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Sondheim, Storytelling, and Mentoring

Right now, I’m reading a book called “Finishing the Hat,” a pretty interesting book by Stephen Sondheim about all the lyrics he wrote for musical plays between 1954 and 1981. That means it begins with a musical called “Saturday Night,” and stops at “Merrily we Roll Along,” just north of “Sweeney Todd.” What about “Sunday in the Park with George,” or “Into the Woods,” or “Assassins,” or any of the other post-1981 stuff? Fear not. There’s a Book II, called “Look, I Made a Hat.” Why the title of the book on pre-1981 Sondheim comes from a post-1981 musical is another question. 

But I digress.

I digress, by the way, because I love this stuff. Stephen Sondheim has been important to my understanding of storytelling on stage. The way the elements of a story are propelled forward by Sondheim's lyrics and music is a revelation to me. I discovered “Sweeney Todd” when I was sixteen, and was so rattled by it that I wrote Stephen Sondheim a letter. He wrote back, and even sent me the double LP of “Sunday in the Park with George.” No kidding. Come to my office. I’ll show you! A lot of people (me, for example) will divide Musical Theater history into two categories: Pre-Sondheim and Post-Sondheim. He changed everything. He changed me.

I'm thinking about Sondheim today because we just did an interview with Fran Yardley, about her work with storytelling and healing. In the interview, she talked about a storyteller she looked to as a mentor -- Doug Lipman. Her mention took me to the web, where I found a video in which Doug Lipman talks about the importance that storytellers place on good coaching…Which reminded me of a story about Stephen Sondheim that I like.  When Sondheim was ten, he became friends with James Hammerstein (recognize the name?) James’ father was Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote some of the most enduring musicals ever written (talkin’ ‘bout “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music,” and more, folks). Oscar Hammerstein became Sondheim’s mentor. When Sondheim was in school, he wrote a funny musical called “By George.” He showed it to Mr. Hammerstein, and asked for a critique. Hammerstein went through the musical and said, “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen." Then Hammerstein added: “But if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.” And Sondheim did the bravest thing I think you can do in the quest for learning stuff: he said, “Tell me.” It took the rest of the day, but he gave Sondheim, in one afternoon, more insight into songwriting for musical theater than most people get in a lifetime. 

So, yes. Coaching. Mentoring. Amen, Mr. Sondheim. Amen, Ms. Yardley. 

From the desk of Sam Payne, host of The Apple Seed on BYU Radio.

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