Stephen Sondheim: My 'West Side Story' Lyrics Are 'Embarrassing'

Stephen Sondheim
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Stephen Sondheim finds the music from "West Side Story," one of the most revered musicals of all time, downright "embarrassing." And he should know. He wrote the lyrics.

"It embarrasses me," he said. "It's very hard for me to listen to some of those songs."

Only a man who has won eight Tony Awards, two Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar could get away with saying something like that. That man is the 80-year-old composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.

He is a true Broadway legend. Most theater buffs have heard (or sung) at least one of Sondheim's most famous scores, which include, "Sweeney Todd," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Into the Woods," "Company," "Sunday in the Park with George," "Assassins" and "Follies." He also wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy" and then, of course, "West Side Story."

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."

Then, of course, there have been constant celebrations, honors, birthday tributes and praises from Sondheim's other prestigious colleagues, including actress Bernadette Peters, who called him "a walking, living icon."

Again, the great composer blushed.

"It's really nice, but it's also embarrassing," Sondheim said. "My tendency, my desire is 'leave me alone, just let me ride.'"

Then he added about watching his life's work unfold: "What's great about standing in the back of the theater while the show is going on is if the audience doesn't like it, you can go to the bar right next door and have a drink."

Sondheim: 'When I Write Words, I'm Very Careful'

A new world of publicity has opened up for Sondheim. He is now an author, having just finished his first book, "Finishing the Hat." It's a collection of his lyrics and memories of a Broadway career that has spanned more than 50 years. The trick, he said, to producing such rich material is lying down on his couch.

"I think I like writing lying down because I like to fall asleep in the middle," he said.

He is meticulous in the way he works, writing only with soft, Blackwing pencils -- a brand that went out of production for years, so he bought a lifetime supply.

"Luckily, when they were in their heyday, I bought boxes and cartons of them because they wear out so quickly."

He also is scrupulous in how he produces his craft.

"When I write words, I'm very careful," he said. "When you write lyrics, there are so few lyrics in the song, so few words ... in a lyric that each one has enormous weight. You know, a line in a song is like a scene in a play."

There's more to his enormous musical success than just lying on his couch and using a special kind of pencil. Sondheim was taken under the wing of another impressive Broadway legend, Oscar Hammerstein, who was like a surrogate father to Sondheim in his teenage years.

"One of the things I learned early on about theater and all art is art needs surprise, otherwise it doesn't hold an audience's attention," Sondheim said. "Theater needs surprise, so I like to surprise myself and I want to surprise the audience."

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