Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 19th, 2017

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…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.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Quote of the Day

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The essential point for architecture is that the perceiver is a building already, that as well as the inhabitant he is an ideal rival of the contemplated structure, matching himself against it not just to see how well it will fit him, but how well it measures him.

Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

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