A Little Write Music

“Teaching is a sacred profession. And art is a form of teaching.”
— Stephen Sondheim

The post I was going to write here this month was pushed out of my mind – and into next month – by the fact that one of my great creative heroes, the Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, passed away the day after Thanksgiving.

I have many creative heroes in a variety of fields: fiction, fantasy, science fiction, comics, animation, and playwriting. But in the arena of musical theater no one has influenced me as much personally, professionally, and creatively Stephen Sondheim.

If you are unfamiliar with Sondheim’s work, you may be asking – what does he have to do with the teaching of writing? And if you know his work but nothing about his history… you may also be wondering what he has to do with the teaching of writing.

What does Stephen Sondheim have to do with writing instruction? The answer: Everything. Sondheim has a lot to say about teaching and writing actually. Stay with me.

For the uninitiated, you may think musicals are the arena of feel-good, somewhat sappy shows like Annie or The Sound of Music. Sondheim wrote lyrics for a couple of shows (West Side Story, which has a new movie version opening this month, was his Broadway debut), but once he began writing music as well, he chose to write challenging shows about complex, thought- provoking subjects: the ambivalence of marriage (Company), the death of the American dream (Follies), the modern history of Japan (Pacific Overtures), serial killing and cannibalism (Sweeney Todd), pointillist art (Sunday in the Park with George), and presidential assassins and would-be assassins (Assassins) – just to name some of them. His lyrics have such depth and resonance he has often been compared to Shakespeare.

My own history with Sondheim began my senior year of high school in Upstate New York in an English elective titled American Musical Theater. We read musical scripts (librettos) as literature, and my teacher, Mr. Jacobs, assigned me three Sondheim shows to read and write essays about. When the semester course was over, he handed me the next script and album in Sondheim’s roster of shows and told me to keep reading and listening. I said, “That class is over.” He told me to keep reading anyway. I did. I later made Sondheim’s lyrics the subject of my senior research in English, and even later taught one of his shows, Into the Woods, to my sixth graders as part of a year-long unit on happiness. I am currently mentoring a student for her I.B. extended essay on Sweeney Todd.

In addition to being an excellent lyricist, Sondheim was an excellent teacher of the principles of lyric writing. I read his essay about lyric writing while I was still in high school, and I think his principles of writing have impacted my own writing instruction for many years, and probably led to my idea of Big Picture/Close up Writing. Without further ado, here are his principles:

Content Dictates Form

Less Is More

God Is in the Details

all in the service of


without which nothing else matters.

He considered these principles so important, he covered the endpapers of his collected lyrics with them.

He considered them principles of lyric writing, but lyric writing is all writing writ small, and I think these very simple ideas can apply to almost any kind of writing.

I consider his first principle to be the number one rule of writing, big picture: Content Dictates Form. What you have to say determines the form the writing will take. You don’t just write the same way every time you write – you vary the writing based on the situation. I have been ranting and raving (me and a lot of other teachers) against the stifling grip the five-paragraph-essay has had on writing instruction for years now. But perhaps instead of arguing against formula writing, we should argue for Sondheim’s first principle: Content Dictates Form.

In his first outing as both composer and lyricist, a show called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he opened a farcical romp about sex, disguises, and people running in and out of doors chasing each other with a gently lilting song called “Love is in the Air” that would have worked as the opening number of a gently lilting musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But in front of raucous farce, it set the audience up to expect the wrong kind of show – and the show was therefore flopping out of town. He wrote a new opening number, “Comedy Tonight” that told the audience exactly what to expect:

Something familiar,/Something peculiar,/Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!

Something appealing,/Something appalling,/Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!

The rest of the show stayed the same: once he changed the opening number so that it fit the content of the show, it became a hit, and the audience started to laugh because they knew what kind of show to expect. He had tried to write a generic opening number – standard form – and it didn’t work. The content needed to dictate the form – and he needed a non-standard opening number.

Sweeney Todd, his serial-killer musical, is designed to be scary. Sondheim knew from scary movies that the way to keep the suspense going was to have nearly-constant music. So Sweeney Todd is nearly all sung – not because he was trying to write an opera, but because the content (a scary story) dictated the form (lots of music).

We need to stop telling students there is one format for all writing and they should just stick to that. They need to understand that every writing situation is a new one – and the universal principle for dealing with it is to remember that Content Dictates Form.

Sondheim’s second principle – God is in the Details – is, for me, the first rule of close up writing. It’s all about the details, the details, the details. The past decade of Common Core obsession with text-evidence has left many of our students able to string quotes from articles together but unable to think in terms of concrete details. But details matter. We remember vivid writing. Details stick in our brains. Abstractions tend to be forgotten.

Sondheim wrote for character, and based his lyrics in the details of the character’s lives. His lyrics are full of vivid, concrete imagery.

The chorus in Sweeney Todd sings: “His needs were few, his room was bare:/A lavabo and a fancy chair,/A mug of suds and a leather strop,/An apron a towel, a pail and a mop./” These detailed lyrics creepily set the stage for the story of a barber who uses his straight razor to slit people’s throats.

In the TV musical “Evening Primrose,” a homeless character who has been trapped for years living in a New York City department store, longs for the outside world in terms of metaphorical merchandise:

“I remember sky/It was blue as ink/Or at least I think/I remember sky/I remember snow/Soft as feathers/Sharp as thumb tacks/Coming down like lint/And it made you squint//When the wind would blow/And ice like vinyl/On the streets/
Cold as silver/White as sheets.”

In the musical Company, currently being revived on Broadway, a character sings the song “Getting Married Today” to express the fact that they are getting cold feet. Again – concrete details, not vague sentiments.

“Thank you for the/Twenty-seven dinner plates and/Thirty-seven butter knives and/Forty-seven paper weights and/Fifty-seven candle holders – /I am not getting married!”

The last principle, Less is More, Sondheim took to be particular to lyric writing. Sondheim was the writer who made me aware of the difference between lyrics and poetry: poetry can be read on the page and looked over at your leisure, and they stand alone. Lyrics exist in time – they come into your ears and leave – and they are set to music. So good lyrics need to be underwritten – they need to be simple enough to let the music carry some of the load, and ideas need to be stretched out enough that the audience has time to take them in. He disliked many of his lyrics for West Side Story. In “Maria” he thought “Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing -/Say it soft and it’s almost like praying -” was overwritten. But he was happy with the simple lyric, “Maria! I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria.”

But I also relate Less is More to writing in general, to the idea that, as Strunk and White insisted, clarity is everything. I ask my students to look for clunky sentences and rewrite them according to these criteria: Is it clear? Is it clean (are there no unnecessary words)? Do the parts connect? I have them read a clunky sentence like this one from an actual student essay: “Second of all the next reason or characteristic a good friend should have in my opinion should be generosity or being caring.” When students revise that sentence to be “less” it usually turns into something like: “Good friends should be generous and caring.” Less words, but a far better sentence.

Sondheim ends his very simple list of principles with the words “all in the name of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” I find that many of my students over the years have been taught the opposite: to use lots of big words and fancy syntax to make their writing sound sophisticated. But Sondheim agrees with Strunk and White: clarity is job one.

He was known for writing complex, tricky-to-perform lyrics – yet each one of those lyrics is in its own way, crystal clear to the audience. The complexity of the lyrics often highlights the mind of the character. In “Getting Married Today”, the reluctant bride sings:

Go!/ Can’t you go?/Why is no-/Body listening?/Goodbye!/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!

Reviewing Sondheim’s essay on lyric writing and his two volumes of collected lyrics (Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat) has confirmed for me that Sondheim’s principles hold true for all kinds of writing, but they suggest something about how all of us who teach writing should teach it. We should teach principles of writing, not set-in-stone formulas that can’t be adapted to different circumstances.

Sondheim learned the principles of lyric writing as a young man from Oscar Hammerstein III of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, but he didn’t write songs like Hammerstein’s. Hammerstein wrote optimistic, heartfelt songs: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “My Favorite Things,” “Happy Talk.” He didn’t teach Sondheim how to write just like him; he gave Sondheim general principles of writing, and Sondheim took those principles and wrote songs in his own voice: ambivalent, dark, ironic, humorous.

Sondheim then went on to mentor younger composer-lyricists like Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent, and Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote Hamilton. Neither of them wrote exactly like Sondheim. They took the general principles he taught them and used them their own ways. We shouldn’t be asking students to write fill-in-the-blank writing that gives them no freedom to usetheir own voices. Passing on general principles to students and then setting them free – that’s great teaching.

I will miss Stephen Sondheim and having new work from him to look forward to, but his lessons, and his writing are with me for the duration. He was my teacher.

(And so, of course, there had to be a tribute comic strip.)

(If you don’t get the last two speech bubbles, look up “Being Alive” and “Not a Day Goes By” – two beautiful Sondheim songs.)

David Lee Finkle


All lyric quotes and ideas about lyric writing excerpted from Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954 -1981) by Stephen Sondheim except for “Finishing the Hat,” from Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics 1981 – 2011 by Stephen Sondheim.

Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.

Who are you writing and creative heroes? What principles of writing do you teach your students? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics

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1 Comment

  1. Very nice essay. Should bring Sondheim to a larger public.. He also mentored Adam Guettel, who as you probably know is Richard Rodger’s grandson.
    BTW, Ockie was Hammerstein II not III.

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