstein instead.
Miranda: Something that’s so essential about your work is that I think you have expanded the terrain of what musical theater can be. The notion of, “This is a musical, that’s not a musical,” is BS. It’s carried entirely by the passion of the creators.
Sondheim: Yeah, but Oscar invented that with “Oklahoma!” He took a play that was about homosexuality in the West and turned it into a sunny musical. Because he saw something in it that was beyond what Lynn Riggs12 had written, about the opening of territories, the promise of America. He saw that which anybody else reading that play would not have seen.
Miranda: O.K. But it gets back to the notion of, “If I can find myself in the work, others will see themselves.” So it’s about not being afraid of specificity.
Sondheim lights up.
Sondheim: Absolutely! That’s exactly what he taught me, when he criticized my poetic Hammerstein lyrics when I was starting out.13 He said, “That’s not what you feel. Don’t write what I feel. Write what you feel.” Oh! It had never occurred to me to write what I felt. And Oscar was the one who taught everyone to do that.
Write what you feel. Or as George’s muse, Dot, says to him in “Sunday,” “Anything you do,/Let it come from you./Then it will be new.”
And then for a moment you let in the depth and intensity and range of Stephen Sondheim’s feeling for the past half-century. That Tony and Maria of “West Side Story” first fell in love as Sondheim sharpened his Blackwing pencils, finding the words for their doomed romance at age 25. That Mrs. Lovett of “Sweeney Todd” hatched her diabolical plans from this writing couch as Sondheim talked to himself. That within Sondheim, somewhere, is both Georges Seurat and Fosca, Pseudolus and Mama Rose, John Wilkes Booth and Madame Armfeldt, Charley Kringas and Little Red Riding Hood. He has served up vodka stingers for Joanne (“Company”) and chrysanthemum tea for the Shogun (“Pacific Overtures”). Sixty years of iconic theatrical moments, and they exist as a result of the specific way Stephen Sondheim feels. Line by line, note by note, surprise by surprise.
And if you’re Sondheim, there are days like today, when you feel under the weather and the day is full of distractions. But there are also nights when you write “Finishing the Hat,” and you’re so proud of what you’ve made that you have to call a friend and say, “I just wrote this song.”
What’s important is that Sondheim is still here, staring down another deadline. Starting on a hat. Feeling his way toward the moment when time disappears.
Sondheim: You shouldn’t feel safe. You should feel, “I don’t know if I can write this.” That’s what I mean by dangerous, and I think that’s a good thing to do. Sacrifice something safe.
Variety, variety, variety, Mr. Sondheim. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.
1. Sondheim’s librettist for the musicals “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Assassins” (1990) and “Road Show” (2008). Co-creator of “Contact,” which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2000. All-around mensch.
2. Director of “Hamilton” (2015) and “In the Heights” (2005), among others. Another mensch. My mensch-in-residence.
3. “Sweeney Todd,” Sondheim’s 1979 musical about a homicidal barber.
4. His Tony Award-winning, one-act 1994 adaptation, with a book by James Lapine, of Ettore Scola’s film “Passione d’Amore” (1981), about an unlikely love affair.
5. Samuel French Inc. is a play-publishing company, established in 1854. Sondheim was working from the 1973 Christopher Bond adaptation of the Sweeney Todd tale, which originally dates to a penny dreadful from the 1840s.
6. During which our protagonist challenges a local competitor to a shaving competition.
7. Sondheim’s librettist for “A Little Night Music” (1973).
8. James Lapine, playwright and director. His collaborations with Sondheim include “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), “Into the Woods” (1987) and “Passion” (1994).
9. Leading English playwright, most famous for “Equus” (1973) and “Amadeus” (1979).
10. Some sample lyrics, though you should really just go listen to that song immediately if you haven’t heard it: “Finishing the hat/How you have to finish the hat,/How you watch the rest of the world/From a window/While you finish the hat./Mapping out a sky,/What you feel like, planning a sky,/What you feel when voices that come/Through the window/Go/Until they distance and die,/Until there’s nothing but sky.”
11. The stage and screen actress Phyllis Newman. The full anecdote of Sondheim creating this party game, an elaborate version of Murder, is recounted in his second volume of lyrics, “Look, I Made a Hat” (2011). Just like the song, the passage nails the creative process.
12. The Claremore, Okla., born playwright whose 1930 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” was the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
13. Hammerstein tested the young Sondheim by assigning him to write four different musicals that he would critique. None were ever produced professionally.
10 Famous People on Stephen Sondheim
By Bennett Marcus
Stephen Sondheim is one of seven cover stars of T’s Greats issue, out Oct. 22. To mark the occasion, T asked 10 friends, collaborators and admirers to reflect on the legendary composer and lyricist of musical theater.
Neil Patrick Harris
“Every time I work with Steve, I’m just blown away. Not because I’m in the same room as a deserved legend, but because he has answers and reasons for every single thing — each phrase, each note, each rest has been thought through. An added rest when the character is distracted, a dissonant musical phrasing when the thought is unsettling. I’m not sure I’ve had more fun learning about music and what it can accomplish than when in Steve’s stead. He’s very much like Shakespeare to me. His work is layered and dense, but the more you’re willing to invest, the more there is to learn.”
“I was 12 years old when I saw the filmed version of ‘Into the Woods’ on PBS. I caught it toward the end of the broadcast quite by accident. The cast was in the middle of performing ‘Your Fault,’ leading into the incomparable Bernadette Peters and her perfect rendition of ‘Last Midnight.’ I didn’t know what the story was, I didn’t know who the characters were, but I was fully hooked and completely invested in the outcome of this story. After that, I sought out and obsessed over all things Stephen Sondheim. I felt like I had been introduced to a language that I didn’t know I knew. An emotional vocabulary instantly unearthed inside me. He expressed thoughts and feelings that I didn’t have the words or bravery, or obviously the intellect, to express. Sondheim’s work changed the whole course of my life. That first glimpse of his genius was enough to inspire me to pursue a life of being a part, any part, of telling his stories.”
“I first properly chatted to Sondheim at the after-party for the 2001 Broadway production of ‘Follies.’ We had a very long involved conversation about jigsaws. He’s a jigsaw nut.
In 2013 I did a workshop of his show ‘Company,’ in which the director, John Tiffany, made some of the couples same-sex, and Bobby was gay. I played Joanne, or the ‘Elaine Stritch part,’ as everyone referred to it, when I told them what I was doing. I got to sing ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and I still do. It’s the finale of my concert show ‘Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.’ Stritch called the song ‘a three-act play.’ I concur. When I sing it, I don’t just feel its about swanky, bored women. I feel it’s a paean to all of us, every section of society who is scrabbling to hang on in there, make life work. That’s the genius of it. We all need to be celebrated sometimes, warts and all, just for keeping on going.
When we finished the performance of the workshop, Sondheim was in tears. We all waited with bated breath for him to speak. ‘You’ve made me cry,’ he said eventually. ‘But then… I cry at anything.’”
“Steve and I live in separate towns in the same county in rural Connecticut. I was first introduced to him socially at a dinner given by our mutual friend, the choreographer Bob Avian, also a resident of our county. Steve chided and teased me. I made him laugh. What a relief. Soon after there were more social gatherings, full moon parties at Mia Farrow’s, and teas and New Year’s Eve at our house.
But I think the most fun was a dinner at Steve’s with my husband Matt, our friend Renee Richards and Peter Wooster. After dinner Peter led us with lit lanterns on a stroll through the woods to a small barn, which had been converted to a private retreat. We entered and Matt exclaimed ‘Steve’s clubhouse!’ Steve liked that. We spent the rest of the night laughing and drinking. Can you image spending an evening with Steve Sondheim? All of these dinners were so far removed from the pressure, anxiety and tension of what show business can be. We are ourselves. Getting to know Steve in that environment was such a joy for someone who grew up with his music and remains intimidated by the genius.”
Sarah Jessica Parker
“I remember ‘Pacific Overtures.’ On record. My mother always bought a record of a show she loved from afar. She probably read about the opening in The Times.
‘The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea’ played on our record player in Cincinnati, Ohio, sometime in 1976 and an 11-year-old girl was quickly a devoted Sondheim audience.
We moved to N.Y.C. in January of 1977. I don’t recall how many times I saw ‘Sweeney Todd’ — four or five? A preview at the Uris, the Actors Fund performance, the first cast change. The two cassette tapes of the original cast recording was a birthday gift and I would fall asleep listening. I’m pretty sure there was a significant period of time when ‘Not While I’m Around’ was my ballad for auditions.
I was at the first and last performance of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ in its original production on Broadway. My husband and I traveled (I recall being quite pregnant) to the Kennedy Center in 2002 to see some of the revivals.
I’d travel much further to see and hear his work, and I’m always thrilled when I can jump on a subway to see a production nearby.”
“To me, if Mount Rushmore could be redesigned, Stephen Sondheim would surely be added to those iconic figures. My first Sondheim play was ‘Company,’ I was in sixth grade and I had no understanding of what ‘Being Alive’ was really about. But I instinctively knew that his writing cut to the core of human feelings and also represented something that was sophisticated and playful at the same time. His shows are the only shows that I never tire of seeing. I just saw the ‘Follies’ revival at the National Theater in London and, like a great pair of jeans, it just gets better and better with time.”
“Steve has given the world so much creative inspiration… emotionally and intellectually. He’s given me so much to sing about and I feel so lucky to be a part of his world. In addition to everything else he has a great sense of humor and can really make me laugh. He’s a caring, sensitive person and I love him to pieces!”
"I’m ridiculous. Invariably, the first time I hear any song Stephen Sondheim has written, I’m weeping by the end of the first few bars. It’s Pavlovian. And I’m not just talking about what he did for ‘Reds’ and ‘Dick Tracy.’ I’m talking about anything he writes.
He is a unique treasure, both as an artist and as a friend. Also, there’s nobody smarter or more constructive to show an unfinished movie to."
“I first loved Stephen Sondheim from afar. He was the young man who wrote the lyrics to ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Gypsy.’ Pretty impressive beginning. And then his first full Broadway score was for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’ First Zero [Mostel] on the original cast album, and then I saw the first revival with Phil Silvers while I was still in high school. Fantastically funny.
Then his groundbreaking collaborations with Hal Prince — ‘Company,’ ‘Follies,’ ‘A Little Night Music,’ ‘Pacific Overtures’ — I saw a matinee, a stunning achievement. ‘Sweeney Todd’! I saw it in previews — unforgettable, a masterpiece. ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ — I wore out the cast album. ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ — I fell in love again. ‘Into the Woods,’ hilarious and heartbreaking.
And then I was asked by Jerry Zaks to do the first workshop of ‘Assassins.’ I felt very lucky and nervous. On the first day Steve sat down and played the whole score for us as we read through it. Thrilling. He was shy, modest, kind and compassionate. A great collaborator. Oh, and a genius. A kind genius. How could you not love a kind genius? Sometimes your heroes turn out to be just that: heroes.
‘Forum’ again, but this time I was in it! Miraculous.
He later asked me to record a song for a movie musical, ‘Singing Out Loud,’ called ‘Lunch.’ One of the greatest numbers I’ve ever heard that was never heard.
He wrote some songs for ‘The Birdcage,’ only one of which survived, but it was a lovely survivor. And then the workshop of ‘Wise Guys’ — oy. Troubled, but yet another brilliant score. And finally ‘The Frogs’ — oy vey. Troubled, but he wrote several wonderful new songs. And I got to actually write a musical with the master. Humbling and extremely gratifying.
So you see his work is not just personally important to me and my career, it’s important to everyone in the theater. He changed the American theater with his brilliance, wit, daring and unrivaled genius. You’ve got to love a guy who can do all that and still remain kind and compassionate.”
“This famously cerebral composer, whose curiosity and intellectual reach has stretched further than any writer in our theater’s history, is a deeply loyal friend and a creator of infinite heart.
We were working once when news came that burglars had been spotted robbing my house; he leapt to his feet and said, ‘Let’s get ‘em!’ He was dissuaded, but we all saw his lion’s heart on display.
He has changed everything about the American musical theater, and given permission and inspiration to thousands of artists who didn’t realize the theater could matter so much. He is a brother, and father, to us all. Words really can’t convey how much we owe him.”