The Sondheim Masterclass - Oxford 1990

In late Autumn 1989 the director Ramin Gray (with whom I had recently worked) phoned me to say he had seen that Stephen Sondheim would be holding a series of masterclasses at Oxford University and they were inviting people to send in their work for selection. He urged me to go in for it. As it was already after the closing date for submissions by post I decided to drive down to St. Catherine’s College in Oxford where the

masterclasses were to be held in order to leave my work at the Porter’s Lodge for the attention of the submissions tutor. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from the Master of St. Catherine’s College advising me ‘Mr. Sondheim is nearing the completion of his choice of participants for the classes and it is unlikely that your application will be in time’. That letter was dated 18th December 1989.

Not long after, I returned home to be greeted by my flat-mate holding a bottle of champagne. He said Cameron Mackintosh had left a message on the answerphone and that I was on the masterclass. I was asked to be at St. Catherine’s by 2.30pm on the 13th of January 1990 for assembly and registration. I clearly remember travelling down to Oxford on the train thumbing through my copy of Sondheim and Co. by Craig Zadan. I had submitted four songs from ‘The Devil and Mr Stone’, my first full-length musical which we performed as a late-night show at the Donmar Warehouse in the Summer and the song ‘Time Of My Life’ from ‘Maddie’ which I had just started to write (with Shaun McKenna and Steven Dexter). 'Time Of My Life' was the first song written for 'Maddie'.

The thirteen students selected were Leslie Arden, Denise Wharmby, Patrick Dineen, Ed Hardy, Stephen Clark and Andrew Peggie, Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James McConnel, Ben Mason and Paul James, Paul Leigh, me and finally Michael Bland. We all assembled for the first time on January 13th in the Music House where we were greeted by Cameron Mackintosh (Stephen Sondheim was to be the first visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre-a chair endowed by Cameron). A bit later on, Stephen entered to a rousing cheer and after getting over our inevitable nerves in the presence of musical theatre’s greatest writer and living legend, we all relaxed.

We were presented with copies of the vocal score of ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ which was about to be produced at the National Theatre; we would be looking at it with Stephen as well as attending parts of the rehearsal process at the National from time to time. Cameron also told us we could see any of his shows when we were able to do so. I immediately hit it off with Ed Hardy who remains a very good friend and Stephen Clark -both of whom I would go on to write a musical with. ('The Amazing Mr Blunden' with Ed and 'My Father's Son' with Stephen Clark.) The masterclasses would stretch over a seven month period; we would assemble for a couple of weeks from time to time around Stephen's availability.

One of the first things we did as the masterclasses got underway was to play a song we had written and open it up for discussion. This is never an easy thing to do in front of a group of peers let alone Stephen Sondheim! Stephen was keen that thereafter, we would concentrate on a particular piece and in my case it was ‘Maddie’. But the song I had chosen to play for that first session however was from ‘The Devil and Mr Stone’. After I played my song, Stephen asked for a repeat hearing which duly thrilled me. He then told me he lost interest in exactly the same place each time because he felt at that particular moment the song started to ramble structurally. This was about a minute and a half into the song. He then gave me the best piece of advice I have ever had as a song-writer which was to go away and study the 32-bar song form, the classic AABA which I duly did and to understand why so many great writers had used this form again and again.

We then moved on to opening numbers which was very instructive as we were struggling to come up with one for ‘Maddie’. Stephen made it clear an opening number lays down the ground rules for the evening, that you have to intrigue your audience and scatter clues. This provoked some very lively discussions in the class which had completely gelled by this point. One such discussion happened with a number by Ed Hardy from his musical ‘Living It Down’ called 'Brand New Day' which was about two working-class characters having sex and the suitability of the accompaniment to the song.

 

 

 

 

 

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