NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Acclaimed Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim says his work is less about talent and more about the labor and drudgery of “hard work.”
“It’s not about waiting for inspiration. It’s not about talent,” Sondheim said Friday while speaking before an audience at Rutgers University’s Nicholas Music Center.
“You have to learn the techniques. You have to read what others have written,” said the award-winning writer as he sat on stage, responding to questions from David Bianculli, a television critic for National Public Radio and professor of television and film history at Rowan University.
People in the audience applauded with the mention of each of Sondheim’s productions, including “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Assassins” and “Sweeney Todd,” among many others.
The Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts sponsored Sondheim’s appearance, part of the university’s Summer and Winter Sessions program. The 87-year-old writer has received numerous honors, including an Academy Award for best song for “Sooner or Later” from the movie “Dick Tracy,” and a Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Born in New York City in 1930, Sondheim has won eight Grammy and eight Tony awards, and in 2015 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There are numerous other awards over a career that was launched in 1954.
Sondheim said he is still working, including collaboration with another playwright on a revised production of the musical “Company.” The original story follows a middle-age bachelor who sees all the difficulties in the marriages of his friends, yet still longs for have someone he can care for in a committed long-term relationship.
In the new version, Sondheim said the lead character is a woman dealing with those issues.
He told of writing his first musical at age 15, and being fortunate to have renown writer Oscar Hammerstein II as his mentor.
Sondheim had a quick response to a question from an audience member who said he is working to become musical playwright and lyricist and was seeking advice.
“Write something and put it on stage. Write something and put it on in school. Write something and put it on before strangers,” he said. "The theater is about putting on shows,” he said.