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The Sondheim Puzzle

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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.


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