Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I’m always fascinated by the creative process as it applies to writing. Even though I’ve been doing it for xihety3ytpw years, I’m always looking for new tips, new ways to maybe improve the process. Artists create in so many different ways. Sondheim writes his lyrics lying down with a yellow pad and soft-lead pencil. He tries not to compose too much music at the piano because his left hand doesn’t play as well as his right so it will often revert back to familiar chords. That’s something I didn’t know. And the ninety-minute documentary is filled with those nuggets. I didn't know he drank while he wrote either. See? I get useful tips that I can use in my own writing.
He explains the thinking behind certain songs. He discusses the difference between lyric writing, which can be poetic, and poetry. He explains how Cole Porter used to write. He shares how Oscar Hammerstein II approached songwriting as if he were writing short stories.
Sondheim offers some great observations of other writers as well. My favorite was from William Faulkner. According to Sondheim, Faulkner once said a writer needs three things: imagination, observation, and experience. He can get away with having only two of those but no less than two.
There are also some terrific idiotic quotes. Frank Sinatra explaining the meaning of “Send In The Clowns”: “You fall in love with a girl, she leaves you, send in the clowns.”
Most of the footage comes from various TV interviews over the years and the filmmakers really did their homework. I had no idea he had been a guest on every talk show except Diablo Cody’s. But the interviews are cobbled together to make one cohesive commentary even though from paragraph to paragraph he goes from 80 years-old to 20 to 45 to 60. He even switches back and forth between color and black-and-white.
Among the topics explored in the documentary: collaboration, mentoring, hits, flops, dealing with failure, a song’s purpose, defending your work, puzzles, peer pressure, coping with critics, writing as if you were an actor, the moments of joy and hours of frustration, and using Joan Crawford’s career as an inspiration for a song.
Sprinkled in are a few tid bits of his personal life. Stephen was an only child and when his mother was being wheeled into the OR to have a pacemaker implanted she gave him a note that said, “I have only one regret in my life and that is giving you birth." The fact that he became a gifted composer and not the guy who shot up a crowded movie theater says a lot about his character. And therapy.
Some of the other showcased songs were less successful. The worst was “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker sung in a decedent pre-war Berlin setting. On every level: What the fuck?!
The overall message of the program was write what you love. Write with passion. Respect and learn from past masters and pay it forward if you are lucky enough to succeed. Also, stay out of Ethel Merman’s way.
His many words were music to my ears. SIX BY SONDHEIM airs periodically on any of the twelve HBO channels and HBO GO. It’s 85 minutes of great television. Fast forward through the Jarvis Cocker mess.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM