Tag Archives: stephen sondheim

MFA, NYC-Style

New York is a city where you can learn 1,000 new things every day. It’s a place where you can get a grad education without ever sitting behind a desk. Every venue is a classroom. The public library, parks, bookstores, theaters, restaurants, squares, streets, hotel lobbies, bars, subway cars. With the amount of information I’ve consumed, I should have my MFA by now.

One of my favorite classrooms in this city is the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. Last week, I attended back-to-back (and free!) talks with Nora Ephron (Tuesday night) and Stephen Sondheim (Wednesday night). These weren’t traditional readings, rather, they were master classes from two of the most creative minds that reside in this fair city.

Nora was at B&N to pimp her new book, “I Remember Nothing” (my Read pick from Monday). She got up to the podium and said the thing most everyone wishes a writer would say: “I’m not going to read from my book tonight. Instead, I’m going to tell you about two of my most defining moments as a writer.”

Yes, Nora. YES.

She talked about how she grew up wanting to be a journalist, and how in high school, she joined the staff of the school paper. The teacher wrote the essential rules of reporting on the blackboard:

Who

What

When

Where

How

Why

and told them the following: On Thursday, during school hours, the faculty and staff of Beverly Hills High School will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference in West Hollywood to see Speaker X talk about arts in education.

From there, Nora said they had to retype the information he gave them. The students clacked away on their typewriters. The teacher collected their papers, looked through them all and said they missed out on the most important part of the story: On Thursday, there will be no classes at Beverly Hills High School as all faculty and staff will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference …

Flip the script. Find the angle. Tell the audience what they want to hear, or didn’t know they wanted to hear. Nora said journalism was like fitting together a puzzle. When you get it right, everything snaps into place. This simple exercise changed the way she looked at writing.

Ephron’s next lightbulb moment occurred when she was writing the script for the movie, Silkwood. She was working closely with the film’s director, Mike Nichols, who told her screenwriting was all about narrative. He offered up this story as an illustration:

There was a man and a woman who lived on an island peninsula. They were married. The man invited his mother to visit with them on the peninsula. Shortly after her arrival, he was called away on business. Since he was out of town, his wife used this opportunity to take the ferry to the mainland to visit her lover. They made love all day. She ran to catch the last ferry back to the island peninsula. She had just missed it. She begged the ferry captain to take her back, so her mother-in-law wouldn’t be suspicious. He said he would only do it for six times the amount of a ferry ticket. She didn’t have the money. He turned her away. She started to walk home to the island peninsula. On the way back, she was raped and killed. The question is: Whose fault was her rape/murder? The rapist/murderer? The ferry captain? The Woman? her husband? Her mother-in-law? Her lover?

Within seconds of hearing this question posed, I had constructed an internal narrative wherein the mother-in-law was at fault. The story I came up with was a long one, but it only took me five seconds to decide who was at fault … the exact amount of time Nora let the audience think about the question before she revealed that there wasn’t an answer; Mike Nichols told her it was all about whose story you chose to tell. Narrative is about perspectives. Who sees what and how they see it.

Nora’s stories were deceptively simple. Like some of her best movies, they revealed layers of intricacies beneath the surface of a standard boy-meets-girl plot line. Little rabbit holes of genius. After the storytelling, Nora signed books. I’m not big on the signed books, but I had a first edition of her book Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media (still surprisingly relevant today) and I really wanted to get it signed. As she signed the book, she told me I could get a copy of it for three dollars on eBay. I replied: Well, now it will be worth four.

My second night at Barnes & Noble University was a conversation between Stephen Sondheim (Monday’s Listen pick) and journalist/author Anna Quindlen. Their 20+ year friendship allowed for some fun stories and insidery info. Sondheim told a story about being asked to pay a visit to Cole Porter to “cheer him up” by playing a song from a new musical (Gypsy) he was writing. Stephen choose this song, because he said he pulled a traditional “Cole Porter” move on the lyrics.

In Stephen’s words: If Cole Porter couldn’t rhyme a word, he would pull a word from another language. When we played ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ for him and got to the line: ‘No fits, no fights, no feuds, and no egos … amigos.’ He audibly gasped because he didn’t expect the ‘amigos.’ We Cole Porter-ed Cole Porter. It was a great moment.

He talked about how he doesn’t speak ill of the living, but has no problem talking about the dead because, “they can’t talk back.” Sondheim also claimed he’s not concerned with achieving immortality through his work, unlike some of his peers. This gave me pause. I think it’s an easy comment to make when you know you’ve already achieved that state. I wonder if it would still be true had he only created one or two musicals of middling success.

Sondheim spoke critically of his work and that of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. When it comes writing lyrics, accuracy is very important to him. He cited Hammerstein’s line in the song, Cock-Eyed Optimist, as one he finds most baffling: “When is the sky ever a ‘bright canary yellow?” His stories and observations were fascinating. He charmed the audience with his candor and good sense of humor.

The greatest joy I got out of being in the audience for both Sondheim and Ephron was seeing how much they both still love what they do. And, even better, how much they enjoy sharing it with others. Truly one of the best lessons a teacher can impart on their students.

P.S. Stephen Sondheim shared so many great stories that I’ve already forgotten, but if you want to read more, here’s a great write-up on the event.


Monday’s Watch, Listen, Read

Watch

This is one of my favorite movies, written by the fabulous Nora Ephron (more about her in today’s Read pick). This particular clip was chosen as a tribute to my middle/high school friend, who got married this past weekend. I will never forget the moment she told me, over brunch at French Roast, that she wanted to marry her (now) husband (and by the way, did I know what was taking him so damn long to ask her?) She said, “When I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, I wanted it to happen right away.” It was a a beautiful statement. It was also a very cinematic line. It immediately brought to mind “When Harry Met Sally.” If you haven’t already seen this movie (shameful!), you are missing out on a brilliant classic.

Congratulations to my friends, S&S. The rest of your life (together) starts now. xo


 

 

 

Listen


Sondheim music is something that is infused in the blood of nearly every American. One year, I worked on two books that heavily relied on Sondheim lyrics for either the book title or lyric reprints within the novel. I was surrounded by Sondheim. The man is a genius, and, as I learned the other evening when I saw him speak live, he’s also very charismatic, funny, charming, and sensitive (though anyone could guess that from his lyrics). This song also happens to be the title of his new book, a collection of lyrics with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, and anecdotes.*

Read

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

If I could, I would read everything Nora Ephron has written, including her mental list of the best pies in New York, because it’s bound to be filled with witty observations and asides. I Remember Nothing is a smaller slice of Ephron pie. You’re not quite getting the full flavor of her flakey, buttery words and the same bursts of juicy opinions that she generously served up in I Feel Bad About My Neck. Nonetheless, I Remember Nothing is still satisfying to the palate. The only downside is it leaves you wanting more, but aren’t all delicious treats like that?*

*More on Nora and Steve later in the week. Please standby…


Dear Stephen Sondheim, Ouch!

I don’t know what happened. I wanted to love the new musical based on the real lives of Addison and Wilson Mizner (two brothers, one was the architect responsible for Mediterranean Revival-style resort homes of Palm Beach and Boca, and the other a cardsharp, boxing manager, Broadway playwright, investor in the Brown Derby and all-around con artist, respectively). The premise was interesting: the brothers each follow their own roads: Addison’s is met with what seems like a never-ending string of failures, Wilson’s with a sugarmama who bankrolled his every whim. The roles soon reverse when Addison gains his footing as an architect in south Florida (and a sugarboy), while Wilson’s wife kicks him to the curb.

The two brothers eventually reconnect when a poor, sickly Wilson shows up at healthy, wealthy Addison’s door, and they team up to build/create their own city, Boca Raton (mouth of the rat), with Addison designing and Wilson selling. Given Wilson’s history and penchant for weaving a good yarn, one can guess where this is all leading.

The score was, well, even if I don’t like a musical, chances are I’ll still leave the theater humming a tune or remembering a few words from a song. Unfortunately I only remember one word from the “big” number: gold. And, I think, appropriately enough, the song is actually titled “Gold.”

On a positive note, the costumes are quite inventive. Each member of the chorus wears something specific to the period (1918-1920’s) but printed on the cream-colored fabric are blueprints of actual Mizner homes. It’s a really cool look and a nice detail.rs_slide

But why doesn’t this musical work, exactly? That’s a question I’ve kept turning over in my mind for the past 24 hours and I think I’ve figured out the answer. The autobiographical quality of two brothers gaining and losing everything is fascinating, as is their relationship. But it’s also the story of two brothers that gain and then lose everything. People like rooting for the underdog, so once Addison succeeds, we’re done rooting for him and Wilson’s not like able enough to want to root for at all. And, once they start to lose money because of their greed, we don’t like either of them and aren’t invested or interested in them enough to care.

When you work on a musical for 30 years, like Sondheim did with this one, and I truly admire his passion and sticktuitiveness, sometimes it’s just better to stick it back in the drawer.  It’s no longer the earnest work of a 25-year-old, rather it’s the over thought, overly earnest work of a 78-year-old man. The worst part is, the failure of this production isn’t just in the writing, it’s in the directing, acting from the chorus, and perhaps even a little bit of the fault of the Public Theater. Due to the architecture of the theater space, there really aren’t any wings to the stage, so everyone is onstage at all times and they look bored. You, as the audience, are completely aware of how bored they are. It seems like every member of the chorus can’t wait to go home and go to bed. And soon enough, the audience starts to feel the same way.