A Little Happier: Stephen Sondheim’s Rambling Style

I write and collect aphorisms, and I collect proverbs. I especially love the proverbs of the professions, and I’ve learned a proverb from computer programmer culture that I find myself quoting all the time: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” This proverb is invoked by software developers when they argue that something that might be seen as a mistake or a flaw in their program is actually something useful that it has been purposefully created to do.

This turns out to be surprisingly applicable to everyday life. It’s astonishing how often something that could be considered a bug can also be considered a feature.

And I’ve come to believe that we can also apply this proverb to our own nature, our own strengths and weaknesses. Maybe something that I consider a bug could also be seen as a feature, or at least, I can work with it, to turn it into a feature.

I came across a great example of this kind of bug-into-feature adaptation in Finishing the Hat (Amazon, Bookshop) the excellent memoir by Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer and lyricist.

In his memoir, Sondheim recalls an incident from 1971. He had agreed to give an ad-lib talk about musicals as part of the YMHA “Lyrics and Lyricists” lecture series, and he’d assumed he’d be talking to theater students and practitioners, but later he learned that actually, he’d be speaking to a general audience who had a mild, not professional, interest.

He had no idea about how to organize his unstructured remarks to address an audience with a limited attention span for a technical talk. He asked for advice from his friend Arthur Laurents, the writer, director, and producer.

Arthur Laurents had a great solution. He told Sondheim to take a pack of about fifty index cards, and on each one, write a “Topic of Interest” that could be answered with a few minutes of explanation. A topic might be something like “The use of inner rhymes” or “What was Ethel Merman really like?” When he was in front of the crowd, he should shuffle the deck, choose one at a time, and answer each subject as it arose. He’d have time for about 15-20 topics. This approach would provide structure, would allow him to discuss a variety of subjects, and as Sondheim pointed out, it had the advantage of “leaving me free to ramble, which is what I do best in public arenas.”

Now, I bet the audience loved this structure, which allowed Sondheim to speak naturally on a variety of different subjects, about whatever interested him most, rather than deliver formal prepared remarks. I’ve always thought this stack-of-questions idea was terrific, and I keep meaning to try it myself, as a way to give a more spontaneous, surprising, wide-ranging talk.

And it occurs to me that what Sondheim did was to understand himself. He knew what kind of speaker he was, and instead of worrying about shoring up his weaknesses, he found a structure that allowed him to do his best.

Instead of fighting against his natural inclinations, he worked with them. His loose, rambling style wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.




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