The Sondheim Puzzle

Stephen Sondheim, 1960. Photo: Hans Namuth/© 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

There are few things that remain constant in life, but for me one of them is this: Stephen Sondheim’s work has touched me for more than half a century. It did so when I was first listening to records as a child, when I didn’t know his name or much else, and it does so right this minute, as songs of middle-aged regret like “Too Many Mornings” and “You Must Meet My Wife” are randomly shuffled into my headphones by iTunes. It’s unusual to remain so loyal to a single artist. We tend to outgrow our early tastes and heroes. It’s even more unlikely to have that artist materialize in person and play a crucial role in one’s life—as Sondheim first did when I was 21 and he was 40. Since then, with some lengthy intermissions along the way, he’s been a mentor, an occasional antagonist, a friend, and even an unwitting surrogate parent.

While it was far from the case when I first met him, Sondheim at 83 is an institution and a cottage industry. He’s received every prize an artist can in America, often multiple times. His shows are in constant revival. In November alone, he was lionized by the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and City Center at home, even as a West End production of his 1981 Broadway failure, Merrily We Roll Along, beat out The Book of Mormon for Best Musical in London’s Evening Standard awards. At this point, so much has been written about his career that it’s hard to find much new to say about it. Besides, Sondheim often says it better than anyone else. The most transparent of artists when it comes to explicating his craft, he has given countless interviews detailing his methods and motives, meta and micro, song by song and show by show. (Much of it is codified in the essays tucked into the two juicy volumes of collected lyrics he published at the start of this decade.) But the man himself, the guy behind the work, can be harder to pin down. This is a challenge that the playwright and director James Lapine, Sondheim’s friend and longtime collaborator, and I tried to address in Six by Sondheim, our documentary debuting December 9 on HBO. I’ll let the film speak for itself, not least because almost all the speaking is done by its subject, whose on-camera interviews over 50-plus years shape a narrative built around a half-dozen of his songs. But I continue to wrestle with my own, separate Sondheim narrative: Not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on what I’ve learned from him and what he and his work have meant to me for as far back as I can remember.

When plotting our film, Lapine (as director) and I (as a producer) had a running mantra: “Steve has his story, and he’s sticking to it.” We discovered that we could cut from a black-and-white clip of a twentysomething Sondheim to an interview decades later where he’d pick up the same anecdote mid-sentence without losing a thread. Nor is Steve one for changing his stand on the fundamentals. For years, I have tried to get him to admit that there’s a strong autobiographical component to some of his songs—a little of his toxic mother in Mama Rose, perhaps, or of his own commitment-shy bachelorhood in Bobby in Company? He’ll have none of it. While he concedes that “every writer obviously brings himself or herself to the characters that he or she is creating,” he insists his songs in the end have “nothing to do” with him. They are “all about” what the characters in his shows are “feeling and saying and doing”—and those characters are the exclusive creations of what he calls his “unsung collaborators,” Lapine, Arthur Laurents, John Weidman, and the other authors of his shows’ librettos. The only number in his entire output that he claims as autobiographical is the relatively obscure “Opening Doors” from Merrily—in which fictional incarnations of the young Steve and his pals Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers are seen knocking on producers’ doors looking for their first big Broadway break in the fifties. But however literally autobiographical, does “Opening Doors” tell us more about its creator than, say, “Send in the Clowns,” “Sunday,” or “Being Alive”?

While Sondheim’s songs express the characters invented by his collaborators, the fact remains that many of us have a consistent emotional reaction to his canon as a whole. That’s not just due to the formal brilliance of the music and lyrics. There’s an underlying humanity: We respond to a psychopath singing an ode to his razors in Sweeney Todd much as we do to a faded showgirl unraveling in a torch song in Follies or to Georges Seurat finishing the hat in Sunday in the Park With George. The little bit of Sondheim that he says can be found in all his songs is what moves us even as he channels it into so many disparate fictional creations.

Within that emotional undertow is the essence of a man who can explain every note and word in every song he wrote with meticulous authority and yet whose own feelings were so successfully barricaded that by his own account he didn’t give himself up to a serious romantic relationship until he turned 60. And what’s remarkable is that the human watermark of his work has remained essentially the same from the start—as far back as Saturday Night, a show he wrote in the early fifties, based on a play by Julius and Philip Epstein (best known as the screenwriters of Casablanca), that never made it to Broadway. The opening number, sung by a bevy of young men searching in vain for dates in the Flatbush, Brooklyn, of 1929, may be boisterously upbeat in the manner of Broadway shows of the Pajama Game era, but the words, not so much: “When you’re alone on a Saturday night, you might as well be dead!” Or as Bobby, the very different single New Yorker at the center of Company, would sing a couple of generations later: “Alone is alone, not alive.”

My own relationship with Sondheim began from afar when I was 10 years old and an unhappy product of what was then called a “broken home.” (Sondheim’s own parents had split up when he was 10, I’d later learn.) My mother had bought the original cast album of Gypsy. Fun as it was to listen to, some of the numbers were as yet above my head (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”). What grabbed me from the start was “If Momma Was Married,” sung by two sisters hoping against hope that their much-divorced mother would settle down with a nice man and give them the happy, stable home, “as private as private can be,” that they hungered for. This was in 1959, and in the middle-class suburbia I inhabited, divorce was still rare, was never discussed openly in my presence, and was nonexistent in my television diet of the Father Knows Best epoch. So I was riveted. While the lyrics in “If Momma Was Married” (set to music by Jule Styne) were mostly comic, I intuitively identified with the desperation, isolation, and longing beneath the siblings’ jokes. The song made me feel less alone, and not just on Saturday night, a feat no song had ever accomplished before.

Three years later, I saw a Sondheim musical onstage: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway show (following West Side Story and Gypsy) for which he wrote the music as well as the lyrics. It was trying out for three weeks in my hometown of Washington, D.C., on its way to New York. Its reviews were dreadful: The critic at the Post compared it unfavorably to an “infinitely more zestful” varsity revue he’d just seen at Georgetown University. I went to the last Saturday matinée of the run at the National Theatre, where I was startled to discover a phenomenon I would later find at other Sondheim musicals now considered classics—an empty house. When I met Steve roughly a decade later, I recounted the experience to make sure it wasn’t an exaggeration of my 12-year-old imagination, and he verified my memory: In a theater that sat nearly 1,700, only some 50 people had turned up. Steve recalled that when he surveyed the scene at that final matinee, he joked to Prince, the producer, “Let’s invite them all back to the hotel.”*

I found Forum hilarious and magical and wished it would never end. But I figured I was too naïve to know any better. Relatives who’d seen the show ahead of me disliked it as much as the critics did, and the tiny audience at the National was apathetic no matter what Zero Mostel and his fellow clowns did to make them laugh. When the show arrived on Broadway soon after, it got raves. Some months later, I bought standing room to see it again while visiting New York, convinced that it must have been completely overhauled since I saw it. But though Forum had gained a legendary new opening number (“Comedy Tonight”), it otherwise was the same show that my hometown had unfairly dismissed. That rank injustice stayed with me, filed away under “Sondheim.”

When I first met Steve in 1971, it was because he actually did invite me to his hotel during the troubled Broadway tryout of one of his shows. This time the city was Boston. I was a college senior reviewing plays for my school paper, the Harvard Crimson, and had flipped for Follies, much as I had for Company, which I had reviewed during its pre-Broadway run a year earlier. My amateur musings about the theater were for campus consumption only—if that—so it was startling to receive a letter from Sondheim himself, typed on Statler Hilton hotel stationery, seeking me out. *The original version of this article mistakenly attributed a joke told at A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’s final matinee to Prince instead of Sondheim.

Someone in the Follies company had seen my piece and given it to him. In his letter, he said I understood the intention of a show that had been received with bafflement, if not outright hostility, in Boston. (The critic for Variety had decreed that most of it was “simply too confusing to understand.”) Anticipating that I might someday become a drama critic in real life, Sondheim added, “Before you officially become the enemy and it becomes impossible, it might be nice to get together.” Which we did. What I remember about that drink was his wicked sense of humor, but also his patient willingness to answer every question I had about the theater in general and his work in particular. Along the way he gave me the most precious of gifts: confidence. If someone of his stature thought I had something to say, well, maybe there was a chance I could pursue writing as a profession. While it would not be until 1980, nine years later, that I became a drama critic, I started to sell pieces to papers and magazines that summer.

After graduation I moved to London. When he came to town in early 1972 for the West End opening of the original production of Company, he invited me to watch some rehearsals as the show loaded into Her Majesty’s Theatre. He also took me and my girlfriend to the opening, where the response was triumphant, though not enough so to curb his innate irreverence. As we walked up the aisle after the curtain call, I asked him why a dance solo in the second act called “Tick Tock”—essentially a simulated sex scene for Bobby and a stewardess—was greeted even more boisterously than it had been on Broadway. “London is like New York, only more so,” he snapped at once. “You give the audience something really vulgar, and they’ll go for it every time.”

After that year of knowing Steve a little, our acquaintanceship faded out. Our sole reunion in the ensuing decade was in 1976, when I was the interviewer for a half-hour documentary for the old CBS Sunday-morning show Camera Three. The premise called for Steve to describe in detail the writing of a single song—in this case, one he has always cited as a favorite (and with good reason), “Someone in a Tree.” The musical that contained it, Pacific Overtures, was struggling at the box office, and Steve went so far as to let the filmmakers invade his townhouse on East 49th Street, hoping that the publicity might make a difference in the show’s run. (It didn’t.)

Once I officially became The Enemy as the Times’ chief drama critic in 1980, we had long since fallen out of touch. The first show of his I had to cover was Merrily, the second-biggest flop of his career, after the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle. The production was, as I wrote, “a shambles,” and a half-dozen gorgeous songs had gone down with the wreckage. I was reporting the truth as I saw it—but I wondered: Was I as obtuse as those Washingtonians who had summarily rejected Forum? On the Saturday Merrily closed, less than two weeks after the opening, I bought a ticket for the matinée at the TKTS booth, to take another look. The audience in the half-full house—at the same theater where I’d stood for Forum two decades earlier—was restless, and the show played no better than before. I left at intermission, too depressed to stick with it. Sondheim and the librettist, George Furth, would keep rewriting Merrily, and I and others have praised it in better productions and different versions in the years since. But while I’m still not convinced the show as a whole is equal to the sum of its parts—among them “Good Thing Going,” “Like It Was,” and “Not a Day Goes By,” each a poignant reflection on lost love—it has had a longer life, more recordings, and more productions than some Tony-winning musicals of recent decades. That in itself is a testament to the durability of Steve’s songs.

Then came Sunday in the Park With George, another rumored-to-be-troubled show that extended its Broadway preview period to accommodate last-minute revisions. At the critics’ performance I attended on the eve of the delayed opening night, the house couldn’t be stacked with the usual cheering claque (as every Broadway production does when the critics are in attendance) because too many seats had been allotted to a presold theater party. More than a few of those patrons fled at intermission. I was overwhelmed by the show but soon found myself in the minority, both among critics and audiences, much as I’d been in Washington with Forum. And I couldn’t explain why Sunday moved me as much as it did. I had my aesthetic reasons for admiring it, and could explain those well enough in a review. But I kept going back again and again, trying to figure out what really grabbed me.

Thanks to a pass from the Shuberts, I fell into the habit of leaving the old Times building at night from the rear entrance next to Sardi’s and slipping through Shubert Alley to watch swaths of Sunday at the Booth. It was, in retrospect, strange behavior—a regression to those childhood days when I took solace in repeated listening to Gypsy. I concluded that it was again the solitude of a Sondheim character—Georges, a loner who watched “the rest of the world from a window” rather than living within it—that spoke to me, making me feel less alone at a time when my first marriage was starting to crack up. There was no way of knowing how much of this emotional hook belonged to Georges and how much of it was Sondheim’s, and perhaps it didn’t matter. In any event, I had no expectation I’d ever have any way of finding out.

By the time I left the drama critic’s job at the paper nearly a decade later, I’d reviewed the premieres of two other Sondheim musicals, Into the Woods and Assassins, both of which I was hot and cold about. It would not be until 2000 that I’d resume a relationship in earnest with Steve, some 30 years after that first meeting in Boston. What brought us back in contact was the Times, which asked me to see if he would sit for an interview for its magazine on the occasion of his 70th birthday. I expected him to say no, given my sometimes rough treatment of his shows in my critic’s days, his general irritation with the press, and his penchant for privacy. But I was wrong. He agreed, and in a couple of marathon, vodka-­fueled sessions at his house, we picked up where we’d left off long before. I was now 50, almost a decade older than Steve was when we had first met. The barrier between us melted away, and what was ostensibly a professional encounter became personal.

Steve almost never went off the record during our sessions and was nakedly candid. He was just coming through a lousy period in which the Off Broadway workshop of his latest musical, then titled Wise Guys (reworked years later as Road Show), had ended in ruins. His first serious romantic relationship was also over. That breakup had been so disorienting, he told me, that when he found himself in his kitchen one day momentarily unsure of which way to turn to grab a bite, he for the first time experienced for himself the distress he’d written in a lyric for a heartbroken character in Follies more than twenty years earlier (“Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor / Not going left, not going right”).

In keeping with his downbeat mood, he was full of fatalistic prognoses about the future of the theater and his own creative powers. What was most striking to me, however, was his love for Oscar Hammerstein II, the surrogate father he found as a teenager when his mother and the Hammerstein family were neighbors in the summer enclave of Bucks County. I had never quite understood how Sondheim, the most urbane and least sentimental of lyricists, could identify with someone who wrote “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” Steve explained that it wasn’t Hammerstein’s lyrics that mattered to him so much as his “huge and imaginative and exploratory” vision as a librettist. Two Hammerstein musicals—Show Boat, which opened on Broadway three years before Steve was born, and Oklahoma!, which arrived just as Steve was entering his teens—were among the first major efforts to push a frivolous theatrical form into more serious dramatic territory.

Hammerstein’s daring had been im­­printed on Steve at age 17, when he served as a gofer on Allegro, a 1947 musical about a successful but disillusioned doctor told through innovative techniques that included a Greek chorus. It was a rare flop for the golden team of Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, and its out-of-town crises allowed Steve to witness the ambitions and perils of artistic experimentation close-up. “I’ve been trying to fix Allegro all my life,” Steve told me.

No less revealing was his account of seeing the previous Rodgers-and-­Hammerstein musical, the 1945 Carousel, at its pre-Broadway premiere in New Haven when he was 15. Steve is hardly a “When You Walk Through a Storm” kind of guy, and the song that stuck with him instead was Julie Jordan’s sorrowful premonition of her ne’er-do-well husband Billy Bigelow’s tragic death: “What’s the use of wond’rin’ / If the endin’ will be sad?” The character Steve identified with in the show was also dark—the villain, a criminal misfit named Jigger. “I remember how everyone goes off to the clambake at the end of Act One and Jigger just follows, and he was the only one walking onstage as the curtain came down,” he recalled 55 years later. “I was sobbing.” So much so that when he hugged Hammerstein’s wife, Dorothy, who was sitting next to him, he left a stain on the lucky fur stole she wore to all of her husband’s openings. The impression of Steve I came away with for my profile was that of a ­Jigger-esque outcast—an only child who’d gone his own way across the stage of life and art, the kind of loner I imagined writing “If Momma Was Married” and “Finishing the Hat.” As I have since learned, my portrait was facile and incomplete.

The conversations we started during those long nights in 2000 have not let up since. That Times interview would lead to the two of us touring the country doing onstage conversations discussing his life and work. He has his stories and he sticks to them, and what audiences see of the public Steve is not wildly different from the private Steve, at least when it comes to talking about his art and biography. He is so articulate, circumspect, and funny about his process—more than he has to be and more than most artists are—that it’s hard not to be entertained. Rapt crowds turned up to see him not just in the expected coastal enclaves but in mid-American outposts like Tulsa, where fans of all ages drove hundreds of miles at night to hear him answer questions in a vast sports arena. At every stop where a university was the host, Steve carved out time to meet privately with small groups of theater and music students to answer their questions, whether about how to perform a particular song or how to pursue a stage career. Steve considers teaching “the sacred profession” and credits teachers with saving his life. This, of course, is what Hammerstein did for him, and what in a smaller way Steve had done for me when I first met him as a college student. He has done the same for countless others, individually and in groups, in private and in classrooms, for decades—and in some cases has nurtured young songwriters, like Jonathan Larson and Adam Guettel, who went on to landmark musical-theater successes. In and beyond the theater, there’s a whole unofficial Sondheim U alumni association out there.

I enrolled in an extended postgraduate course. And I’ve learned an incalculable amount—about Steve, about art, and about life—as we’ve closed down bars and restaurants across the country when on the road, as we’ve traveled with our significant others (my second wife, his second longtime partner), as we’ve sat together at plays and at Sondheim tributes, and at premieres of new productions of his own shows. Steve’s enthusiasm even for less-than-stellar revivals of his works is impressive—and perhaps the only proper response when confronted with errant, and in some instances deranged, offspring of one’s own children. He is so supportive of other creative artists, especially those who take chances, that the only film version of his shows that he has liked thus far is Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which inflicted Sweeney-esque butchery on his score, to the extreme of eliminating “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

Steve is more buoyant now than he was at the time of my Times piece. He has also shed much of the sourness that was evident during the seventies, when Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd were produced back-to-back. The Sondheim you see in on-camera interviews from that decade, some of which appear in Six by Sondheim, is an angry man in his cups, grumpy and defensive. Given the remarkable run of works he created then, you’d think that wouldn’t be the case. But he had reason to be mad.

What’s forgotten now that Steve is a Grand Old Man of the Theater is just how hostile critics and audiences were to his work for much of his career. What I saw with Forum in Washington in 1962 was, as it happened, only a small, relatively benign taste of what was to come for Sondheim. Steve will occasionally engage with his ­critics—and won’t hesitate to needle me about what I hadn’t liked about his shows in the eighties. But mixed or negative reviews are one thing, and the vicious personal animosity that has dogged him for much of his career is another.

When Company opened in Boston, Variety, then the influential Bible of show business, didn’t just call it “bewildering” and “dull” but dismissed it as suitable only for “ladies’ matinees, homos and misogynists.” The grudging reviews of Company and Follies in the Times sometimes seemed to review Sondheim as a person. (The critic Clive Barnes declared that the music of Follies had no “heart.”) In 1979, John Lahr struck a similar tone in Harper’s, holding Sondheim accountable for the death of the joyful old-fashioned Broadway musical and accusing him of both “bitchy irony” and a “lack of heart.” Lahr thought nothing of condemning the about-to-open Sweeney Todd as “shallow camp” without seeing it or hearing it, on the basis of an early script. Today Sweeney is an international staple in theaters and at opera houses and even middle schools and high schools, but back then Lahr’s antipathy was common.

I got sideswiped by a bit of the anti-Sondheim blowback myself when I reviewed Sunday in the Park. Steve’s perennial antagonist Variety, which knocked the show for “a basic lack of emotion and movement,” portrayed my efforts to champion it as “Sondheimania” and a misuse of the Times’ power; “Page Six” of the New York Post called to confirm an item saying that I must have liked Sunday because Lapine, its director and co-author, had been my college roommate. (Lapine and I went to different schools and didn’t meet each other until years later.) This hostility echoed the resentment of many theater people toward Sondheim since he’d first emerged as a precocious upstart. The sneering reached a culmination at the Tonys that season, when the songwriter who won for Best Score, Jerry Herman, asserted on network television that his own show, La Cage aux Folles, had shattered “a myth” that “the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway,” an implicit slap at the presumably pretentious and tuneless songs of his main competitor.

Among the many things I’ve learned from Steve is that a career as iconoclastic as his, whatever the profession, requires not just talent but courage. He not only had to outlast the most hostile naysayers but to ignore powerful trends in pop culture: The rock revolution was arriving just as his first produced musical, West Side Story, opened in 1957. The center-stage status Broadway had enjoyed during Hammerstein’s era was over, making it a much tougher battle to get shows on. Yet Steve persevered despite being out of fashion, despite being ignored or savaged by critics and peers, and despite the abandonment of his two most esteemed early collaborators, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, both of whom drifted away from Broadway soon after he arrived. And Steve hung in despite committing the capital crime of the American cultural marketplace: writing commercial flops. It wasn’t just Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, and Merrily that lost money in their original Broadway productions; so did Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park. Steve’s response to box-office failure was not to pander to a Broadway audience but to be more adventurous with nearly each successive work.

I often find myself wondering how Steve survived not just the professional obstacles but also a mother so horrific that she actually sent him a hand-delivered letter when he was in his forties stating that having him as a son was her “only regret in life.” Part of Steve’s resilience, I think, can be found in the infectious, intrinsic enthusiasm he has for the world around him, whatever his complaints along the way, including those about aging that he has now. For all his association with a certain kind of cynical New York persona—now enshrined for better and worse by the role he and George Furth created for Elaine Stritch in Company—there is nothing jaded about Steve. One of my favorite stories of his is from the early fifties, when, one New York summer, he banded together with an actress friend, Sally Brophy, to go out every third night to a different ethnic restaurant, selecting one from each nationality listed in the Yellow Pages, in alphabetical order. (They made it from Afghanistan to the Philippines.) This is the same Steve who today will ask, when we meet for dinner, that we choose a restaurant that no one in the party has been to before (and who will then scour the menu in search of food he’s never previously tasted). It’s the Steve who will rush to the most out-of-the-way venues to see experimental theater whether here or abroad, seek out the most obscure movies (he has always been more of a film buff than a theater buff), and pick up the phone to tell anyone who will listen about any new or old talent who crosses his path, whether it’s a first-time playwright turning up in a loft or Meryl Streep digging deeper and deeper into the role of the Witch while laying down tracks for the film version of Into the Woods. He will travel almost anywhere and is curious about almost everything. I’ve been with him when he toured the house of a musical hero, Maurice Ravel, outside Paris, but also when he took in a tiny museum devoted to the train-robbing Dalton Gang in Coffeyville, Kansas.

What’s also somewhat unexpected about Steve is his objectivity about people; it’s almost a journalistic sensibility. He will praise the work of other songwriters he admires even when the writer in question (e.g., Cy Coleman) has knocked his own work in the press. A classic example of Steve’s magnanimity can be found in his long, sometimes fraught relationship with Arthur Laurents, the playwright and librettist who died two years ago and whose default personality trait was gratuitous nastiness to nearly everyone. Late in life, Laurents started taking shots at Steve in his serial memoirs, and was constantly in disagreement with him about artistic decisions that had to be made for the various major revivals of the two classics they worked on together at the dawn of Steve’s career. At times Steve had to tune Laurents out, but even then, he never stopped speaking affectionately of his old friend’s role in getting him his first Broadway job on West Side Story and never stopped praising his book for Gypsy.

It’s a mixture of this objectivity, enthusiasm, and adventurousness, I think, that keeps Steve fresh. It’s a quality I’ve found in other friends in his generation, and that I can only hope to emulate as I age. His openness to new experience also helps explain his ability to channel the endlessly divergent characters his collaborators have required him to dramatize through song over the years. I don’t think there’s anyone else in theater history who has successfully given voice to people as varied as a serial killer in Victorian England, married couples in late-sixties Manhattan, the Japanese confronting the arrival of Westerners in the 1850s, Grimm fairy-tale icons, fin de siècle Swedish aristocrats, boozy Follies performers at a reunion, and presidential assassins along a spectrum from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Steve may be a lifelong creature of Manhattan, yet he’s game for anything and anybody. There’s a touch of the math prodigy in the way he casts a skeptical but bemused eye over the human equation with all its variables.

He explains that “a playwright loves all his characters, including his mass murderers,” and insists it’s a trap to assume that any who might superficially resemble him are his alter egos. “That’s not me singing ‘Finishing the Hat,’ ” he says. When I assume that I’m touched by something he wrote because our personal histories have some similarities, I’m inevitably found wrong and guilty of projection. “If Momma Was Married” notwithstanding, he says he enjoyed being alone as an only child of divorce. The bits and pieces of him embedded in his characters are simply not to be unearthed by biographical analysis or armchair psychiatry.

What unifies many of Steve’s characters and makes them so moving, I think, is not any facile resemblances to him but two primal traits many of them share with most of us: a longing to connect and a fear that time is going by too fast. There could be no more plaintive or direct Sondheim song title than “Take Me to the World,” which turns up in Evening Primrose, his 1966 television musical (from a John Collier story) about a young poet who tries to escape life’s woes by hiding out at night in a closed department store. And there could be no more representative Sondheim lyric than one sung by a pair of old flames who do reconnect, at least for a few hours, in Follies: “How much time can we hope that there will be?” What unites people as different as Georges’s mother in Sunday, Desiree in A Little Night Music, and an anonymous Japanese peasant recalling his role as a footnote to history in Pacific Overtures is their fierce desire to hold on to whatever moment of happiness they can grab before it inevitably moves out of reach.

It’s fitting that one of Steve’s favorite song composers is Harold Arlen, who did not write lyrics but who had a Sondheim-like emotional range, running from “Over the Rainbow” and “Blues in the Night” to “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Get Happy.” What makes Arlen special, Steve once told me, is his “ineffable qualities”—a “kind of yearning and sort of sadness, even in the joyful songs.”

Yearning/sadness … sorry/grateful—that’s Steve, all right. And “ineffable”? The dictionary says it means “incapable of being expressed in words,” and, for me, it will do for Steve too. The ineffable quality in Sondheim’s work is where love enters his equation—his love for his characters, our reciprocal love for him. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” if you love someone, “all the rest is talk.”

The Sondheim Puzzle