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The Sondheim Puzzle

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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.


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