IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “For Stevie… by your pupils you’ll be taught”

The past few days I have been listening to interviews with Stephen Sondheim, loving his advice, his graciousness, his encouragement, and his passion.

Lyricist and librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II, second only to my direct mentor, Joshua Logan, is one of my musical theatre heroes. Mr. Hammerstein was both a surrogate father and musical theatre mentor to Stephen Sondheim and I do cherish that relationship.

The personal and professional bond between the pair continued until Hammerstein passed away at 65 in August of 1960.

In July 1960, while at his final birthday party, Hammerstein presented photographs of himself to the family, which of course included Sondheim.  Sondheim requested that Mr. Hammerstein autograph his picture — “it was like asking your father for an autograph,” Sondheim said.

The warm crooked smile spread across Sondheim’s face as he recounted the moment, several decades later in an interview. “Oscar hesitated and then inscribed it, ‘smiling the whole while, like the cat who ate the cream,’ It read, “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”

Mr. Hammerstein had co-written THE KING AND I with Richard Rodgers and the reference to “teacher” came from the song lyrics, “Getting to Know You,” – “By your pupils you’ll be taught.”

A few years ago, Sondheim was asked what he would say to Hammerstein if the two had one more chance to talk.  In hushed tones, Sondheim replied, “I would ask him, are you proud of me?”

Last night I came upon this video and interview from 1980 in Oxford, England.

In one particular section, a question from an audience member about “educating the audience” resonated with me, and I decided to transcribe it so I could read it and, of course, share it.


Educating the audience…

“This thing about educating audiences, which was a phrase used earlier… I don’t think you can educate an audience: you can only open up the supermarket so they can taste more fruits and vegetables. All you can do is expose more work. That is… I don’t know the solution to that. That’s why I wish everyone could go to the theatre. I wish everyone could afford to. But, incidentally, it’s not just the money. It’s the two other mediums: it’s movies and television… I mean, we are moving into a more and more passive world in that sense. People want to sit back and just let it wash over them.

Nowadays, the seats that are hardest to sell are the balcony seats. Why? Because everybody’s used to sitting in front of a very large screen or a television set and they all want to be in the fourth-row center, ninth-row center, or twelfth-row center. They’re not interested in leaning forward. And, secondly, they don’t have to lean forward because the sound is just going “bahng, bahng” all the time. So, it becomes more passive. They don’t have to act in the play.

One of the problems, for example, in theatre is amplification. And it’s not just the teeny sound. But, as Hal Prince pointed out to me… when he and I first went to the theatre and we could only afford seats way upstairs, we had to lean forward and listen very hard to the actors cause there was no amplification in musicals, as well as plays, and as a result, we got into the play. If you have to lean forward and listen very hard…

I was talking about one of the pieces, I was talking to the class today about one of the pieces where the actors were upstage and I was worried that the impact of the number might not be as great. At the same time, the audience had to listen very carefully so it made them more involved. The more the audience has to work, the better the chance they have of getting into the fantasy of whatever the story is being told. And unfortunately, with the result of, as a result, I think partly, movies and of various mass media, but particularly movies and television, audiences are lazy, and they’re not working as hard. And that doesn’t have to do with the fact the intellectual content has to be greater, they’re just not getting into the fantasy as quickly or as thoroughly as I wish they were. So, I don’t know how you educate an audience except to keep putting on shows and that becomes more and more difficult because fewer and fewer are going to be put on as they become more and more expensive. And as the theatre-going habit leads the audience…

In the United States, the average age of the audience is frightening to me. The younger generation is not going because they’re into other art forms such as records… I can tell you right now the major form of entertainment in the United States is dining out. Restaurants is the main form of entertainment in the United States, at the moment, for the older generation, and some of the Yuppies, so to speak, that generation that use to go to the theatre.

“Forgive me”

And, then there was this collection of love from those who knew or had come in contact with Mr. Sondheim.


About Wright Flyer Guy

Darin is a single adoptive father, a teacher, playwright, and musical theatre director from Kettering, Ohio.
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