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Sondheim visits Chicago for recognition - and a conversation

Stephen Sondheim is an inveterate New Yorker, but he's frequently expressed a love for Chicago. That love was returned on Sunday morning, Nov. 6, 2011, when he was awarded the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize at the annual Chicago Humanities Festival. His appearance at Orchestra Hall was packed with admirers, and his second volume of collected lyrics, Look, I Made a Hat, complete with autographed nameplates, was on sale in the lobby in advance of its Nov. 22 release. Following Tribune Editor Gerould W. Kern's brief recognition of the award (rather than a formal presentation), Sondheim joined the newspaper's chief theatre critic Chris Jones onstage for a 45-minute interview.

Jones asked Sondheim about the charge that his work lacks emotional involvement. Sondheim responded with an observation - one he makes in his new book - that his work can be divided between two periods. The first has a greater detachment from characters than the second, but that's a reflection of the influences of his primary collaborators in each period. Of director Harold Prince, a dominant force in his earlier shows, he said, "Hal Prince's style has that detachment. Company, for example, doesn't ask for involvement with its characters. Empathy, yes, but not involvement." Librettist/director James Lapine, with whom Sondheim wrote three musicals after a breakup with Prince, "is more open and emotional ... takes emotional chances." Even apart from these distinctions, Sondheim said, "This particular criticism has lessened over time ... You have to outlive your critics."

When Jones asked which lyrics were particularly hard to write, Sondheim cited "Maria," from West Side Story. "I had to make it simple and interesting." He explained how difficult it is for writers, particularly young ones, to write simple lyrics. "When you're young, you write to impress," he said, and he advised writers not to include ideas that are "extraneous, distracting or off-the-subject."

Jones dared to ask Sondheim if his notoriously difficult mother had an influence on his art, comparing him to the poet William Butler Yeats, who also suffered a lack of maternal love. …


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