At Lafayette, Stephen Sondheim Tells the Stories Behind His Songs
How Sweeney Todd failed in London, putting the first four letter word in a Broadway musical, and why West Side Story, the movie, doesn't work.
Stephen Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd as a "love letter to London."
But when it actually got there, Sondheim told an audience at Lafayette College Tuesday night, critics hated it, at least at first.
"Sweeney Todd is a tissue of bulls--t from beginning to end," one review said.
One of Sondheim's friends, who had lived in London, put it into perspective: The murderous, tragic barber at the center of Sondheim's play was a goofy, cartoonish figure in England, something used to scare little kids.
“'Go to sleep or Sweeney Todd will get you," said Sondheim, the award-winning composer behind Assassins, Into the Woods, and many other plays. "The idea that we took it seriously appalled them.
Sondheim told this story, and several others, to a packed audience at the college's Colton Chapel for the school's annual Jones Visiting Lecture.
Looking and sounding much younger than his 80 years, Sondheim spoke for 90 minutes, in a discussion moderated by New York Times columnist and former theater critic Frank Rich.
Here are some of the highlights.
Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, and hoped to end the song "Gee Officer Krupke with the line "Gee, Officer Krupke, f--k you!"
He loved the idea of being the first lyricist to put a four letter word in a Broadway musical. But when he ran the idea behind one of the financiers of the show.
"Her face had turned the color of a napkin," Sondheim said.
And the head of Columbia Records told him they might wind up facing obscenity charges if they sold the soundtrack album across state lines.
So the creative team changed it to "Krup You," the lyric that stands today.
"Actually, it’s better," Sondheim said. "It’s the playfulness of the kids. The audience knows what it means, and it doesn’t offend anyone."
West Side Story: The Movie
"This is a gang we're supposed to be frightened of. I didn’t believe it for two seconds. I was never frightened of the gang. There was no tension. Obviously, my opinion is a minority opinion. It won 136 academy awards."
On Jerome Robbins, the show's choreographer
"He was the only genius I ever met. I used to have game parties. He’d invent a game that was better than anything you’d ever played. He never stopped inventing."
On lessons learned from failures
"The only reason to write is from love."