They tell writers never talk about an idea or what you’re working on. The superstition, a favorite of Hemingway’s: some writing only happens once. And not even at a computer or in a notebook. Voice an idea and it goes away. Somehow, or so they say, the energy escapes.
For theater people, it’s the opposite. Talk out ideas, plans, roles you’d like to play. Get the ideas out there. Make your intentions known. Nothing may come of schmoozing but then again, you never know.
Ask Craig Lucas.
He was a dancer in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. During a rehearsal, he had a chat with the master and was surprised to learn that Sondheim actually had files and folders full of songs he rejected.
Sondheim called them “trunk tunes.” Some didn’t fit the musical, others just didn’t fit. The tone was wrong, or – as with “Pour Le Sport,” a lively tribute to the Jazz Age written for Lena Horne – the show never got produced.
Sondheim had leftovers from Follies, A Little Night Music, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
When The Production Company commissioned Lucas, at the time a budding author, to create a musical revue, he recalled his conversation with Sondheim. After a deep pause, of respect and trepidation, he thought “sure, why not?” And asked if he could work with the discards.
Lucas and director/friend Norman Rene crafted Marry Me a Little, a two-character, sung-through musical revue (currently at Diversionary Theatre) about the many ways of love.
“Most theater composers have a stock of what in show business parlance are called ‘trunk tunes,’” says Sondheim, “and they are often tempted to reuse them when the occasion arises.”
Richard Rodgers used “Blue Moon,” twice, Sondheim points out. Ditto Jule Styne (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) and Leonard Bernstein (“Somewhere”). And composers of the “Golden Age” wrote mostly generic songs, and could recycle them when need be.
“It’s an honorable tradition,” says Sondheim, “but has always struck my puritanical streak as cheating.”
In an interview, Stephen Schwartz admitted to borrowing a song he wrote for a college show (“The New Society”), renaming it “The Goldfarb Variations” for his The Magic Show. He did it, “because I wanted a four-part, Bach-like fugue.” Since he had already written one, “I thought it was silly to kill myself writing another.”
If the shoe fits.
But most of Sondheim’s music is so site specific – crafted for a single style and moment – you’d think few could find use elsewhere.
Still, he had a trunkful. And Craig Lucas, who went on to write Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, Blue Window, and Small Tragedy, turned the “tunes” into a song-cycle that plays as if each were composed with the others in mind.
When Marry Me premiered at The Production Company in 1981, some reviewers dismissed it as “minor” Sondheim – or “for Sondheim lovers only.”
That was 32 years ago. And the musical, often performed these days with male/male and female/female casts, is still going strong.
Even Sondheim’s rejects come to life. The guy’s that good.