Stephen Sondheim appeared on ABC’s ‘Nightline’ on Tuesday night, and during the interview, the theater legend disclosed that he found the words to his 1957 masterpiece ‘West Side Story’, written with Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein — are you ready for this? — “embarrassing.” What?
Most of the lyrics were sort of … they were very self-conscious. Bernstein wanted the songs to be … heavy, what he called ‘poetic,’ and my idea of poetry and his idea of poetry are polar opposites. I don’t mean that they are terrible, I just mean they’re so self-conscious.”
There is one bad song in particular that stands out for Sondheim, one that Jack Nicholson turned into a hilarious parody in the film, ‘Anger Management,’ as many others have done.
‘”I’m fond of quoting ‘I Feel Pretty’. The street girl is singing, ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel.’ … I just put my head under my wing and pretend I’m not there.”
Longtime fans of Sondheim, who turned 80 this year, may have heard many of the anecdotes he mentions on the “Nightline” segment and in his new (and first) book, “Finishing the Hat.” But it’s still fun hearing insights from that modest guy behind such landmark musicals as “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Gypsy” and “Into the Woods.” Like the fact that he writes lying down. Or that he’d like to rewrite some of his classic songs.
Art needs surprise; otherwise, it doesn’t hold an audience’s attention. Theater needs surprise,” he said. “So I like to surprise myself, and I want to surprise an audience.”
There’s even a Broadway theater named after him. Earlier this year, the Henry Miller Theater on West 43rd Street in New York City became the Stephen Sondheim Theater, another event in his career that the composer was somewhat uncomfortable with.
“Embarrassing. Thrilling but embarrassing,” Sondheim said. “First of all, I’ve never been fond of my name. ‘Sondheim’ … doesn’t sing.”
Perhaps it was no surprise that Sondheim saved his most biting words for critics who review his shows (not always kindly):
I think it’s the only one of the arts that is mostly reviewed by ignoramuses, people who know nothing about what they’re writing about.”
Ouch! Well, no one can say Sondheim doesn’t have a way with words. After all, he is the man who wrote “Send in the Clowns.”