Stephen Sondheim’s new book Look, I Made a Hat is being released this week and the Guardian has provided us with a wonderful excerpt where he writes about critics, awards and Sanskrit.


Stephen Sondheim: who needs critics?

Good reviews can be as harmful as bad ones, says Stephen Sondheim. In an extract from his new book, he reflects on a life of prizes, putdowns – and the joy of songs sung in Sanskrit

Sunday 20 November 2011

stephen sondheim

Stephen Sondheim composing at home in 1968. Photograph: Guardian

After a rotten review, you don’t remember the good ones. The only pleasure you have is to reiterate, both to yourself and to anyone who’ll listen, the bad ones, which you can quote in exquisite detail. Moreover, you have to come to terms with the truth that no matter how doggedly you try to deceive yourself to the contrary, if you’re going to believe your good reviews, you’re going to have to believe the less good ones as well, unless you’re deeply self-delusional.

I’ve worked with a few of the deluded, and there’s a part of me that envies their blindness. Richard Rodgers [one half of Rodgers and Hammerstein] was one. For all his success, he was so sensitive to bad reviews (of which he got almost none until The King and I, after which he got a few) that during the New Haven trial run of Do I Hear a Waltz?, his wife and his assistant would cut out any sentences in the reviews unfavourable to the music and then read him the bowdlerised version. This didn’t do Arthur Laurents (book writer), John Dexter (director) or me any good, since Rodgers, as the producer, would then blame us for being the architects of the show’s problems. After all, he scolded us, the critics made it clear that we were the villains. His ego remained unscathed.

It takes a long time to learn not to pay attention to critics, or at least not to let them distract you. For the young writer, critics have a number of destructive effects. If they praise you, you suffer afterwards by disappointing them; few writers who have a smash hit the first time out survive to be more than one-trick ponies. When the critics pan you, your confidence is shattered, but you gain a certain resilience, if for no other reason than there’s nowhere to go but up. It isn’t necessarily the criticism that hurts, of course, because you can choose not to believe it; it’s the fact that it’s out there in public, that thousands of people are witnessing your humiliation.

When you’re a young writer, critics have you both ways. The praise makes you overestimate yourself, whereas anything less can often leave you disappointed, or angry and impotent. Writing a letter to the newspaper or magazine that has wounded you will only – and always – sound like the whine of a sore loser, again in public. Worse, it encourages critics to think you take them seriously. In either case, you subsequently find yourself brooding, briefly but often, over the unjustified indignities you’ve suffered, dwelling on everything negative published about you in the past – especially when you hit a snag while working. That’s the most pernicious thing about critics: they cause you to waste your time. And did I mention they can steer people away from your show, just as they can hurt sales of your novel, put a crimp in further showings of your paintings, or concerts of your music? They can discourage both you and your audience, which is their ultimate unfortunate effect. Of course, if it’s praise … but let’s not think about that, let’s dwell on the negative.

There are theatre people who claim to be immune to public criticism, and perhaps some really are, but I haven’t met any who have convinced me. When I first entered the arena, and for a long while was not treated kindly by most critics, the reviews had a perversely salubrious effect on me, although I was far from immune. Every time I felt unfairly trashed, I retreated to my copy ofNicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, a startling and hilarious, if discomfiting, compendium of published criticism about everyone fromBeethoven to Copland. To read the sneering and uncomprehending reviews the likes of Brahms and Ravel received made me feel akin to them, and by association as innovative, brilliant and misunderstood.

Slonimsky‘s display of these monumental misjudgments should be required reading for every artist, particularly those just starting out. Older artists are less vulnerable because they’ve survived: they’ve learned they can be wounded but not killed, that what once was devastating has become merely annoying. And if they survive long enough, they become venerable, which is decent compensation. The solution, of course, is not to read reviews of your own work, although the temptation is hard to resist. Who knows: one of them might refer to you as the greatest writer since (fill in name of most admired writer here); but learn to resist you do.

Reading reviews of other people’s work is another matter. For many readers a good critic, in whatever field, is someone they agree with or who agrees with them. For me, a good critic is a good writer. A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist’s intentions and the work’s aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been. A good critic is so impassioned about his subject that he can persuade you to attend something you’d never have imagined going to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find.

Then again, to a certain degree, good critics are no longer necessary to find. The phrase “Everybody’s a critic” has taken on a universal cast. The internet encourages people to share their opinions with the world. In the theatre, the buzz created by chatroom chatters has become increasingly important to a show’s reputation before it opens. There are thousands of critics tapping away their opinions to whoever will listen – so who needs a paid pontificator to tell you what your opinion should be?

Showbusiness chatrooms reveal that the need to criticise is insatiable. They also reveal that there are still people who are enthusiastic about the theatre, who want not only to go, but to talk about what they’ve gone to. The diffidence and short attention spans that pervade so much of our culture were nowhere evident in the lively chatrooms I looked at, although I soon learned not to keep logging on for the same reason I learned not to read my reviews: every group of compliments about my work that started me preening was soon peppered with potshots that unpreened me. And for every piece of thoughtful observation about other people’s work, there was a piece of mean-spirited snottiness – some of which, I regret to say, made me laugh and wish I were young enough again to participate in those kinds of exchanges.

And as for awards …

Awards have three things to offer: cash, confidence and bric-a-brac. A few offer all three, but even though some of the bric-a-brac is handsome indeed, the only awards that have significant value are the ones that come with cash. They strengthen the artist by helping him to subsist and continue. (I bought a piano with one.) The confidence-boosters have a temporary strengthening effect but, like good reviews, are dangerous: they lead recipients to overestimate themselves, and make them vulnerable to the disappointments that inevitably follow.

Awards come in two flavours: competitive (Tonys, Oscars, Grammys) and honorary (degrees, medals, lifetime achievements). The latter are usually awarded to established artists and are created primarily to publicise or raise money for worthy institutions and causes. This is not to cast aspersions on them – good causes and good institutions need money – but merely to caution that they should be seen for what they are: promotional tools. For the awardee, the most depressing is the lifetime achievement, which signifies one more nail in your coffin. It denotes the slippage from respect into veneration. (A retrospective is almost as dismaying but, if you like your own work, a retrospective at least comes with an element of pleasurable pride.) In my blacker moments, I think of it as the Thanks-a-Lot-and-Out-With-the-Garbage award.

However, honouring longevity does no damage. I save my aspersions for competitive awards. By this I mean awards that, in the theatre for example, exalt one play or performance or set design over all the others. All these competitions, of course, are races among unequals. How would you compareThe Man Who Came to Dinner to Death of a Salesman if they had opened in the same season? Both are first-rate of their kind, but guess which one would have won the Tony. (Don’t assume it would have been Death of a Salesman.) Similarly, which is the better performance: Judy Holliday’s in Born Yesterdayor Jessica Tandy’s in A Streetcar Named Desire? Which is more satisfying: an orange or a potato?

Do not read this as sour grapes about the Tonys. My own history with them is mixed. West Side Story and Gypsy were losers and the score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was not considered worthy of a nomination, but subsequently I’ve been a winner many times. What sours my grapes is the principle of reducing artists to contestants. Competitive awards boost the egos of the winners (until they lose) and damage the egos of the losers (until they win), while feeding the egos of the voters (all the time). Just as there are people who claim to be immune to public criticism, so there are those who claim to be unaffected by being passed over for an award from their supposed peers. But, as in the case of the critic-immune, I’ve not met any who have convinced me. It isn’t so much that you want to be deemed the best; it’s more that you don’t want to be deemed second best. No matter who the voters are, and whether you accept them as worthy of judging you, winning means they like you more than your competitors. For that moment, you are the favourite child of the family. Of course, if you make the mistake of looking back at the people who have won before you, it can be a matter of some dismay.

After a while of winning and losing awards, I realised the obvious, something often overlooked in the interests of maintaining a workable ego: the only meaningful recognition is recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers, and peer recognition is a very personal matter. An artist’s peers are other artists, not necessarily in the same field – ie, musicians for musicians, painters for painters – but people who understand what you’re trying to do simply because they’re trying to do a similar thing.

Competitive awards have existed since at least the days of ancient Greece, and the need to anoint is apparently so strong that their proliferation is not only guaranteed, it keeps expanding. Nevertheless, they are like reviews: useful only for publicity and, at least in the theatre, not as effective. They may be good for the ego, but they don’t sell tickets.

Sanskrit – the best language for a libretto

When I first heard that the libretto of Philip Glass‘s 1979 opera Satyagraha was written in Sanskrit (by him and Constance de Jong), I giggled inwardly at what I deemed its pretentiousness and, delightedly reverting to my snotty adolescence, made many a witty remark at its expense. Then I saw it. Not only was I mesmerised for most of it, I was brought up short by the realisation that Sanskrit was the best possible language for an opera libretto.

It has the two necessary qualities: it utilises predominantly open vowel sounds (listen to the title), and it doesn’t invite you to try to understand the language, which is something you automatically do at the opera if you know a smattering of German or Italian or French. With Sanskrit, you are relieved of every bit of concentration except where it counts: on the music and the singing – and, if you’re interested in the story, on the surtitles. Even librettos in English need surtitles, since distended vowels, vocal counterpoint and the over-trained diction of many performers make it difficult to understand. Every librettist should have a smattering of Sanskrit. It will save them, and their audiences, a huge amount of work. SS

• Extracted from Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim, published by Virgin Books on 24 November at £35. © Stephen Sondheim 2011. To order a copy for £24 with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6846.