Birmingham Stage Company


11 December 2021

If a fifteen-year-old schoolboy gave you his first musical to read, would you be completely honest? I recently read about a professional composer who was given the score a new musical by his fifteen-year-old neighbour. The composer told the schoolboy it was the worst thing he’d ever seen. He then spent several hours giving the schoolboy clear advice. “In that afternoon I learnt more about song writing and musical theatre than most people learn in the lifetime” said Stephen Sondheim of his meeting with Oscar Hammerstein. “The principles of everything I’ve written since can be traced back to that afternoon”. I was struck by this story because I suspect we’ve become very bad at being honest with each other. We have become accustomed to think we are doing a service when we put a positive spin on our opinions. But it feels to me like the most constructive thing we can do for someone is give them our honest opinion. Albeit only when your honest opinion has been sought, because most of the time people just want affirmation. And the key to the story is the many hours Hammerstein spent giving constructive advice on how Sondheim could improve his work. But Hammerstein began with honesty and it’s a shame to think our obsession with avoiding offence will deprive people of that rare gift, which I truly believe is one of the most valuable things anyone can receive.

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