When I take a few days off to visit someplace new and recharge, I often find that some sort of theme announces itself to me. That’s exactly what happened on a recent trip. The same message kept cropping up everywhere: less is more. My friend Janice who was traveling with me noticed it, too. It started when she handed me a copy of The Dramatist magazine featuring an article called, “Sondheim on Lyrics.” It’s a goldmine of advice from one of the masters of musical theatre drawn from his book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics.
According to Sondheim, he has three core principles: Less is More, Content Dictates Form, and God is in the Details. He first began applying his Less is More concept with rigor while writing the lyrics for the musical Pacific Overtures, which chronicles the opening of Japan’s trade with America. The theme inspired him to take the Japanese haiku, with its strict three-line form, as a touchstone for his song lyrics. As he put it: “Because it seemed emblematic of the Japanese nature it became a model of intention for me as I wrote the songs. I tried to infuse the lyrics with the evocative simplicity of the haiku…”
Lyrics are concise by nature, says Sondheim. “If you think of a theater lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph…nothing blunts a strong emotion or a good punch line as effectively as too many words.”
The same idea of intentional simplicity came up at lunch at a little café where Janice and I and enjoyed a salad made entirely of greens and the lightest of dressings — a deliciously edible version of less is more. Later, while ambling past a bookstore, a title caught my eye: The Simple Home: The Luxury of Enough. Add to the mix a visit to the home of that mistress of economy, the fabulous Emily Dickinson — and the cycle was complete. Guess the universe is really trying to get my attention!