YDNM: What do you think defines a catchy song?
SS: I don’t concentrate on that, but if I’m writing a song to be sung, then I sing it as I’m writing it to make sure that it works in somebody’s voice, presumably somebody with a better voice than mine. If I feel a character for whom I am writing is experiencing a certain emotion, I try to see that it feels that way when I’m singing.
Do you think you have to experience the emotions your characters are singing about in order to write songs about them?
Personally, I do. I’m not sure that all theater writers would agree with me. In fact, I suspect that they wouldn’t, but my approach is based on acting technique. And part of the way I write is to try to become a character and see through the character’s eyes.
You stress the value of experience, but at the same time you have received a lot of formal music and theater education, both at Julliard during high school and at Carnegie Mellon for your undergraduate years. Do you think composing and lyric writing can be taught?
Well, I think it can partly be learned. Lyrics more than perhaps composing, though God knows there are plenty of music schools and plenty of music theory courses, and I’ve certainly taken my share of them. In terms of music, I certainly think you can learn from what people before you have done and sort of steal the things you like best and glom them together to create your own style. Lyric writing I think is more of a craft. As a composer I haven’t grown all that much since I was, whatever, 16 years old and starting to do this seriously, but I feel that as a lyricist I have gotten considerably more skillful.
A lot of your musicals have religious content. What do you think is the role of religion, or at least religious stories, in entertainment?
I think that these stories are very theatrical and very compelling, and that’s why they’ve lasted as long as they have. They have big themes, and they have characters in them experiencing big emotions, and they are subject to interpretation, so one can bring one’s own spin to them.
Do you do research on the time periods you write on? For example, for Pippin did you look up a lot about Charlemagne? For Pocahontas did you do a lot of research on Native Americans?
In some cases more than others, but certainly one of my little, mildly clever aphorisms for myself is, “In lieu of inspiration, do research.” It’s amazing how much research can trigger ideas. So, yes in the case of Pocahontas I did an enormous amount of research, both in terms of historical fact, but also in Native American poetry and music, and modes of expression. Some shows require less research. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t do a lot of research on Pippin except to the extent that I knew about Charlemagne from a history textbook. But that’s not really what the show’s about.
What are the colors of the wind?
That is a funny question. I don’t even know where that phrase came from. It was something that popped into my head as I was exploring Native American poetry, and it had that sort of natural, metaphorical impossibility that can work as an image in a title. It’s very similar, frankly, to a title like “Corner of the Sky,” which is also a paradox. Both of those are paradoxes and therefore, I think, land in the ear and in the mind and make people think about what they’re actually saying.
If you could write a musical about the story of your life, what would the title be?
It’s interesting you should ask about titles because I actually believe in titles as a songwriter. More and more as I’ve developed a craft and technique, I like to start with a title because it defines a song and because it defines the content and experience. So to impose a title on my life, it too narrowly defines something. And I think that’s why I’m going to avoid that one.
I’m glad it’s open-ended. Thank you so much.