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The Sondheim Puzzle

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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.


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