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

Broadway musical legend on penning success stories and blowing off critics.

December 8, 2010, 2:29 PM

Dec. 28, 2010— -- 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."

He has been full of surprises. "Company," which opened on Broadway in 1970, was the first musical without a defined, linear plot. "Sweeney Todd" debuted on Broadway in 1979 and featured the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street," while, on a sweeter note, the 1987 Broadway production of "Into the Woods" was a delightful romp through children's fairy tales about what really happens after "happily ever after."

Despite his massive success, Sondheim also has been met with fierce critics over the decades, many of whom have said his music is too cold, impersonal, difficult to sing and lacks mass appeal. Sondheim doesn't seem fazed by them.

"I think it's the only one of the arts that's mostly reviewed by ignoramuses, people who know nothing about what they're writing about," he said, although he admitted that when "Sweeney Todd" first opened, it lost two-thirds of its money.

Sondheim's Most Famous: 'Send in the Clowns'

Whatever small struggles he has encountered in the past, there also have been stunning successes. "A Little Night Music," now in revival on Broadway, features one of the most iconic songs ever to hit the stage and perhaps the most famous song Sondheim ever wrote: "Send in the Clowns."

Peters, who recently took over the role of Desiree from Catherine Zeta-Jones in the revival, is the most recent actress to sing the powerful song.

"What's funny about Steve's songs is you think, 'Oh, this is about something,' and then you start working on it and you go, 'No, it's about something,'" Peters said. "It goes even deeper than you imagined."

As for "West Side Story," despite Sondheim's grumblings, the musical was produced by a Broadway all-star team, with music by Leonard Bernstein, direction by Jerome Robbins, and Sondheim's lyrics, which he penned in his early 20s.

"Most of the lyrics were sort of ... they were very self-conscious," he said. "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,'" Sondheim said. "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."

Although all of the composer's great work has continued to live on and be celebrated, he said being immortalized isn't important to him.

"I'm one of those people why doesn't care about posterity," he said. "There are people who care; I couldn't care less what happens to my stuff after I die because I won't be around to enjoy it."

ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report.

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