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MEGHAN FOLEY

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Over the past 60 years, Stephen Sondheim has become one of the most influential figures on Broadway, and according to him, it’s partly thanks to Williams College.

Sondheim held back tears during a college event Saturday night in Chapin Hall, as he talked about the influence his alma mater had on his decision to become a composer and lyricist in the American theater.

"Williams changed my life," the 1950 graduate said.

Sondheim, who began at the college as an English major, spoke about taking classes taught by Robert Barrow, who was a music professor at the time.

"He did something revolutionary. He took the romance out of music," Sondheim said.

Barrow taught that everything was about how music works and how it’s an art, he said.

Around the same time Sondheim was taking his first class with Barrow, he also took an art class in which the professor taught how art was a structured and conscious effort.

"Since I have a puzzle mind, it hit me at the right time," Sondheim said. He said those lessons came back to him when he worked on "Sunday in the Park with George."

Sondheim was the focus of a sold-out event at Williams College in which, Frank Rich, former New York Times chief theater critic, interviewed Sondheim about his life in and out of the theater. The scripted, but candid conversation generated laughs and applause from the audience of more than 1,000 people throughout the 90-minute event.

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Rich questioned Sondheim, a good friend, on topics ranging from his undergraduate experience at Williams -- including his first meeting with composer and songwriter Cole Porter, his creative process, opinions of other composers and lyricists, difficulties in making a musical into a movie, and the challenges young playwrights face in learning their craft.

"There are very few young writers in the industry today whose shows get a chance to show on Broadway," Sondheim said. "In my generation, you were lucky to get a show on every two years. Now you’re lucky to get a show on every decade."

He said he was extremely happy "Spring Awakening" and "Next to Normal" made it to Broadway after appearing in regional theaters, because it gave the writers more opportunity to polish their skills. "The problem is young people don’t develop their skills because they don’t get shows on Broadway," he said.

Working as a gopher (assistant) to Oscar Hammerstein for "Allegro" was a very educational experience for Sondheim.

Sondheim was a student at Williams College when he was recruited to work for his idol and Richard Rodgers. "I learned so much about the theater. I watched all these extremely experienced people fall off a cliff," Sondheim said. "It was a really valuable experience to see what could go wrong with a show. I think it’s what started my interest in experimental theater."

While overall Sondheim has had a successful career, he did have some setbacks on shows such as "Saturday Night" and "Anyone Can Whistle." Sondheim said he was fortunate to have worked on three successful shows -- "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" -- before he had his first flop.

"The only thing that really upset me about the show was it wouldn’t run long enough for my friends to see it," he said.

In addition, he said he has always collaborated with people on shows, and when one show is a failure, there are people who share that failure with him, and then someone who says they should do another show.

"You’re never alone. No one is alone," he said.


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