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How Sondheim Found His Sound

Steve Swayne

Publication Year: 2010

“Steve Swayne’s How Sondheim Found His Sound is a fascinating treatment and remarkable analysis of America’s greatest playwright in song. His marvelous text goes a long way toward placing Stephen Sondheim among the towering artists of the late twentieth century!” —Cornel West, Princeton University “Sondheim’s career and music have never been so skillfully dissected, examined, and put in context. With its focus on his work as composer, this book is surprising and welcome.” —Theodore S. Chapin, President and Executive Director, The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization “. . . an intriguing ‘biography’ of the songwriter’s style. . . . Swayne is to be congratulated for taking the study of this unique composer/lyricist into hitherto unnavigated waters.” —Stage Directions “The research is voluminous, as are the artistry and perceptiveness. Swayne has lived richly within the world of Sondheim’s music.” —Richard Crawford, author of America’s Musical Life: A History “Amid the ever-more-crowded bookshelf of writings on Sondheim, Swayne’s analysis of Sondheim’s development as a composer stands up as a unique and worthy study. . . . For the Sondheim aficionados, there are new ideas and new information, and for others, Swayne’s How Sondheim Found His Sound will provide an intriguing introduction into the mind of arguably the greatest and most influential living Broadway composer.” —talkinbroadway.com “What a fascinating book, full of insights large and small. An impressive analysis and summary of Sondheim’s many sources of inspiration. All fans of the composer and lovers of Broadway in general will treasure and frequently refer to Swayne’s work.” —Tom Riis, Joseph Negler Professor of Musicology and Director of the American Music Research Center, University of Colorado Stephen Sondheim has made it clear that he considers himself a “playwright in song.” How he arrived at this unique appellation is the subject of How Sondheim Found His Sound—an absorbing study of the multitudinous influences on Sondheim’s work. Taking Sondheim’s own comments and music as a starting point, author Steve Swayne offers a biography of the artist’s style, pulling aside the curtain on Sondheim’s creative universe to reveal the many influences—from classical music to theater to film—that have established Sondheim as one of the greatest dramatic composers of the twentieth century.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. vii-ix

This book represents the culmination of work that began more than ‹fteen years ago in a classroom at the University of Washington. I had no idea that a term paper on Merrily We Roll Along would lead to graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, a serendipitous...


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pp. xi

A Chronology of Sondheim’s Creative Career

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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-4

Upstairs, of course, refers to the brownstone in Turtle Bay, not far from the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. When Sondheim moved in, Katharine Hepburn, who lived next door, complained about the duration and volume of his piano playing. Sondheim began his creative life...

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1 Sondheim the Classicist

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pp. 5-45

The American musical theater is ‹lled with composers who wrote, performed, knew, and loved classical music. Herbert, Romberg, Friml, Weill, Blitzstein, Loewe, Bernstein, Coleman, Kander: Sondheim is hardly unique. Each of these composers would favor different composers,...

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2 Sondheim the Tunesmith

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pp. 47-96

As was revealed in the previous chapter, Sondheim named George Gershwin and Harold Arlen as signi‹cant in›uences on his musical development. Together with Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter, Gershwin and Arlen make up what many...

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3 Pulling It Apart

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pp. 97-124

By the time “What Can You Lose?” is sung in the movie Dick Tracy, quite a bit of Sondheim has already gone by.1 The movie’s sole love song, it is the fourth of five Sondheim songs in the movie. It begins under the dialogue, with a faintly heard string sound stealing in from the...

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4 Sondheim the Dramaphile

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pp. 125-158

This is the standard story that tells how Sondheim learned about the theater, and quite a good story it is. It lays out a course of study that would bene‹t any would-be writer of musicals. It shows Sondheim’s initiative and industry. It shows Hammerstein’s interest in a young protégé...

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5 Sondheim the Cinéaste

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pp. 159-195

In this chapter, which traces Sondheim’s cinematic loves and ‹nds vestiges of them in his musicals, two ideas intertwine. First, while Sondheim did not propose most of the stories that he and his collaborators set to music, the stories bear striking similarities to ‹lms that he knew and...

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6 Putting It Together

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pp. 197-256

While Sondheim’s comments here focus narrowly on the music (with its concomitant lyric), his description starts with the dramatic. The music must account fully for every action on stage. A song (which here is apposite to “piece” or “composition”) may have a structure that follows...

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Appendix: The Concept Musical and Sondheim

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pp. 257-259

While writers have tried to de‹ne the concept musical, few have troubled to trace the genesis of the term. In his dissertation Eugene Robert Huber cited Martin Gottfried’s 1979 definition of the concept musical and asserted that the term “seemed to enjoy a great popularity in the sixties...


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pp. 261-288


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pp. 289-298


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pp. 299-301


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pp. 303-315

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026357
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472032297

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010