Creative Inspiration From Stephen Sondheim

images-3In the past I’ve written about my love of shows like Man of La Mancha and Les Miserables. Actually, I’m a fan of ALL types of theatre, but one man consistently rises to the top for me in the musical theatre genre: composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

For years he’s been on the cutting edge. Just consider his body of work: West Side Story, Company, Gypsy, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures (and that’s certainly not all of it). Invariably, his words and music cleverly pull me into some new insight about life that I wasn’t expecting.

So it was with much anticipation that I sat down in a full-to-the-brim auditorium on Saturday night to hear Sondheim, near-80, reminisce about his journey from there to here.

The stage was bare except for two chairs and a small table with glasses and a water pitcher. Simple. Add a spotlight and the interview skills of Peter Stein, and it made for a lovely talk.

Although some of Sondheim’s stories were familiar, it was fun to hear him tell them in person. And as I settled in I realized the evening was shaping up to be agreeable but not particularly riveting. Until about the halfway point, that is, when I found myself sitting up a little straighter.

Sondheim started riffing about his approach to creative work. To make his point, he mentioned a book by Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In it Berlin proposed there are two types of creatives: hedgehogs, who burrow deep into a creative idea and revisit it again and again, and foxes, who sniff around among many different ideas and continually experiment with new forms and processes.

The curious fox, noted Sondheim, is without a doubt his alter ego, bounding from one creative burst to another.

How well I understood! And as neat as it was to discover a kindred spirit in Sondheim, I also recognized that my curious creative fox often leads me down a path toward overwhelm. There are simply too many goodies to explore in the forest. Too many delicious nooks and crannies. And I easily get lost in them.

Just then it occurred to me that Sondheim certainly doesn’t appear to face this challenge. So how, I wondered, does he allow the fox to roam but still get the work done?

In the next moments he told us, and I was struck by the brilliance of his method: once he chooses a project, he erects a substantial structure around it, with limits and restrictions. He elaborated:

It doesn’t make sense to people, it seems paradoxical, but it’s actually the constraints that lead to creative freedom.

Aha! I had one of those flashes of understanding. He forces a choice (yes, I’ve got to get better at that), and then allows the fox to meander, but only up to the fence line. And it is within this confined space that his creativity soars.

I’m entranced by this notion today. And eager to hear from you about it:

  • As far as your creativity goes, are you a digging hedgehog or a roaming fox?
  • What’s your mode of creativity: unrestrained or within boundaries?
  • What would it look like if you approached your creative work with Sondheim’s method?

10 thoughts on “Creative Inspiration From Stephen Sondheim

    • Hi Tess – That’s interesting about ADHD. If you look at a list of qualities of creative people it’s very similar to signs of ADHD. And when Sondheim talks about restrictions, it reminds me of how creating structure is key for people with ADHD. Fascinating!

  1. Very interesting. I think I’d like to be a hedgehog which I understand to have one definining anchor — intense yet disciplined and thorough, though I’m probably more of a restless fox who naturally goes where inspiration lurks.

    I wonder if this analogy can also be applied to the rest of life, meaning the non-creative side. I find these analogies to be very helpful in defining my various approches in life. They help me assess my growth (or lack thereof 🙂

    • Hi Belinda – Many times I’d like to be more the hedgehog, less the fox, just as you say. I long to dive into something, but my nature makes that difficult. This same thing came up in a conversation with a client today, and it was about another area of life, so I do think it can be applied broadly. Thanks!

  2. Hi Patty – My roaming fox can tend towards starting a lot of things, but not finishing them. Although I tend to resist them at first, some creative restraints are necessary, and, really, make the creative process more enjoyable. There is something to be said about simply letting your fox go wherever it wants and just see where he ends up, but when there is some kind of restraint to get around, my creativity is more directed, and it becomes a fun challenge to get around that restraint. Nice post – got me thinking. 😉

  3. Hi Amanda – Oh I hear you about the starting but not finishing thing! I like what you say about the fun of trying to get around the restraint. That never occurred to me. Interesting thought. Thanks.

  4. Hi Patty.
    I am a roaming fox and I have understood the principle of structure. In fact in our Women Like Me program we have a large topic on structure and we have the text on that topic free to download. It might be of interest to you.
    Understanding completion and systems and creating a team around me has been strategies that have serve me well to make this fox operate to her greatness and it looks that Stephen Sondheim has done the same.
    Lovely to see how I operate is confirmed by this viewpoint, it all adds to more understanding, thank you for that. Love Wilma

    • Hi Wilma – That’s so cool that your roaming fox has so much in common with Stephen Sondheim. I think he should write a song about this! And thanks so much for the info about your download.

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